Once a Danish-Norwegian wrote a satire sending up small town Scandinavia. It was called “A Fugitive Crosses his Path” and I read the first half when I could speak rudimentary Danish and can report it is about poverty and things “suddenly” happening every new paragraph. I may be one of the few people who have read even this far but everyone likes to quote the best bit.
In Aksel Sandemose’s jaded vision of Scandinavian village life, anyone who tries to stand out is smacked down. There are eleven rules that, I have to admit, I have read so many times that my eyes slide off them like they are covered in bacon grease. They’re basically “You’re nothing special so who cares”
In other countries, the same thing is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome or by the delightful analogy of crabs in a bucket pulling each other down if they try to get out. These rules have been used to justify everything about Danish society from queue jumping, to racism, to poor school performance, to ‘jokes’ where you upset your friends and back again.
Practically, what Jantelov does, is make everyone in Denmark a fucking nightmare to be with in public unless you know them personally. Since the informal laws of this fictional village in a book no one has read tell the average Dane that no one is above anyone else, this is naturally expanded to the following world-view:-
“No one is special, so get out of my fucking way.”
You see it on the mouth breathers getting onto buses before everyone has got off: you’re nothing special so why should you be able to get out of my way so I can get on? You see it in Ikea when people stop dead in the numerous chokepoints around the store: you’re nothing special, so why would I turn my head 45 degrees to see if you are in danger of collision with me if I stop suddenly. You see it in supermarkets when people shove you aside so they can get at the bread slicer you are still using. You see it in department stores when people let heavy doors slam in your face. YOU ARE NOTHING, ME FIRST.
Most of the Danes I know personally are awesome people, so I am not talking about them and I am probably not talking about you even if I haven’t met you yet. But even the Danes you regard as decent human beings can be affected by Jantelov when they make ‘jokes’ about what an asshole you are. This is fine because you can respond in kind. But they might expand it to make you remember your country is nothing special, especially if you are from the USA. If you respond in kind, they will cut you. That’s just how it is.
Jantelov makes bragging very difficult. You cannot be proud of your achievements or mention them at all, lest you make one of the other crabs in your bucket feel jealous. No great loss to the conversation. But you cannot talk about lah-di-dah ‘elitist’ stuff either, in case people feel like you’re being pretentious. So, you’re only allowed to talk about meatballs, how hard Danish is for foreigners and how difficult the word ‘hygge’ is to understand. I mentioned I was reading A Fugitive Crosses his Path at a dinner party and one of the guests looked like he was going to be aggressively sick on me. Also, you cannot brag in a job search situation either, you have to know people in Denmark who employ others and play badminton with them until they ask you personally if you want to work with them.
In many parents’ evenings, it is common for the teachers to tell the parents to stop worrying, the kid is good enough and shouldn’t we care more about their social skills? Coming from a culture where the parents just want to know their kid is making progress, this seems like a bit of an undershoot. ‘Good enough’ is not the issue. That is set by the average and the average moves with the group. Learning something new and getting better every day, how is that too elitist?
There are people who resist Jante for the most part. They are ‘most people in Denmark according to themselves’. But even if they refuse to pull down other crabs, they are still in a bucket trying to get out with claws around their ankles.
A friend of a friend was at a job interview where they were asked “How do you feel about your customers being the upper middle class of Danish people… like me?” This story is passed around with amused disbelief by Danes. Who is this person who would consider themselves above someone else AND then share it with another person? Then again, the foreigners who hear that story think it is a pretty ridiculous question to ask. Then again, it’s not ridiculous if you want to employ someone who won’t try to pull at your customers’ crab legs.
Though perhaps I am not being fair. I believed I could tell the dinner party guests about reading Aksel Sandemose without making them feel sick to their stomaches at my presumption because the librarian that issued the book did so with a wry smile (he then went on to being one of my friends). There are plenty of people out there who are not threatened by intellectualism or individualism and of course there are plenty who know how to move through a crowd without inconveniencing every other person. Still, it’s got a lot to answer for.
To preserve anonymity of the people I meet, I try not to tell stories that would give away individuals. I’ve had a few experiences in the last few weeks that I really wanted to talk about but there was no way to do so without invading the privacy of others.
I don’t know what happened but I suddenly had a flood of invitations to events where I would be an unaccompanied foreigner to a group of people that do not know me or each other. A wedding, a party, a training event, that sort of thing.
And I had to meet a LOT of stranger Danes.
Here is my Ideal Stranger Dane, of which I met maybe half a dozen at these events.
Starts out with a question or a comment not about where I come from
Talks to me about something interesting that we can both get stuck into
Finds things in common
Makes jokes/laughs at my jokes
Is patient with my mistakes in pronunciation/word order/correct word usage
Here are the things that are (more or less), involuntary that Stranger Danes sometimes do (and it gets on my nerves)
Shudders or pulls a face when they hear my accent
Keeps that expression on their face whenever I speak to them
Walks away/turns their back on me when I approach while they are on their own
Repeats everything I say back to me with a singy-songy voice as if teaching an infant how to speak
Does not return my smile (or if they do, it doesn’t touch their eyes)
Only makes eye contact when talking about crime
Looks pissed off when I say Danish is not actually that hard for an English speaker (the hard thing only being that it must be perfect or ELSE)
Looks super pissed off when I say I have been in Denmark for 6 years
Here are the things that are just thoughtless but are somewhat of a choice
Asks DURING Danish language conversations I am having with them, if I speak Danish
Asks after I have replied in the affirmative “But do you UNDERSTAND Danish?”
Tells me that I do not understand Danish, while I am listening
Goes on about how hard Danish must be for me
Only asks me about where I am from and why I came to Denmark
Ignores me after this information has been shared
Compares me pointedly with other people who are also learning Danish
Insists that if I have a problem with an activity it must be because of my shitty language skills
Tells me that I am not ‘integrating’ if I choose not to be ignored or patronised by choosing another activity or if everyone around me chooses to move away from me
Underestimates my intelligence vocally
There are plenty of foreigners who can handle this or do not notice it. But it gets to me after a while. Especially since, if I bring this up, some people will jump on me to tell me all this stuff happens because I am a fucking bitch who deserved it.
Well, it never happened in the UK and it never happened in France and it never happened in Germany. In the UK, I make friends super easily. In France and Germany, people are used to hearing their language being mauled and they’re cool with it. They just let you communicate and are more or less Ideal Strangers.
In Denmark, people are not used to hearing their language mangled and they have been infected with the idea that foreigners are bad. Our badness stems from not wanting to be part of the group and not learning the language to perfection. Look at Prince Henri, he’s pretty much reviled and his Danish is perfect… he just has a French accent. That’s enough for Danish people to think that he is a stuck up prick. That’s all it took.
Of course, none of the people who were less than Ideal were bad people. They are nice, decent, otherwise smart people. They just lack empathy, curiosity and self-awareness. So, those people didn’t get to find out about the things that we have in common or some awesome or interesting point of view that only I can share. They didn’t get to find out that I am funny. They didn’t get to hear what it is actually like to be foreign in their country. So. I guess I won that one?
For a country that sets such great store by conformity, foreigners are subdivided into a dizzying array of categories.
The most favoured of all the groups is the “Highly skilled immigrant”, prized for the revenue it can generate by increasing the productivity of Danish companies, buying power in the local community and paying more tax than it can hope to claim back through using services. The Danish government’s stated aim is for these sorts to come and then leave. The tension for them is between staying long enough to help the company earn more money but not outstaying the welcome and using public services.
Three to five years is the length of time the government prefer. Any shorter and they are just doing handover-takeover, longer and they might get their money’s worth by needing hospital treatment or schooling of their children.
One of the deals offered to this group is a tax break for three years. If you stay longer, you have to “pay back” the taxes you avoided.
This group have absorbed the message that they are favoured above all the other foreigners and do not call themselves immigrants. They are “expats” and “internationals”. They float above ordinary mortals and do not share their challenges or issues. That is not to say that they do not experience problems or frustrations but rather they are insulated against some of the more upsetting possibilities.
Should these people have to learn Danish?
The Danish government does not think so. They will be offered a year of tuition. If my Danish language classes were anything to go by: they would be better served by a couple of boxed sets (Recommend: Klovn and Matador), and a library card.
One thing you must understand about me before we continue (though long-time readers might know this already), is that I love learning languages. I lived in Cardiff for six years and learned a little Welsh, some of which I can still speak years later. I went to night school to learn Japanese and Swahili. I used to speak pretty decent French. When I was in school I was in the elite group who were allowed to study German from scratch to school leaver certificate standard in two years (I got an A). I even know some words in Klingon and I cannot make up my mind between Valyrian and Dothraki. My mp3 player has French, English, Danish and Swedish tracks on it. I love languages.
One of the primary attractions of moving abroad was having the opportunity to learn another language to fluency. Even if this language is not spoken widely, it opens a door into another culture. It helps you understand how thinking occurs. It allows you to access what is going on around you.
Danish has come in handy, I won’t lie. Many doctors and nurses do not speak English or are not happy doing so. My medical Danish is pretty good now, even as my word order creaks under the strain of expressing ideas while upset, in pain or frightened. Also, as a teacher in a Danish school, I had a much easier time overall with Danish than without. It has helped with communicating with children and older people. It has helped in shops. It has helped in social situations. It has helped me act politically in my town.
However, my Danish is not “good enough”. I have been here five years and I am reminded every day, at some point, that it is not good enough. I am not even kidding. I hardly notice it anymore. I am inured. Usually people are well-meaning, they are trying to help me, it is meant in the spirit of friendliness. But you know what? I have been here five years and none of their help has come in handy. And yet, it keeps coming. There are also people who are massive turdbags. They remind me that my Danish is not native quality in a much crueler way.
In my first year or so, these people were the majority. On year five, they are the minority. What changed? I got better at Danish and became less of a target.
I am a highly qualified immigrant and I am now working in an international, English speaking environment. I used Danish this week to:-
Read the news
Watch a few tv programmes on netflix
Understand the announcements on the train
An entire hospital appointment from receptionist to discharge
Take the piss out of my boyfriend
I use Danish quite a lot, considering. Back when I was new, I was afraid to do many things because I was unable to do them in Danish and felt bad about doing them in English. I felt like, when I got good at Danish, then I could socialise. Then I could go get asthma inhalers. Then I could buy clothes. Then I could date.
I put my life on hold for months and months. If I got official letters, I put them in a shoe box unread. I had so much money in the bank because I was only spending on itunes downloads and budget airline tickets. Eventually, I pulled myself together and tried to have a life here without having Danish fluency first. Danish fluency would come through interacting with Danish people. I found a bilingual knitting club set up by an American, in Aarhus. I went to it and she wasn’t there. The people that were there were nice until the Danish Queen Bee showed up and she was incredibly mean to me. I thought maybe it was a blip and went back the next month. Same thing only worse.
Year Five and I probably have more Danish friends than my Danish boyfriend does. Not that I am counting. But I do not speak Danish with them that much. My vocabulary is limited. When I socialise, I can agree and answer direct questions but I cannot speculate on the relative cost/benefits of varying strategies during a zombie apocalypse (which makes me such scintillating company en anglais), so I appear quite boring and flat. I am better in English.
Anyway. Should someone who already knows they want to leave in three to five years learn Danish? My heart says “of course! languages are awesome!” but my head says “don’t bother, if people are mean to you, it can damage how you learn other languages.”
Danish is of limited application, even in Denmark. If you are living in a big city, there are plenty of people who are dying to speak English to you and only a minority who want to hear your shitty Danish. At most, you need to learn phrasebook Danish. You will not often get to use it outside of tourist situations.
And yet, you will curse yourself. For every time you are on public transport and the driver makes an announcement and you don’t know what everyone is doing or what it is they said about your destination. Or when you need an electrician. Or when someone is shouting at you, pointing their fingers at you and getting animated as you blush and shrug. Or when you see a lost child. Or you fuck up at work because something vital was communicated only in Danish.
But honestly, with the quality of the Danish language programme put on for foreigners (and considering you will only get a year of it from now on), you were never going to get good enough to do those things. Even if you had worked hard and been a good immigrant. Even if you had got yourself some Danish friends. Even if you spent every evening on your homework. And for everyone that insists you should have been speaking Danish fluently after three months of residence, there are three who will switch over to English the second you screw up the pronunciation of something.
If foreigners who intend only to spend a short time in Denmark need to learn enough Danish in the first year to be able to function in Danish society without interpreters, then the recruitment of them has to change. Instead of relying on government schools, companies need to make sure that their workers are given high quality Danish tuition that targets their needs. The message “Everyone speaks English,” must be scrubbed and be replaced with “We will give you an intensive course before you arrive so you are functional.” It is this disconnect between what is said in the recruitment process and the actual reality of Denmark that bothers me. Not the need for Danish.
One of those news stories that makes scandy-philes scratch their heads made it out of Denmark a while back.
On DR2 (the state broadcaster), there is a show where some bloke comments on the bodies of some nude women. A bit like X-Factor but where the only talent the woman is judged on, is having secondary sexual characteristics? I am not going to pretend I have seen it.
What no one is saying is that feminism has not won in Denmark. What has happened is that the Danish people have realised you cannot run a welfare state with this number of dependents, without full-employment of those able to work.
Women work outside of the home because the country would be royally bolloxed if they did not. Not because of sisterhood or the sincere belief that women are equal to men.
Women are not equal to men in Danish society.
For example. The rape laws only just got changed this month, where being the husband of the woman you raped got you a smaller sentence (and a lighter charge).
The role of “mother” has been abolished and converted into the role of “parental guardian”, in the same way the role of “father” was in the last hundred years or so. This isn’t to free the people from domestic drudgery, this is the work of capitalism. Paid work is the only thing that counts. Both parents are expected to outsource the raising of their children to “professionals”. Human relationships not based on exchange of monies and services are not valued.
Danish women’s bodies are a thorny issue. Danish girls wear very revealing clothing, which goes unremarked in schools but at some point in their twenties a switch is thrown and they cover up. Most Danish women wear layers out of necessity (the weather turns around so much, that you need to be able to remove or add clothing to keep up), but they cover their cleavage with massive scarves. Uncovered cleavage is a grave faux pas. They might wear skin tight leggings but bare legs are greeted with “aren’t you cold?” by every Dane in a 2-km radius. Meanwhile, women who cover their hair or their bodies more loosely, are also subject to the reverse pressure. They are told they are being oppressed by their men and must uncover their bodies immediately because we said so.
The naked female body is everywhere. There is an advert for breast augmentation which features a pair of nude “new breasts” on most buses in the towns and cities. Hardcore pornography is sold in newsagents and petrol stations, the covers are not obscured and the titles are not always on the top shelf.
Let me break this down for you: I have entered a newsagents and been confronted with a row of images of naked (except for sex toys, restraints or other accoutrements), females stood next to clothed men. Given the more violent trends in porn these days, many of these women looked unhappy, in pain or distressed. This was on the middle shelf, so in full view of any one over 1m high.
Some men (and women), like to view pornographic images and films and the law of the land says that they can. But showing pornography to children is sexual abuse. Having these images visible is sexually abusive. We are not talking about a happy lady (or lad), with their tuppenny bits hanging out joyously, these images are confusing and worrying for children and adolescents.
And wouldn’t you know, it is all so that someone can make money.
Advertisements in general show women in a particular way, they are often objectified or associated with sex, even if they are selling something unrelated to sexuality. Men are not often put in this position. When it is, it is to be ironic or to make a point. The female body is used to sell things and it is only valuable so long as it makes men think about sex.
Given that Danish beaches are often clothing-optional and single-sex changing rooms rarely have cubicles, you might get the impression that non-sexual nudity is acceptable in this culture. Every year at Roskilde, for example, there is a nude race, which is just happy-good-times for young people with bouncy ballsacks and boobs.
However, the government of Denmark has ruled that women who are breastfeeding in public may be asked to stop or leave the premises because this behaviour might offend others.
This may seem at odds with the happy-go-lucky attitude to human-female flesh in Denmark but it seems perfectly consistent to me.
For as long as a woman’s body can be used to make money or arouse sexual interest, it is valuable in Denmark. The show about a couple of fat old nobcheeses commenting on how attractive they found a nude woman showcases the attitude. Women’s bodies can be used to sell pornography, they can be airbrushed and used to make women want to pay for cosmetic surgery, they can be used to sell non-sexual products, they can be decoration but they cannot be used for other purposes.
Danish women’s bodies are for public consumption, they are to be displayed when they are young and firm and covered up when adolescence ends. The use of a breast to feed an infant makes people feel intensely uncomfortable. The advice to breastfeed for six months has been taken on board by many but to breastfeed for any longer is seen as an aberration, dangerous even. Breastfeeding must take place in secret, in toilets or designated rooms, but airbrushed sexualised imagery may be displayed anywhere at all.
For feminists to think that Denmark has made greater strides against sexism because so many mothers have full-time jobs is to entirely misunderstand how the patriarchy oppresses us all.
The Danish Model is a system where two parties: the employer and the employee can sit down and work out terms of employment. Compromise is expected. It seems to me that the biggest advantage of the Danish Model, is that the terms of someone’s employment is usually rather technical.
To someone outside of a particular job, the things that employees might stick on may seem overly pernickity.
Who really understands what anyone else does? Until you build code or fight crime or clean offices; you can only imagine (and romanticise the details).
As with all cases of confirmation bias, even as people patiently explain to you, for example: ‘no, that word means this’ and ‘that is not what people are fighting about’, people hear what they want to hear.
If someone has convinced themselves that all Danish teachers are lazy and useless, then no teacher (even a hard working, blameless British teacher), has any chance of changing their mind with their daring tales of hard work and success in the classroom.
If another person has decided that, as hard working as Danish teachers are, they are not working the same hours as everyone else then no clarification of what ‘normalisation’ is can ever hope to get through.
The government wanted to force these changes through. Had the Danish Model been allowed to run as usual, then the suggestions given by the government would have been weakened. Not by much, if you look at the course of the negotiations.
There were two things that the teachers’ unions stuck on.
1) Teachers over 60 should be allowed to have a reduced timetable on full-pay
2) Headteachers should not get the absolute final call on how to assign teacher’s activities. There should be an upper limit of lessons a week (25 hours) and a “pool” of preparation hours that the head can assign as they will.
The government, in their intervention, refused both. And so, now the terms of employment are that reduced timetables for teachers over 60 will be phased out and that headteachers can assign teachers to as many lessons a week as they want and (therefore), some lessons will have no paid preparation time at all.
Under the Danish Model, if the government has to break the deadlock, it cannot be one sided and both parties need to come away with something. I got a pay-bump of 300 kroner a month (Gee, I hope that’s after tax, I cannot WAIT to spend it), and the offer of extra training.
There was also an ‘assurance’ that teachers would not have to work evenings or weekends.
I doubt headteachers would want to treat their staff badly and would not want to overschedule their staff. But they will not be given enough money to be professionally considerate. And thusly, the buck stops with them (and not the government or the kommunes).
If I am given too many lessons a week to prepare for, then of course I will have to take work home. I just will be expected to work more hours than everyone else on my pay grade.
Most non-teachers have no idea what is about to happen to Danish schools. They are completely ignorant of how damaging these changes will be.
If this had run on the Danish Model, then teachers would have been able to modify the plans according to their professional needs and not solely due to budgetary requirements.
What gets me the most, isn’t the lack of sympathy strikes or the lack of peaceful direct action or the way that we have been taken for granted. It’s not people calling me lazy or a liar or freeloader. It’s not the loss of income. It wasn’t even misinformed people insisting that I could stop the lockouts singlehandedly by child minding teaching children in defiance of the rules.
What gets me the most is that the children of Denmark lost four weeks of schooling, so that the government could pretend that they were independent of these changes.
They wanted to bypass the Danish Model but not get in trouble for doing so.
They refused to release documents where the stated aim was “To prepare for the employment negotiations” because “they have nothing to do with the employment negotiations”. They insisted that they needed to do the intervention because “in the Danish Model sometimes lockouts happen and this has gone on too long”. They expected the people of Denmark to believe that they wrote 70+ pages of documentation about the new changes overnight. They claim that there is nothing odd about consulting the employers about how to make the intervention but not the teachers.
And, as usual, they got away with it because everyone is too apathetic to lift a finger to save what they say they believe in.
Four weeks with no schools, in a ‘democratic’ country.
Personally, nothing gives me greater pleasure than when someone who has just been banged to rights replies “it was Danish humour.”
I will tell you what Danish humour is not. Danish humour is not license to say whatever you want. Danish humour is not a Get Out of Jail Free Card.
Culturally, what is considered “Danish humour” is the use of teasing amongst friends. There is also a bit of sarcasm and exaggerated regional stereotypes that count toward the genre. Danish humour can be quite dark, finding humour in adversity or misfortune. Many countries have similar veins of humour.
But who knows that? Danish people?
People in other countries cause offence all the time. Sometimes (usually?) they do not see what all the fuss is about and make the famous non-apology “I AM SORRY BITCHES CANNOT TAKE A JOKE!”
If a Danish person shits the bed, for example causing a major international diplomatic incident or damaging the reputation of a company or simply insulting someone socially; they can claim language barrier and/or humour barrier.
Hardly anyone speaks Danish outside of Denmark, so why not? Why not say that the translation was dodgy? How would anyone know? Very few are familiar with what tickles Danes, so why not? How can anyone prove it was not just a joke without any negative intent?
These two excuses make me happy. Because I do understand Danish and I do understand what counts as Danish humour.
“The translation is wrong,” translates to “I didn’t expect what I said would be translated,” and “It was Danish humour,” translates to “I have no way of defending what I said, so I must resort to lying.”
Many British feminists have watched Danish Sunday night drama serials and decided that Denmark is the place for them.
Lund goes around fighting crime in flat shoes and thick knitwear, she never says “Ooooh, I shouldn’t,” in response to being offered a biscuit, men never repeat her jokes to greater laughter. Nyborg is prime minister of an entire country and no one says “Are you sure that is your colour?”, she never turns to her female colleagues and calls them ‘good’ for riding their bike.
The thing to bear in mind about these shows are they are fiction, British feminists. You already knew that. I am not trying to she-mansplain or anything. But they really are fiction. They are a cross between aspirational fiction and the sort of fiction we tell about the way things are right now that is coloured by our delusions. West Wing is a good example of that genre of fiction. What the fans back home would love to be true and almost is.
Lund is a cautionary tale. Meyer’s kids do not hate him for being a policeman at the top of the first season. Lund’s kid sort of does. Meyer’s wife is very much in love with him until the bitter end. Lund’s boyfriend chucks her in.
But let’s talk Borgen. When the first season of Borgen came out the prime minister was a guy called Lars Løkke Rasmussen. This is a video of him disgracing himself at the Conference of Parties December 2009 for climate change. (Connie Hedegaard (a lady), had been running ting in a very efficient and admirable way. He replaced her half way through the conference to everyone’s shock and dismay. And he did not know what he was doing.)
This is a picture of his cabinet before the election.
Seven ladies and eleven chaps. Today it stands at 11 ladies, 12 chaps. So maybe aspiration works? What you need to know is that this has been a bit controversial.
Some Danish people will talk about how men are just naturally better at being in power and taking decisions and that having a gender balance just for shits and giggles can be harmful because you won’t get the right person for the job if you employ someone just so you have an equal number of men and women on board. (As opposed to the situation where only men are appointed just because. Obviously, the best person for the position is secured in that model*)
The current prime minister is a woman. Her name is Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Her father in law is Neil Kinnock, no joke. What you need to know about Helle is that there is a dirty tricks campaign to oust her from power. The campaign is working, she will not last long. The rumour is that she and her husband have been cheating on their taxes. This is because her husband works abroad and does not pay tax in Denmark (or only some tax in Denmark or something like that, not clear on the details. The rumours say they are liable to pay more tax, anyway) He was smeared in the press recently for being a gay. The rumour is that he is a gay, she is a beard and they have a marriage of convenience so he can look straight and she can look loveable. These rumours look like they will work and she will lose power.
Meanwhile, the rumours about Lars Løkke, that he is a drunk, never came to anything. Where, to my mind, having a drunk as a prime minister is hundreds of times worse than being a beard to a tax dodger. And these bloody rumours are probably not even true. In my opinion, Løkke was a crap prime minister, he staggered from incompetent situation to mismanaged scandal for several years. Thorning-Schmidt is doing a swell job, nothing special or amazing but still nothing terrible. She is someone I would not have a problem having a cup of tea with. She seems quite nice, in a way Løkke never did. (I don’t agree with either of their politics)
The guy before Løkke, Anders Føgh Rasmussen, his rumours were about cross dressing and rightly that was not a scandal because it does not matter at all. Completely inconsequential. But being married to a gay apparently is across the line? How are they even different accusations?
And the guy before him, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen just admitted to doping on cycling races.* Is anything sacred?
Let’s forget about politics for a minute and turn to day-to-day life for women. If you are a teenaged girl, you are likely to be called a “luder” (whore), at some point. That is the go-to cuss for girls. The go-to cuss for boys is “røvhul” (asshole) Girls have a lot of pressure on them to be smart and also hot. If they are too hot, they get called sluts. If you are a little girl, you will be encouraged to be pink obsessed. Barbies, make up dolls, pink toys, princess dresses… It is the same shit you get back in the UK.
Sexual violence is pretty high here, prosecutions low, punishments weak and Amnesty Goddamned International has criticised Denmark for its poor treatment of sex crime victims.
Prostitution is legal, pimping is illegal but unlike the Norwegians (and I think the Swedes??), being a john is legal. This means there are a lot of abused, trafficked, exploited sex workers out there. In Norway, where it is not illegal to sell sex but it is illegal to buy sex, serious violent crime has gone down. In Denmark, it is still a problem. The Danish police did an advertising campaign to warn johns that there was a high chance that the prostitute they were visiting was trafficked and the employment of prostitutes went up. Because that’s the point of employing a sex worker for the majority who do that sort of thing.
The age of consent is 15 and there is no protection for girls of that age with “boyfriends” in their late 30s. (nor the rarer converse)
Domestic violence is quite common. (though, I am not sure how it compares with other similar countries)
Daycare is well funded by taxes. Daycare workers are well trained, well respected and reasonably well paid. And yet, being a Stay At Home mum or dad is frowned upon. The vast majority of people put their infants in daycare. Even if they are not employed. It is difficult practically to be a stay at home parent because no one else is doing it, so you do not get any adult company. Health care visitors, mother in laws and busybodies will tell you that you are doing it wrong.
Now, if you want to work after having children, all the more power to your elbow, you go girl (etc etc). But if you do not, how is it a “choice” to have to because everyone else does? This goes equally for men as it does women.
Childcare is undervalued, paid work is the only thing that is respected.
Meanwhile, and hardly anyone talks about this, meanwhile the daycare centres are understaffed, the childminders are depressed and children become neglected emotionally. Intimacy is not encouraged. I have heard Danish people remark that it is good for their infant to be brought up by someone that does not love them.
You see, women’s rights haven’t won this battle. Mothering is still despised, is still regarded as shameful. They just obliterated the role. Everyone is a “dad” now. As in a 1950s, behind his newspaper, gets you a bag of sweets at the weekend because he didn’t get to see you all week, sort of dad. If women’s rights had “won”, you would see a lot more part time work for both genders or government stipends for staying home.
Childcare is seen as something that needs to be done in large batches so that everyone can pay full tax. And not an important part of society that is critical to get right. Why else are there such high child-staff ratios in institutions? Why are two year old left to get attacked by four year olds by these well qualified, well respected, reasonably well paid experts? It’s a “women’s” issue, that’s why. Anyone can do it! You can raise six infants simultaneously no problems because it is easy. You don’t need that many daycare workers, for heaven’s sakes. Women’s work is just as undervalued as it is in Britain, it has just been outsourced as the solution, rather than its profile being deliberately raised.
Why else is the reality show Young Mothers not called Young Parents?
Women are not afforded full rights to religious expression. If they wear hijab, they are not allowed to work in certain shops, be spokespeople, have jobs other than cleaner. And then the Danes have the balls the wall brass necks to claim that these women cannot work because they are downtrodden by “their” men.
Let’s talk about the positive for a bloody change.
On the positive side, casual sexual harassment is low. I have been catcalled twice in the four years I have been here. Compare/contrast with the four times a week back home. I am not required to appear feminine. I can wear what I want without any comment. I rarely put on makeup and that is fine because no one else seems to either. I can wear flat shoes, no problems. The opposite can be a problem, if you wear revealing clothes and high heels, people will talk about you behind your back and say you work as a prostitute. That is interesting, isn’t it!
My body is not public property, no one tells me what to eat or that I am “good” for the amount of exercise I do.
Compliments are rare but always heartfelt.
Work life balance is pretty good. People finish work earlier in Denmark than elsewhere in Europe. Presenteeism is not a thing. People do their job and go home. Holidays are plentiful and well respected. So, it is a pretty good quality of life. If you do not want to be a stay-at-home mother or are thinking about you and your partner going part-time after the kids. Or if you do not want children at all.
As long as you don’t get raped or trafficked, your life as a woman in Denmark can be pretty good*. BUT. This only goes for Danish women.
If you are a foreign woman, all bets are off. I have been readily patronised and dismissed out of hand just because I speak Danish with an accent. I dread to think what will become of me if I have children here. If I had to deal with the borough, maybe because I needed support during unemployment or because I had a baby, I might find that I get a completely different experience than a Danish woman. As my friends have.
Bear in mind, British feminists dreaming of Denmark, I have been here for nearly five years. I have started to think like a Dane. At work, I am almost constantly on the brink of saying “Yes but here in Denmark we do it like this.”* I have got used to living a certain way. A man tried to get past me in a shop by saying something to me and I completely ignored him because I did not realise he was talking to me, I thought he was on his phone (In Denmark, you sort of push past or get really close until the person moves, it’s not “rude” as such here). When I go back to the UK, I find it incredibly hard to make small talk. I am starting to think of Denmark as home. I care about my town and making it better.
And yet. For every four people who are fine with me thinking like a Dane, one person will come and give me a metaphorical Cleveland Steamer for having the temerity of being permanently foreign in Denmark. I am never going to be accepted. I could do, as others before me have done, the whole “get fluent” thing but I will never be accepted in the way my friends in the UK from other countries were accepted. I will always be marked by my origins. People will always ask me where I am from, even if I live here for decades more than I have lived in the UK.
If you go to Danish class, you will find that women are encouraged into SOSU (like a care worker position but with none of the prestige) and men are encouraged to become manual workers. It is not me being paranoid, it’s the stated aim of Danish integration politics. Get immigrant women into careworker support roles. Immigrant men are filtered into other roles. It doesn’t matter what your specialism was back in the old country or where your natural talents lie. You are a pigeon and you must fill a hole.
My first Danish textbook was about Familien Jensen and their day-to-day lives. You will NEVER GUESS who out of Lise and Jan did the housework and cooking. Even though both of them have jobs and work the same hours. One of the government videos you may be forced to view as part of your integration process informs you that “feminism is completely irrelevant” in Denmark today!
Even if women’s rights had won here in Socialist Paradise Denmark, which they haven’t, you will find you are not considered a full woman with the same rights as the real women who live here. You will still be a second class citizen but because you are foreign, not because you are a woman. I am really not sure if that is any better.
(Unless you are rich, then you can do what you want. (But that is true in Britain too.))
I hear it is better in Sweden.*
*This is a use of “Danish humour”, I hope you enjoyed it.
I am back to my old self now. When I first moved to Denmark, I did not want to be a cultural imperialist. I did not want to tell people off for being rude when they were not being rude by their standards. I did not want to force people to speak English.
Then as I went through culture shock, that uncomfortable process of finding out what is rude, what is acceptable and what is expected, I became increasingly impatient with the level of rudeness I was experiencing.
I was getting a lot more shitty incoming, at precisely the same time I could not handle it, because my Danish was poor. I would go into a shop and ask something and be greeted with incredibly poor manners. They would look me up and down and decide “Yes, this person is fair game.”
As my Danish got better, and my expectations got somewhat lower, the poor experiences were fewer and fewer. It really does seem to be a minority of people who do this and they only do it to freshies. You might get through your first few years of integration without ever meeting one. Or maybe, just meeting one. And thinking “What a prick!” and not becoming mentally scarred.
I was getting a 50% hit rate. Fifty percent of the time, I would meet someone who would try to tear me down or was dismissive or unkind. And it really really fucked me up.
Did I tell you about the time I visited France? My French used to be pretty hardcore and now it is just reasonable. Even when my French was still crappy, I was happy to have a go. Think around corners. Just talk. When I was 11 and had been learning French for 3 months, my mum asked me to ask where the baker’s was. I could not remember the word for baker so I asked for the “bread shop” and we were shown the way. Anyway, I visited France, not understanding the number the bad-danes had done on me. I blithely went into a pharmacy, looking for ear plugs (youth hostel), and halfway through the interaction completely panicked and shut down because I realised I did not know the word for earplugs. Pre Denmark, it would not have fazed me, I would have just said “Hello, I would like…” mimed the international symbol for “I’m not listening” and said ear and then put my fingers close together to mime how small the object I wanted was. But I just went red, shut down and went “OMG I am sorry. Ear plugs? Do you speak English? Sorry.”
That is what Denmark did to me. And I was worried the damage was permanent. Now, I am happy to even ring people up, people who are not expecting a foreigner on the end of the line, and sort some shit out.
Even though I am working in an international environment right now, I have spoken Danish dozens of times in a week. The majority of these times have been fine. There have been two were I thought “Ahh, shit, I should have said it like that,” after the fact but the person I was talking to was okay with it. I impressed myself with a complicated call to the post office about a re-delivery. Like during the call “Hey, this is impressive stuff.”
But like the men with bladders on sticks hitting kings on the head as they go through crowds, I must be reminded that I am not a god. My reminder was yesterday at the bank. I also found out that I am back to normal because I reacted to it in the exact same way I reacted to camera magazines being placed under men’s interest in WHSmiths newsagents the week before I moved to Denmark “Well, you can see why I would be confused, photography is unisex. So your layout does not make any sense.”
I got an old 50 kroner note from the 7/11 and I thought as I walked away “Oh shit, is this still legal tender?” (It’s the femti one they got rid of about three years ago) I resolved to go to the bank and ask. I walked down to my bank branch in Aarhus, in the snow, got inside. Found out they do not have money anymore. Just cashpoints. So what do you do if your card gets stolen, geniuses? They also want to charge me for having a bank account. I will be changing banks as soon as. I told my boyfriend about this story and I think he was disappointed it was in Aarhus, he has been hoping all this shit has been local to Fredericia and people in Aarhus are a bit more cultured and used to foreigners.
A lady of about 50 said “Can I help you?” and I said
“Hej, jeg har lige kommet fra en butik. De gav mig sådan en (showing note). Kan det stadig blive bruges, eller skal jeg skifte det her?”
(Hi, yai har lee comet fra en booteek. Day gayw ma sawden een. Kan day staredy bleer broous, eller skal yai skifte day here?)
And she goes
*Le sigh* I had been practicing it in my head all the way down to the bank.
“Didn’t you understand ANY of that?”
And I thought “!” but I said (channeling Judi Dench, as I do in stressful situations)
“Would. You. Prefer. I. Asked. In. English?”
And she goes “Yes, English.” (to which, I now realise I should have said “WHAT?!”)
A brief interruption on the matter of culture. In Danish, there is supposed to be a cultural assumption that no one is better than anyone else. They have a form of polite you that is only used in extremis. They call each other by their first names. You can tell your boss you don’t think much of his decisions and he will not get mad.
Now, if this meant, no one was lah-di-dah and everyone got treated with the respect they deserved as human beings, then that would be the best thing ever. EVER. But it often means a race to the bottom in terms of courtesy. Why should I treat you like a human being, you’re nothing special? So words and phrases that lend an air of consideration like “Må jeg lige komme forbi?” (Excuse me) and “Må jeg bede dig om …/ Jeg vil gerne bede om…” (Please) and “Det må du undskylde” (Sorry) and “Hvadbehar?” (Pardon) and “Beklager” (Apologies) are almost entirely wiped out. I only ever hear ‘please’ from children, ‘sorry’ when someone has totally shit the bed and ‘apologies’ ironically. I learned all these phrases about two years in. Not at language school. Not from any of my interactions. In the first two years. If these phrases were pandas, there would be a campaign to save them.
You need to bear in mind. If I had been an 80 year old woman, a businessman in a suit and tie or Princess Mary, there is no way on God’s green earth that woman would have said “HVAD?!?” she would have said “Hvadbehar?” or “Beklager, hvad siger du?” or “Undskyld, engang til.” It is not a crime that she did not understand me, foreign accents can be hard if you are not expecting them. It is because she talked to me without any respect or consideration.
So, we are not equal. We are not considered equal. We are not treated equally. Some people are treated with no respect and then told it is because of some book that the person has not read (I have read it. It’s a satire. It also over-uses the word “Pludselig”) Some people are treated with great respect. Deference even. The way this matter is settled is through the magic of prejudice. Look or sound a certain way and forget about getting courtesy from small minded people.
Did I tell you that the last time someone said “Hvad siger du?” to me with an air of superiority, I said “HAH!” and parrotted the phrase back back with a Danish hick accent to them before asking again really slowly? Because, helt ærligt!
End of intermission.
So she says (as if I am stupid), that yes, the note is still legal tender.
Customer service is pretty poor in Denmark, yo.
And I said thanks. She turns to go and I think “No, fuck it. Fuck it. I’m saying something.” I think I skipped becoming my mother and went straight into becoming my grandmother. (Though, my mother DID do this sort of thing a lot when she was my age and I would hide behind her legs and go “No, not the manager AGAIN.”) My grandmother does not take this kind of shit, either. But where I differ from my mother and my grandmother is how I respond. My grandmother responds with biting sarcasm. My mother is very direct. I respond pedagogically.
“Can I give you some feedback. (No pause for her response, I just launch into it). When you say “HVAD?!?” like that, it’s not very helpful. What would have been more helpful is if you had said which parts you did not understand or asked a clarifying question about what you did catch. Just shouting “HVAD?!” at me makes me not want to speak Danish anymore (tears of rage showing in eyes), and it hurts my feelings.”
She looks surprised and sorry. She did not mean to treat me like dirt, nor hurt my feelings. She is not sure why she did, by the looks of her face. I am talking to her like she is a child and she is responding in the same way even though she is 50.
“It’s just it was so fast…”
“That’s great, that’s perfect. So, next time, you could say something like “Could you slow down, please?” and I would have felt a lot better about it.”
And she squeezed my upper arm (which is a primate thing for “I am dominant over you” and I know that so), I twisted my arm as she reached so I could squeeze hers simultaneously. And I left the bank.
But I could not find that saying anywhere else so I am going to go ahead and say she coined it. Good old, Mary Elizabeth Williams!
When I came to Denmark, I would not say I was a zealot but I was certainly an enthusiast. It seems completely incredible (if not batshit crazy), to me now but I did not even try to look at the experiences of others living here. I read a book called Culture Shock, started learning Danish (but half heartedly because I reckoned 3 months immersion would get me fluent), and that is as far as I went with preparation.
I was not ready to hear what people actually living in Denmark had to say, in any case. I had no illusions: moving countries was going to be hard, culture shock was going to be hard, a new language was going to be hard. So, if I read anything about how hard things were going to be, well, I already knew that. None so blind as those who will not see.
My first exposure to other foreigners (apart from a handful of Brits in my town), was online. There was an excellent blog called “It seemed like a good idea at the time” and the title itself was what I needed. There were a group of foreign bloggers at the time, this also seems incredible to me, who talked about what life in Denmark was like. Some of them talked about the nice things, some talked about their day-to-day lives and some talked about frustrations. As I got to know these people, I became disillusioned with the hype about Denmark and had to adapt dramatically to make a life here (and not in the place, I hoped I was moving to).
Of course, winter came, as it is wont to do, and there was a massive falling out.
This was my first winter in Denmark so I had no idea that falling out with foreigners is a seasonal sport here. Most of the blogs went private or closed completely.
As people follow the most common advice given to foreigners, and leave, the blogs shut down. There are only two from that time that remain. The rest of the blogs are by “newbies” (some of the newbies have been here three years).
I saw a question posed, in that way questions are posed when you do not give a shit about the answer but do not want to make a statement, why aren’t there publications and blogs devoted to a “balanced” and “non-confrontational” treatment of integration into Denmark?
One of the practical considerations of writing one of those sort of websites is that when you are dealing with getting a CPR number or getting a place, you are too busy actually doing that to write about it for an audience. And once you have done it, the rules change. You would have to find out from someone else how to do it and they cannot tell you because they are too busy doing it.
Thing is, despite all this, there are. There are loads. No one reads them for the same reason that the Daily Mail Online is doing so well.
Besides, I would not write about integration anymore, would I? I am integrated. I am six months off permanent residence. I pay tax on three jobs. (My boyfriend says I have ONE job, one freelance gig and one part time thing. What does he know? He has one job.) I volunteer. I speak Danish, I was helping kids with their Danish at work the other day and thinking “Oh wow, I really do speak Danish”.
Good luck with your integration journey but I cannot help you, just as a Dane cannot help you. Your experiences are completely alien to me!
What I can talk about is what it is like to live in Denmark and this is where disagreements with zealots comes in.
I know plenty of people who have made new lives in Denmark and are perfectly happy (within normal tolerance ranges for happiness). They are also very personable people. They have their stuff going on, they find joy and frustration, they can talk to me about what is going on with me. There is no need for zealotry because they have worked out how to live in this country. There is no need for self righteousness, telling people off or unkind words. They just get on with it.
Zealots come in two flavours. One, is the person who intends to move to Denmark and needs Scandinavia to be better than home. Their own country has its problems and they need a place to exist where those problems are not an issue. They know that there are drawbacks to Denmark but they are making a deal with themselves that those things WILL NOT BOTHER THEM when they move.
The second, is the person who has moved to Denmark, cannot move back and has problems. They have no choice about where they live (for whatever reason), but they can choose how they react to their problems. Either they react to things that upset them or they shut that shit down.
Shutting down that sort of shit, requires that you make a decision never to process the feelings brought up when you have a bad day. If you have a bad day, you must make a decision to call yourself a bad person for feeling bad about it. That is what “choosing happiness” entails, if you feel a “negative” emotion, you must squash it down and keep it in check. If you are going to these lengths, you do not hear about it from anyone else. If you persuade yourself that you need to believe you are a bad person if you feel sad when someone is rude to you, then it is a short jump to calling everyone bad people for expressing that emotion.
The NUMBER of people who get in my face and tell me that I am not balanced because I do not talk about the good stuff! That I must have half my posts devoted to the good things about life in Denmark. I am sorry, but it’s not 50:50 here.
Racial discrimination, borough councils forcing people to have ECT against medical advice, children being deported, medical incompetence… these things are not reset by a decent bicycle infrastructure. With the best will in the world.
And with the personal: being belittled for trying to speak Danish, being shoved regularly, being ignored in social situations… this is more interesting to write about because it differs from my life in the UK. Back home, I had good friends, I had romantic interests, I had a nice place to live, I had a good job. I have that here too. What is different now is that I am an outsider and am subject to random unpleasantness because of that, from time to time. There are hundreds of blogs about what it is like to work as a teacher and have a boyfriend. There are dozens of blogs about the interesting and quaint things of living in Denmark. There is one blog about working as a teacher in Denmark and having a Danish boyfriend. Difference is interesting to write and read about.
To those considering a move: Denmark is ok but it is not a place you should enter into lightly. You are going to find it hard to integrate here. You are going to have difficulties. The good news is, you are not alone. We are all finding it difficult. With luck, your difficulties will be minor and trivial but you must prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. We all find nice things in our lives that keep us going and moving to Denmark could be the best decision you ever make.
To the zealots: you need to lose your self righteousness and stop trying to pull me down for saying what you dare not. You are only a zealot because you are having the same doubts and problems as I am, you are just dealing with it in a hypocritical and disingenuous way. You do have a choice and its not to “choose happiness”, your options are
be in the moment you are in with patience, simplicity and compassion
carry on hating on me in your proxy war for self loathing.
A book has been written to tackle the thorny issue of racism in modern Danish society. I am given to understand that publishing a book, as opposed to publishing in a peer reviewed journal, shows the work is weak. How would I know? I have not read it. I just read the promotional material which generated the headlines “You’re not racist, after all” . I wrote this in response as part of my freelancing gig with Copenhagen Post. I only get 700 words, so I did not touch the question itself.
Obviously, and I should not have to say this but I will anyway, you cannot say “the Danes are” most anything and have a 100% hit rate. Even in a small population who puts great stock in conformity, you are not able to stereotype an entire country. Not with high confidence levels.
So, no, “the Danes” are not racist. However. There is a problem in Denmark because so much racist behaviour is condoned, institutionalised and accepted.
Not that Denmark differs from most of the rest of the world in that. As climate change and capitalist imperialism causes conflict and displacement, rich countries are finding more and more reasons to batten down the hatches. It’s because “their” culture is barbaric, it’s because “they” are like that, it’s because blah blah. People do not like to share and they fear change.
Where Denmark differs, is that people outside of Denmark think Danes are tolerant and groovy. Individual Danes tend to have that same self-image.
Then the foreigners come and say “Oh wow, that’s racist.” and all hell breaks loose.
How can that be racist, if I am not racist?
Here are some stats that prove nothing but I find interesting, nevertheless. WordPress log the search terms you use to find me. The most popular search terms are variants on “adventures and japes”, that is, most people search directly to find this website. The second most popular is any variant on “Danes are rude”. The third most popular is “Danes are racist”.
People are entering “why are Danes racist?” into google. In extraordinary numbers, considering how many come to me to find out why. (I don’t know! Are they?)
So, what? Why are people searching the internet for websites that tackle Danish racism? If you write “are — ” where — is a name of a European people, the next word that comes up in the auto-complete is usually “racist”. There is a big problem in Europe.
In Denmark, where I live and am talking about, the racism is unapologetic, unguarded, unpolished. Back home, racism is usually more sneaky and careful. In Denmark, it’s like dealing with an adolescent who has met their first black person. The sheer amount of blackface I have to deal with here is unprecedented.
Not only that but much of the racism is built into public discourse. The media, the state, a lot of what they do and say with regards to non-whites/non-danes is based on prejudice. Most of the problem stems from not realising that people with a different culture/skin tone/whathaveyou are just folks. Just not appreciating that we are real human beings too. We get put into blocs and dehumanised. From this, comes discriminatory actions. Look at DR and some of the tabloids. News stories about “foreigners” are almost always negative, stories about negative things are regularly traced back to foreigners. And thusly, the connection is secured. Not that the news is trying to brainwash the populace, brainwashed people write the news.
My favourite episode of Borgen season 3 so far was (if you absolutely must not know what happens, then see you next time, that is all I am going to talk about from now on), when a group of politicos are trying to choose a spokesperson for immigration issues.
They ask a white guy with a black wife but he says he would rather not. They decide they need an immigrant and so someone suggests a Greenlander. Then they say, no not that sort of foreigner, we need a Muslim, so an Indonesian is suggested because it is the country with the most Muslims. No, not Indonesians, they’re too close to Japanese and Chinese and the associations are “business”. Africans are dismissed out of hand. They want an “Arab”. They reject a Muslim for wearing a headscarf. Then they reject someone with a Persian neck tattoo and then they get a nice Muslim lady with hair and she turns out to be a raging racist, so they roll up their sleeves and give the job to a ginger. These guys do not get in trouble for their recruitment process but later an employer gets into real deep shit for saying someone was like a “Pakistani doomsday prophet”.
The writing is wonderful, in that they were able to capture exactly what the problem is in Denmark with some cheeky and knowing dialogue. “How about my friend from Greenland…” is very very clever, as is the reaction to the neck tattoo. And the way their preferred nice well educated “liberated” Muslim woman is not interested in immigration issues beyond “keep ’em OUT!” that was sublime!
Well-meaning people in politics do racism because “the people” are not ready for them to do any different. People in politics are incapable of giving someone a job on their own merits. They must fit a good immigrant image exactly or be white. People do not get in trouble if they cover their tracks when they discriminate but they get in real trouble for saying the wrong words. “Real” immigrants are Muslim Arabs. Headscarves are a make-or-break issue.
Though, I worry that the people watching Borgen will not get it was a clever satire on the state of race relations in Denmark. And then I worry the writers were not writing a satire, they just wrote what actually happens without trying to point out the ridiculousness of it because they do not realise it is ridiculous. (But then, the writing would not have been so good. I am just so used to the media dumbing everything down for consumption. I do not know what to think anymore.)
My take is that the politicians and media could treat the Danes with a lot more respect. They could trust them to see a woman in a headscarf and not lose their shit, they could trust them to understand complex issues, they could trust them to vote for them without whipping up fear about immigration.
I think the media of Denmark underestimate the Danish people far too much. They may have weird ideas about race and culture but they are not beyond help! Much like everywhere else in the world, as we become more globalised, we need to work on our natural tendency to be racist. And our media and our politicians are critical to this process. It is make or break.
So, my answer, is “no, the Danes are not racist”.
But (you knew a “but” was coming, right?)
But, a lot of what passes for common knowledge and common sense is racist and it would be a great opportunity to examine that so we can move forward together as a nation.