Weird Danes and Expats

I am not an expat. I am an immigrant. I am a long-termer. Not a tourist. I have a completely different perspective on Denmark than someone who is only here for a short-term contract or an actual Dane. Denmark is my home. I have Danish friends. I understand Danish culture. But I am not a Dane.

One of my Danish friends asked me if I wanted to go to a seminar about Danish culture and I did. I did want to go. So, I went to see what I ‘should’ think about Danish culture according to an anthropologist named Dennis Nørmark.

He is very entertaining and his talk was very well pitched. But I had many thoughts and I will share them with you now.

He led with an example about ‘expats’ being negatively affected by Danes not bothering to hold doors open for them. Who knows why they don’t look behind their shoulder to see if there is anyone behind them. I have a few pet theories (their pedagogues don’t teach them to do it in daycare, it wouldn’t occur to them that other people exist, no one else does it etc). Our friend, the anthropologist, says the behaviour is considered too courtly. That Danes view each other as a family, so they do not go to extraordinary lengths (i.e. looking over their shoulder briefly when passing through heavy doors), for them.

The Danes I have spoken to (sample: two), about this say that they would (and do), hold doors open for colleagues and family. So. I am not sure what he thinks he is saying.

I was worrying for the people at the talk because I would hate for them to get the impression that all the behaviour they are interpreting as ‘rude’ is not-rude-for-Denmark. Because, and Dennis didn’t cover this in any detail, there is a lot of that too.

Okay, newbies, listen up. There are some things that are ‘get used to it’ and some things that are ‘rude-for-Denmark’.

In the ‘Get Used to It’ pile, is not bothering to check if someone is behind you when passing through a door. Also, in the supermarket, if a Dane wants to get past, it is not rude to push you out of the way. They do signal the intent to move into your body space, their eyes get defocused and they get closer slowly. You need to look out for it.  The same with not thanking you for putting yourself out (for example, stopping to let someone pass), and barging past you when you are waiting for someone less mobile than you to cross a more narrow walkway.

Why they do this? Fuck knows. I doubt it is because they see each other as family. I am very dubious about this guy’s interpretation of these behaviours. I agree with him that they do not think of themselves as ‘rude’ and a Danish outside observer of these behaviours would also not classify them as such. It’s just what they do here. I would classify it as ‘anti-social’ and call it quits. They don’t want to make contact with other people for cultural reasons, so they go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it. Even when it means that the other people they are trying to afford privacy to, by ramming them, making them wait, ignoring their altruism, are put out.

But. Newbies. What you need to start to understand is: there are rude behaviours too. And you will see a lot of them. Because everyone is so shy and conflict averse, they rarely call people out on them. Maybe the Get Used to It behaviours were impolite in Danish culture but everyone was doing it, no one was calling anyone out and now it is normal. Who knows.

Rude behaviours include:- pushing in queues, punching people to get past, swearing at you, urinating on you, racially abusing you etc. You will see some of these. In my first few years, I saw a lot of them. Not so much anymore.

You see, Denmark has its fair share of assholes. But they are rarely challenged. So the culture of Denmark tends towards the assholish. It’s very sad but what can you do? That is not to say the majority of people here are assholes, au contraire, the majority are delightful. But if you realised that it did not truly matter if you shoved someone when getting off the bus, would you bother trying to get down without touching the people pressing from the outside to get in? What is the point? It’s not even rude here.

Then he also said things that were not entirely true. Or true for a certain value of true. In his defence of Dane behaving in a xenophobic way, he said that the Danish culture has been homogeneous for a long time so they are catching up to the multi-culture thing everyone else has going on.

He defended this point of view with the stats that in a period during the 1800s, there were only 20 foreigners a year settling in Denmark.

Not counting the Swedes or the Germans.

And, presumably, not the slaves. And not counting the foreigners already here, like the second gen French in Fredericia and the Dutch in Amager who were just beginning to assimilate in that period.

Not counting the Swedes? Honestly, if you are going to argue from authority and bring up a historical context, you better have done your reading, boy.  The Swedes were hated in the 1800s. The Danes thought they were lazy and thieves and they deported them without so much as a by-your-leave. If you want to make the case that Denmark didn’t have to deal with problems around immigration until the 20th Century, you really ought to draw a veil over the state of play in the 1800s.

Guys, this ‘we have always been homogenous’ get out of jail free card has been revoked. Danish society is xenophobic because there is no consequence for being so. My country had a lot of immigration for its entire history but it did not stop us being pricks throughout and we are still unwelcoming to certain groups. No one has any excuse, not even Denmark.

Now, maybe what he was saying was helpful to short-termers and I should shut the fuck up. Maybe being told ‘it’s just culture, don’t be sad’ is useful for people. Maybe it helps the culture shock process?

But if I had been a newbie and heard his talk, I think it would have upset me. So, I can’t help thinking it is kind of cruel. Also, casting Danes into noble savages that don’t know any better? Give me a fucking break. There are so many polite Danes, it is possible to be kind and show empathy here. I can imagine the cognitive dissonance of being simultaneously upset by selfish or anti-social behaviour and thinking ‘it’s just their culture’ and I don’t think it is fair to put people through that.

I hold onto the fact that other Danes have had enough of the assholes running ting. Thomas Skov and Lars AP would like Danes to be more courteous and friendly. They are Danes. They are part of the culture. So when people are mean to me, I think ‘they are just ignorant peasants and they have major problems with social skills’

I guess he’s right though. People on three year contracts are never going to burst through and fix Danish culture to their tastes and so lowering their expectations will help their psychic balance. And any cultural change will be very slow, so lowering your expectations is a good idea for anyone.

But. I do wish he had kept his interpretations to himself or at least not pretended they were objectively justified.  Because what he was doing wasn’t anthropology, it was travel writing.

Check in

I have a long post in me about good things in dk and another one about how I’m getting on but I’ve been ill this week.
I am commuting around 4 hours a day (including waiting around for the next leg) and I’m not 22 anymore so I’m pretty exhausted, not to mention incredibly busy.

Anyway, I wrote an article for the CPHPost because they give me deadlines so you can read that if you like. It’s about the Immigration Service.

Is Denmark as bad as everyone makes it seem?

Denmark. Denmark. Denmark.

My country (the UK), is currently having an internet love affair with Denmark. The UK is excited by the very flattering photos Denmark keeps sending, with the camera angle oddly chosen to point down all the time with really quite bright lights. They have also read its dating profile over and over. Some of the lovely things Denmark says it does are really quite lovely! And exciting!

Imaging living there! The journalists who are invited to Copenhagen by the Danish tourist industry which in this analogy is probably a first date, right? Yeah, let’s go with that. The journalists from the UK have only nice things to say! The venue chosen by Denmark for the first date was really nice and Denmark was totally on Denmark’s best behaviour all evening. They totally took the UK back to its place and showed it some hygge. IN ALL THE POSSIBLE WAYS.

Naturally, after such a courtship, one’s thoughts turn to co-habitation. A quick once-over with the old google internet search engine and … Christ… well, if I wanted to doggedly continue with this over stretched analogy… would be a bit like coming across someone’s myspace blog about a breakup with the person you were courting. Or their Tumblr, if we want to be all twenty-teens about it.

A lot of people living in Denmark have written on the internet “OMG WHAT THE FUCK?” whilst in the midst of a culture shock driven breakdown. Others have written “No seriously, what the fuck?” when the culture shock has worn off and they are still not impressed.

There are plenty of foreigners who never write anything because they feel reasonably content (for a given range of contentedness) and there are a few foreigners who only write up the good stuff. These foreigners and their blogs are aggressively pushed to would-be “expats” by the government and that is when my metaphor is no longer of use because I guess it would be like when an internet dating prospect sends you to their wedding photos flickr album to show you their first marriage to prove they are capable of giving and receiving love. And as far as I know, this is not a trend on internet dating sites. Even OKCupid.

But yeah. There is a remarkable amount of shit-listing of Denmark going on.

Is it fair?

I am going to go ahead and say “yes” but with some caveats.

Denmark is probably ok. It is a reasonably well off country with mediocre services, medium-to-high taxes, medium-to-very good standard of living, currently quite cushy terms of employment. No one starves. No one gets cholera. No one is tortured for their beliefs*. But as I have said before. This is setting the bar waaaaaaaay too low.

Compared to similar countries, let’s go ahead and say France, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands (let’s leave the other Scandies to one side for now), it’s not really anything to shout about. Remember, expats can move anywhere. That’s their thing. Compared to similar countries, Denmark does not come out very well.

The schools are a bit in need of an overhaul. Health care is variable. The borough councils are unhinged. Crime is high. The terms of employment are being made progressively more shitty.

But for the expat, the main concern is “will I experience happiness and enjoyment?” and the answer is “Unless you put an extraordinary level of effort into entertaining yourself: no”

The language barrier is a serious impediment to happiness which is not really improved by saying “Well, obvs it’s Denmark. You should speak Danish.” That does not, with the best will in the world, get your pipes fixed when you are fresh of the boat and need a plumber.

Then there is the thorny question of social interactions. If you are coming to Denmark to marry a Dane or for study, you might be ok. It can be a lottery. Even very outgoing, friendly people who have had no problem making friends anywhere else, can find it hard to make friends in the Danish community. This is partly because they often do not speak Danish well enough to develop a friendship but mostly because Danes are just not that into us.

Not that Danes make a lot of new friends of any background after they finish their educations. If you go to a party with two groups of Danes who know the host from two different places (say: badminton club and sailing club), it is unlikely these groups will blend. Everyone at the party is the type you get might back home where the guest is just too shy to go talk to others and must wait for other guests to come to them. If everyone is like that, no one is coming to anyone.

Throw having a guest with a different culture into the mix and you might as well forget about them socialising beyond the old “Immigration Interview” conversation (When did you come? Why did you come? How is your language coming on? When are you leaving? )

And that is only if they even get invited to a party.

If you come to Denmark, your social life is over. All your friends will be foreign or mates of your Danish spouse. (Unless you happen to like doing sport)

If you like having friends, then yes, Denmark IS as bad as everyone is saying.

Meanwhile, even though they are most definitely not “all like that”, the only Danes you are really going to get any interaction with are the ones who are like that. They shove you in the street, they treat you like a twat when you try to speak their language, they push in front of you in shops, they leave their dog shit on your doorstep, they tell you off for talking to your kids. It can get quite fraught because although you do not want to become racist, you are facing a reality where you are effectively having to take it on trust that they are not all like that.

And if you have to interact with the authorities, it’s time to flip a coin. Heads: they will treat you like a human being. Tails: they won’t.

So. Yes. It is as bad as everyone is saying. It’s not paradise and it’s not hell. And you just need to be ready for that if you are serious about moving here.

*Denmark has been implicated in torture a few times since the war on “terror” began. But frankly, who the fuck hasn’t? It’s a shitty state of affairs that my team turned out to be the Storm Troopers when I thought they were the Rebels but I am literally powerless to do anything about it. I’m not a fucking ewok, am I? I’m not even Lando pigging Calrissian. You know the school teacher in the storm trooper clone factory they never made an adventure about? I’m that one.


This is going to sound ungrateful. And indeed it is. Very ungrateful. Churlish even. Never mind. You cannot hope to change the world by being thankful and gracious all the time.

The free state Danish language tuition for foreigners has some serious flaws. There. I said it.

One of the best things about it (that it is completely free), is also its downfall. Now, you will not often find me singing the praises of free market capitalism. But. If you have a free language school in every town then you will not find any private tutors, private schools or indeed any other way to learn the language. It becomes a monopoly.

This has some interesting knock-on effects. Primarily, there is the “Ryanair Customer Service Effect” where the teachers and administrators start thinking “Fuck you. You didn’t pay for this. I will do my photocopying during the lesson/I will write to you in Danish before your first Danish lesson/I will not plan your lesson and instead play it by ear.”

The rolling class entry means that there is never a Danish 101 lesson. People start when they start and in small language schools, this can mean absolute beginners are plonked with people about to finish. I was in a “Bad Accent” group. An idea so totally crazy, it took me months to work out why some people got to go to another class after passing a test while I had to stay. I had a bad accent. Obviously what would help me is being with OTHERS with bad accents. You know, so we can help each other in group speaking activities. The upshot was that no one had any idea what anyone was saying at any point.

Another issue is that one agenda is shoved down your throat from the start. This agenda is what I like to call “Dirty Immigrant: Know your place.”

An important thing to bear in mind about me is that although I am not all sunbeams and unicorns about everything; I did come to Denmark with a spring in my step and hope in my heart. Sprogskole was the foremost experience to turn me into the bitter kernel of a woman that you are familiar with now.

I was so excited about learning Danish. I love learning languages so hard. It is my hobby. I was so excited about living in Denmark. I wanted to integrate. The first thing I bought here was a red coat so I would fit in, for heaven’s sake! I wanted to learn Danish, get up to speed, become like goddamn Princess Mary and be this wonderful immigrant who had Danish friends and did not bat an eyelid in the bakery.

Disappointment was almost immediate but as I was in honeymoon mode, I made excuses and allowances and tried to blame myself. It took a long time before the penny dropped and I worked out why I was feeling iffy about Danish class and speaking Danish.

My first few lessons were from a book called Tempo. Our teacher taught us some starter phrases. As the chapter was about daily routines we got things like “This is Ahmed.” “This is the Jensen family” “Jan eats cornflakes” “Mette works in an office” “Anne takes a shower”

As I was learning how the language was pronounced, I was happy to go along with it but in fraught social situations where (and this happened multiple times, so bad apple NOTHING), men shouted at me to “Speak Danish!” I would curse my teacher. What  use is “Mette helps Anne have a shower” when you are expected to be able to say at least “That’s interesting/I agree/That’s funny!/I don’t know” ?

Only when I had to tackle for homework “What is the daycare for YOUR child like?”  did I realise what was being attempted.

They assumed that all immigrants had families. They assumed all immigrants would need to know the correct way to raise their families. They assumed that I would need schooling about daycare and how superior it was to all other alternatives.

Then that teacher left and we got a new one. She was a lovely person but a terrible teacher. She would probably be better at teaching if she planned her lessons but I am not sure she really does, beyond the cursory “Better photocopy that for this evening”

Her first lessons with me were pitched at too high a level and there were many occasions I was sure I was going to lose my shit. Start crying. Storm out. In fact, one day, I think I did go home at break. She never taught vocabulary, the whole time I had her. She would just give us grammar exercises (without pre-teaching), discussion activities and newspaper articles. She also taught us a LOT about The Danish Way.

We had lessons about volunteering, women working, childcare, the geography of Denmark, the immigrant problem, Danish holidays and traditions.

Nothing practical for balance. No “shop Danish”, “restaurant Danish”, “call centre Danish”. You are expected to have a Dane to help you with that stuff.

My reading books were all about immigrants having issues or crime. Getting accused of shoplifting, feeling left out until they got a job, getting racially abused at work. The one book I read about Danes had the main character getting raped on holiday in Poland!

Of course she taught us like this, it was what was on the test. We had to be able to describe pictures, so we practised that. We had to be able to apply for cleaning jobs, so we practised that. We had to discuss our opinions and come to a consensus, so we practised that.

Work made it impossible for me to attend regularly, so I went on a hiatus. When I came back, everyone was at the same level and I had improved. So I quit.

Now it is impossible for me to get Danish tuition at a reasonable price. I pay for language courses, so I know the going rate. I tried to get into VUC and one module was several thousand kroner (3000 USD) because I had a higher education. Not in Danish but still, it counted against me. I tried to enroll in one of the distance learning places but ONE lesson is 160 USD! I do not mind paying but I have no idea what drugs these people have been smoking to charge so much.

For the longest time, I protected the “Denmark is Fabulous™” Bubble with “Yeah, but this is F-town. It’s a shitty nowhere place. Of course my Danish school is going to suck. It’s unfortunate but there we are. It’s just bad luck.”

Then I got foreigner friends in other towns. And it’s endemic. There are pockets of good tuition and good practice. Some of my friends got it a lot worse. If they don’t rate your country, they can put you in a group with “Your English is not good enough to learn Danish with the other educated immigrants.” If you end up in that class, you may get treated a lot worse, with threats about your social worker being informed if you are late.

Of course, bad practice is bad. Bullying is bad. Bad teaching is bad. However, even in the best classrooms, with the best supportive professional teachers; they still have to teach “Dirty Immigrant: Know Your Place!”

They still have to teach the Danish Way and how the foreigner fits into it. The assumptions that underpin what we are taught are very telling. The classes are to help us integrate “by getting a job”. The jobs we are expected to want to get are entry level. There is little recognition that some immigrants already have jobs. And some immigrants might be qualified and experienced enough to be able to apply for professional or managerial posts. There are no lessons about fitting into a workplace once you have a job or interview techniques. Maybe they assume we will never get that far?

Then there are the lessons about the importance of women’s rights, democracy, contributing to society and childcare. We are not expected to have equally valid viewpoints or perspectives. We need to be taught from first principles the basics of civilisation and we need to realise that the Danish Way is the only acceptable one.

When I have had conversations with Danes about these issues, they almost always put the blame elsewhere. They almost always say that these lessons are not designed for me but “a specific kind of immigrant”. I am almost certain this type is a figment of the Danish imagination. I believe these to be straw-immigrants. They hate women, working, voting, contributing and their own children. They need to be tamed because their previous culture was so backwards. They are not REAL people, they are more like animals but they can be trained. And when they are housebroken, then and only then can they get a job as a cleaner or paper deliverer.

I honestly think that the language school system is one of the most damaging parts of the integration process and it is frustrating because it could be so much better.

One from the vaults: Anatolian Plateau

From Dr’s English section
Translated from Berlinske

Former Minister of Integration Søren Pind (Venstre) has no doubt of the consequences:

“This is open borders and an open till. We will see an increase in people on public assistance who do not come from Denmark. And abolishing the point system will just bring the Anatolian Plateau that much closer. This is certainly not what they promised during the election,” he says.

Yeah yeah, whatever. People are queued up around the block to get in, Søren. Hey, what do you mean by Anatolian Plateau? Is that some sort of neat geography term for when you have more immigrants and so the contracting effects of a ageing population are counteracted?

Oh. It’s an actual place in Turkey.

Abolishing the point system will bring a place in Turkey closer. Well, if we all remember (and I do), that Turks were not subject to the point system because they are considered EU for the purposes of immigration, then that is an outrageous statement.

Firstly, Søren seems to be implying that the whole reason his party instigated the point system was because he wanted to keep, specifically, Turks out.

Secondly, Søren seems to forget that because of guest-worker rules from the 1960s the point system was NEVER going to keep Turks out.

Thirdly, Søren is proving beyond reasonable doubt that he has a problem with Turks but simultaneously does not know how to tighten immigration rules to keep Turks out.

Everyone who said “I support the point system because it will reward me for things I am already doing!” can you now see why people thought you were a racist? (Because the system was dreamt up by racists, to do institutionalised racism and so only racists could possibly support it.)

Yeah, Søren! Let’s keep Turks out! Coming here, working hard in school, owning businesses, contributing to the community! I can see why you would definitely want to keep them out.

What a mo-fo-ing COWARD though that he phrased it like that. “Anatolske højslette” will slip right under the English speaking radar. If he had only said “With the loss of the point system, Denmark will have loads more dark skinned people (this is bad)” then we would have a chance of a “The centre-right in Denmark are really racist!” international incident.
So, he gets to do some highly offensive racism and it stays in Denmark.