We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Denmark
Sports are popular in Denmark, with football reigning supreme in popularity and counted as the national sport, followed by Gymnastics, Handball and Golf. Another trait of Danish culture as any tourist pamphlet will tell you, is “Hygge”, translating into cosy or snug. Danes will be quick to point out that this is a unique Danish concept. However true, it does take a more prominent place in the culture compared to other countries. Hygge usually involves low key dinners at home with long conversations over candlelight and red wine in the company of friends and family, but the word is broadly used for social interactions. Another important aspect of Danish culture, is understatement and modesty, which is not only prominent in the Danish behavioural patterns.
It is also very much an important trait in the famous Danish design, which dictates strict minimalism and functionalism over flashiness. The Danes are a fiercely patriotic bunch, but in a sly, low-key kind of way. They will warmly welcome visitors and show off the country, which they are rightly proud of, but any criticism – however constructive – will not be taken lightly. However, most Danes will happily spend hours to prove you wrong over a Carlsberg beer without becoming hostile. For the same reasons, outsiders on long term stays can be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion, as the homogeneous society is often thought to be the key to Denmark’s successes.
You will often hear resident foreigners complain about a constant pressure to become ever more Danish and the anti-immigrant Danish Peoples Party have seen increasing popularity over the years, taking 13% of the votes at the latest election which makes it Denmark’s 3rd largest political party.In a country which has no direct equivalent to please in their vernacular, where the local version of Mr. and Ms. has all but disappeared from common usage, and where the people can hardly muster a sorry if they bump into you on the streets, you could be forgiven to think they are the rudest people on earth, and you can get away with pretty much anything.
You’d be wrong. Most of the behaviour many tourists consider appalling can be attributed to either the Danes’ blatant – and when you get to understand it, quite sympathetic – disregard for formality, or their unfortunate shyness (see drink section), and there are rules to the madness, way too complex to get into here, but some of the most important ones can be summed up as follows: Though officially Lutheran, Denmark is largely agnostic. Pictured: Østerlars Church, Bornholm It is generally not considered impolite to omit verbal formalities common in other cultures, such as generic compliments or courteous bromides. Likewise, Danes almost never use Sir or Madame to address each other, as it is perceived as distancing oneself.
On the contrary, addressing (even a stranger) by first name is considered a friendly gesture. Be punctual, few things can make the Danes more annoyed than showing up later, even by a few minutes, than the agreed time, save social gatherings at people’s homes, where the requirement for punctuality is much more relaxed. If there are free seats on a bus or train, it’s not customary to seat yourself next to strangers if you can avoid it. It is also a nice gesture to offer your seat for the elderly and the disabled. In many busses, the front seats are usually reserved for them. Be aware that there are marked “quiet zones” on each train: one in the back of the back wagon and one in the front of the front wagon. Don´t talk on the phone there. In fact, don’t talk at all. These are for people who want a quiet trip, usually people who need to go far, and may want to sleep, read, or work on their laptop or other things in peace.
Danes try to abridge differences between social classes. Modesty is a virtue – bragging, or showing off wealth, is considered rude, as is loud and passionate behaviour. Economic matters are private – don’t ask Danes questions like how much they earn or what their car costs. As in Germany, Britain, and the rest of the Nordic countries, weather is a good conversation topic. Greetings between people who know each other (e.g. are good friends, close relatives, etc.) are often in the form of a careful hug. It is rare to see a peck on the cheek as a form of greeting, and it might be taken as way too personal.
A handshake is customary for everyone else, including people you aren’t close to and people you are being introduced to. When invited by a Dane – to visit their home, join them at their table or engage in an activity – don’t hesitate to accept the invitation. Danes generally don’t strew invitations out of politeness, and only say it if they mean it. The same goes for compliments. Bring a small gift; chocolate, flowers or wine are the most common, and remember despite their disregard for formality, to practice good table manners while at restaurants or in people’s homes. Even though 82% of the population is officially Lutheran, Denmark is by and large an agnostic country.
Investigations into people’s faith are largely unwelcome, and outside places of worship, displays of your faith should be kept private. Saying grace for example, is likely to be met with bewilderment and silence. Religious attire such as Muslim headscarfs, kippahs or even t-shirts with religious slogans, will – while tolerated – also make many Danes feel uncomfortable. If someone sneezes do not say “Bless you” under any circumstances, instead say “Prosit” or “Gesundheit” (“Prosit” is higly recommended since it’s the danish way of saying it) However, words like “Oh my god” are welcome. Going to church is highly unpopular, most parents dislike it as much as their offspring. If in Denmark on business, it’s important to note that family nearly without exception takes priority over work. So don’t be surprised if Danes excuse themselves from even the most important of meetings by 4PM to pick up kids, a burden equally shared between the sexes.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Denmark, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Denmark food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Denmark? Please comment below.