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Danish Culture Crash Course

Denmark has been a unified country for more than a millennium, and had very limited immigration from outside cultures until the latter half of the 20th century. This means that, culturally speaking, the Danes are a close-knit tribe with a very homogenous population, sharing a common culture and similar characteristics.

Some of these cultural characteristics might be different from what you are used to in your home-country’s culture, and it might seem like the Danes are impolite, ineffective or simply just weird.

One of the things that are noteworthy about the Danish culture is the lack of formal hierarchy.

You might notice that is common for people in positions of authority to introduce themselves by first name, for your professors to be open to discussions with the students, and for people to treat you equally regardless of your financial or societal status. This is all rooted in the egalitarian worldview that is the basis for most Danish social conventions and interactions.

You are not considered more ‘important’ as an individual, just because your formal role is more important.

This means that it is normal for employees on all levels to give input during work situations. If the point is valid and presented well, it will be considered, no matter whether it comes from the manager or the intern. This is a result of the Danish culture valuing consensus, and preferring to base decisions on this. It is not seen as admirable for a manager or a professor to come up with solutions based solely on their own opinions. Instead they will be applauded for including their subordinates or students in the decision making process.

The Danish work culture heralds the concept popularly known as the ‘work/life balance’, and having a life ‘outside’ your work or studies is seen as a commendable thing. Most Danes are members of various volunteer organisations (called foreninger) and time off, whether being after the workday, work week or as vacation time, is secured in most employment contracts. Working way more than the standard 37 hours per week might be perceived as ‘dedicated’ in other work cultures, but will in most Danish work places be seen as unhealthy or even unproductive, due to the lack of time to rest and wind down.

One of the aspects of this cultural value is seen in how Danes think about taking sick leave. Yes, of course you should not call in sick for silly reasons (hangovers being one of those), but if you have the flu or are sick in any other way, you are supposed to call in sick and stay home if possible. No one will praise you for passing on the flu to the rest of the class or your entire office. Trust us on this one.

A last cultural aspect that is worth mentioning is that the Danish society is a very individualistically oriented one. The concept of the welfare state might make you think otherwise, but in general the Danes primarily identify as individuals and mainly feel responsible for their own and closest family’s matters. You might notice that people don’t talk much about belonging to a certain ethnicity, religion or region, or that they are mainly concerned with their own schedules and calendars when planning activities. This cultural aspect can also help you to understand why your Danish classmates don’t approach you if they see you on the bus or in a supermarket. Your (and their) individual privacy will be considered important, and many Danes would rather not impose on people in public if they don’t know them very well.

The lack of formal hierarchy combined with the individualistic worldview often makes the Danes communicate in a very direct way. They don’t feel the need to include titles or polite introductions when addressing people, and the respect for people’s individual time and privacy will lead to most Danes not engaging in small talk with people they don’t already know.

If you’re curious about how to actually talk to your Danish classmates, read more in the ‘Social’ section here on StudyCPH.

Jantelov

Jantelov, known in English as The Law of Jante, is a cultural concept and a literary reference from Aksel Sandemose’s 1933 novel ‘A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks’.

Jantelov is there used to describe the mentality of the small village people in the novel, but is often also used to explain the anti-elitist Danish mentality as a whole.

It is primarily used as a negative descriptor of the national mentality, often by people feeling martyred by Danish societal values.

While it might hold certain amounts of truth (few Danes will praise bragging as an attractive personal trait for instance), it is important to remember that it is not a codex for behaviour in Denmark.

It is a cultural phenomenon from the past that pops its head up every now and then – and that most younger Danes rarely think about or adhere to.

Culture Shock

Arriving in a new country can result in both practical and personal issues. Some people even talk about experiencing an actual ‘culture shock’. Here are some tips on how to make your first time in a new culture easier and more enjoyable.

Although Denmark is a well-organised country and people here are eager to make you feel comfortable, you will need some time to settle in. There may be times when you question why you left home, which is likely similar to what your fellow students are feeling and questioning.

When this happens, it is important for you to remember that you are going through a learning process. By accepting this brief adaptation period as a learning experience, you will ultimately be returning home with greater self-confidence and the skillset to succeed in a multicultural environment.

So keep active, engage in social opportunities, talk to people and try to learn Danish.

Remember: you are not alone in experiencing these feelings. Talking about your feelings and worries is the best way to deal with loneliness or homesickness.

Tips on easing yourself into a new culture 

  • Accept that you cannot know everything about your new country and language
  • Keep an open mind
  • Try to do things that you did at home
  • Stay in touch with family and friends at home
  • Talk to other students about how you feel
  • Stay active

From Study in Denmark 

Dress like a Dane:

Most Danish students dress in a style that lands between casual and very fashion forward. There’s no tradition for formal dress codes, so suits, ties and high heels are optional (if you want to rock it, go you!) and most people dress for a certain level of comfort and practicality, as most students use bikes to get around. However, Danish students still manage to look smart while doing so. Think jeans – not track pants; casual does not mean sloppy here.

And yes, we DO wear a lot of black. It is not because we are all goths or coming straight from a funeral, but it does make laundry day a lot simpler.

copenhannah.com – A fun outsider perspective on Danish style