As the human population becomes increasingly mobile in a global world, more people will experience feeling home in two or more cultures or places. This can create a deep personal split, but can also be a source of immense strength. After my sabbatical year in Denmark, I am sure I belong as much in my native Denmark as I do in Australia, though I am still waiting for return of my Danish citizenship after making my application on 1 September and must still stand in the longer non-EU passport lines when entering the country.
As a native, I understand Danish culture intrinsicly. Yet 24 years in Australia have influenced my way of seeing things and I found myself musing over what makes Danes special.
Happiness: Survey after survey declare the Danes the happiest people on earth. On a scale of life satisfaction from 1 to 10 Danes score 7.5 compared with 6.8 for the rest of the OECD. When confronted with this fact, Danes declare they are not ecstatic about it. Perhaps Danes expect less on their level playing field. Denmark is one of the most equal societies in the world. If your expectations are not to reach great heights, they can easily be met.
Queue culture: Here is a circumstance where Danes have low expectations. They have terrible queue culture. When a new cash register opens in the supermarket, stand back and watch the scrambling sense of entitlement of the last in to be first served. In many public service offices and over the counter shops, including bakeries, pharmacies and the quaint tea shop, taking a number has become the norm to order the queue. If you do not discover the approach you can end up waiting for a long time, while people arriving long after you are served before you.
Service: The Danes love travelling to tourist areas with great attentive service. One reason is because they get such poor service at home. Sometimes it feels like you are offending the person behind the counter because you want to purchase an item. You will be ignored unless you specifically walk up to the shop assistant and interrupt their staring at their nails or – worse – into their phone. It is not true everywhere, but the Danes could learn a lot about customer service and, provided they keep their low expectations, be happier customers for it.
Fearlessness: Maybe it is the Viking heritage, but the Danes are generally oblivious to risks that are carefully managed in Australia. At the base level is the infatuation with live candles, the peak of risk being the live candles on the freshly cut pine tree at Christmas. Then there is behaviour that would see a baby removed from her neglectful parents in Australia: leaving the baby in the pram outside, while shopping, having a coffee or going to the library. But it is also public safety: heavy loads are lifted high above foot paths without cordoning off or sounding alarms, repairs on the road done without authorised traffic controllers, cables running across the footpath without warning signs. Perhaps it is the lack of private law suit culture, or perhaps it is just the social trust combined with the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own safety.
Solitude: Danes seem afraid of others. On the bus, people will not approach a person sitting on a two-seater, unless every two-seater in the bus is thus occupied. Danes will mark their claim to the real estate with their bag. Danes will look at you funny if you try to strike up a conversation in the bus. And when you pass them in the street, don’t expect a smile even though you seek eye contact and smile like a clown, though maybe that is a big city thing, not a Danish thing. A fellow blogger recently pointed out that the Danish concept of ‘hygge‘ can be – and is – a practice that can be used to exclude. Hygge is internalised, indoors, with good friends having a good time. Not for foreigners!
Drinking: In spite of the tendency to internalise and be enough in themselves, Danes also love to party and drinking is permitted in public. I know of no other language where permissibility to let loose on a Thursday night has been formalised in language: Danes seriously call Thursday ‘Little Friday’, just like they term the night before Christmas Eve ‘Little Christmas Eve’ and by such linguistics make it ok to party and drink.
Cycling: I was looking forward to riding a bike in Copenhagen. The Danes are notorious cyclists, riding for transport and commuting in droves. To display their fearlessness Danes rarely wear helmets. Danes on bikes in Copenhagen ruthlessly take right of way over both cars and pedestrians. As a pedestrian you cannot be certain to be able to walk just because the man is green. Very fast cyclists, dodging their own red light, might well wizz past before you can cross. It is fast, it is furious, but it is out of lycra and for transport. I like that.
Punctuality: Danes are not late. It would mortify a Dane not to be there on time and this might explain the speed with which cycles are ridden. But curiously they do not like being early, or first, to a party either. Guests might lurk outside if they have arrived too early and might even wait to follow other arriving guests in.
Dress: Danes dress fairly casually. Sneakers seem to go with everything here, but that may just be the fashion of the day. No-one is worried about their hairdo if it is cold: the beanie is made for comfort, not style. The torment of what to wear is usually answered with: Black. Everyone wears black. Black with white sometimes, but mostly black. It must get a bit boring.
Solidarity: The Danish cooperative movement has a long history and is still going strong. Danes still realise that together we are stronger. In farming, in housing, in communities. Even the union movement remains strong and relevant. Danes have odd mix of confidence in authority and anti-authoritarian stance, which might be linked with the lack of risk-management rules. Many engage ‘black work’ or moonlight work to renovate or repair their house to avoid paying the taxes that pay for the system that make Danish society work, and work so well that American economists have coined the term: Getting to Denmark.
Treasure it Danes, the world is watching.