When it comes to new products and technology, this country is known as a remarkable test market because of its extraordinary openness, according to IBM’s Dagmar Fink, who is also the author of ‘The Worktrotter’s Guide to Denmark’. “It is always Danes who try beta versions of software first,” said Fink.
“They always go into production with the latest versions, whereas German customers are much slower to adapt.”Surprising, then, that when it comes to social situations, this spontaneity is far less apparent, if existent at all.
Many expatriates in Denmark cite difficulty in creating a social circle with Danes, often calling them ‘closed’ and impossible to get to know. Can these possibly be the same people known as the happiest on earth?
Author Lars Andreas Pedersen – the son of an American father and Danish mother, and the man whose book ‘Fucking Flink’ aims to help Danes be nicer – had an explanation.
He ascribed their lack of spontaneity to “negative versus positive politeness”, explaining that the country is characterised by a negative politeness developed generations ago when the nation was dominated by rural settings. In turn, he said: “Danes are polite by being non-intrusive.”
According to Pedersen, even when welcoming a guest to a party, a Dane will simply point out the bar, the snack table, and so on, and leave his guest to fend for himself. Americans, on the other hand, are positively polite, meaning they are eager to create an atmosphere of inclusiveness: “An American would try to anchor you into their party” – for example by introducing you to someone immediately. “You won’t see that in Denmark,” he concluded.
“A culture of ‘negative politeness’ can be very rigid, and it has quite a bearing on their spontaneity,” Pedersen said. Here, ‘just stopping by’ is often perceived as a rude gesture rather than a thoughtful one. Adding to that, Danes have an unrivalled culture of gender equality in the workforce – a revolutionary feat that nevertheless means that most people have busy schedules and little time for unplanned pop-ins.
Fink, too, recalled realising after having moved here from her native Germany “how limited the spare time of a Danish family is”. She talked about Danes’ desire to maintain what she called “smoothness” and a “safe set-up” in social situations, which, she surmised, is attained via a well-planned social life.
The spontaneity – or the lack thereof – of people here has always been a favourite topic of British expat Vivienne McKee, the host and star of the annual Crazy Christmas Cabaret shows at Tivoli.
“First of all, they have dinner parties that start at 6.30pm, which is completely bonkers for anyone from another country,” McKee said. “And people will arrive exactly on time. I joke that people hide in the hedge outside and at the precise time, they all run up and ring the doorbell. But it’s true. After 29 years, I still haven’t got over it!”
Pedersen, on the other hand, described the emphasis Danes place on the time they spend with their loved ones.
“When we do see each other, it’s going to be a full-on evening together,” he said.
He commended his countrymen for truly cherishing the friends they have, yet he too recognised that the pressure of creating the perfect evening every time you have guests makes most Danes think: “I don’t need more friends … I can’t muster up enough energy to have more.”
That said, there is light at the end of the tunnel, for as the saying goes, “Once you befriend a Dane, you have a friend for life.” Whereas Americans are often criticised for their superficial friendships, this is not often an issue here. “Danes are not small-talkers,” said Fink, who explained that if there is not a true connection, a Dane will simply move on.
And, no, this would probably not be considered rude, according to Pedersen’s discoveries on politeness.
Overall, the tone is optimistic. “It is about understanding how things work in the culture and then seeing how that fits in with your personality and values, and trying to make it work,” said Fink. Pedersen, too, said he’s happy living in Denmark – and hopeful that his movement can improve social interaction here.