Why is Denmark a network of networks that you are not part of… yet?

An Expat Dilemma

In hierarchical cultures it is typical that one’s success and well-being often depend on how close one is to the centers or persons of power. If one is not a “highborn” or does not have the “right” parents — to climb the social ladder — one needs to work his or her way up through the use of education, relatives, friends, hard work and probably some luck.

The more intriguing question is: “How does one work his or her way forward in an egalitarian society such as the Danish one?!” The short answer is that none of the elements that I mentioned above would necessarily guarantee you this. The long answer is through trust.

The more worldly notion of trust is typically associated with reliance on each other - and it is found everywhere but only in weaker forms and in decline -except in the Nordic countries. Sociologist Peter Gundelach explains that when social ties are created horizontally this creates social trust. This is further revealed in the European Sociological Review by J. Delhey and K. Newton in a comparative study when trying to analyze the general level of social trust in 60 countries. The researchers argue that the five Nordic countries show an exceptionally high level of social trust being characterized by ethnic homogeneity, protestant religious traditions, good government, wealth, and income equality.


This is consistent with the reasons why the meaning and use of trust in Denmark take a much more profound and fundamental significance than anywhere else. To use the words of the Danish philosopher K. E. Løgstrup, who wrote extensively on trust: “Initially we believe one another’s word; we trust one another…Human life could hardly exist if it were otherwise. We would simply not be able to live”. So one’s very existence and well-being depend first of all on mutual trust.

As a result, trust is both something you have and something you do. Thus, one normally maintains and gains trust through professional and social engagement, clubs, associations — and overall connection with others. Therefore, it is no surprise how much focus there is put on the ability to network, in Denmark. It is often through networking that one maintains trust, meaning influence.

Accordingly, if you are actively searching for a job, this is what you are often told to do: use your network. Denmark’s largest job market Jobindex mentions that according to several studies up to 80% of Danes get a job through a network. There is even a guide on how to use your network in order to get a job, which comes from an actual researcher in networking, Christian Waldstrøm. He argues that it is rare for one to get a job through family or even friends but it is more likely to happen through a network of acquaintances or colleagues.

Furthermore, Waldstrøm underlines: “In the end it is about yourself and the impression you leave behind [and] whether you inspire confidence (“tillidsvækkende”), you are trustworthy (“troværdig”) and you have skills”. You could be the best doctor, engineer, professor or gardener in the world — if you don’t inspire confidence, your skills will only take you that far. So here is an obvious tip to expats: it is first of all your degree of trustworthiness that counts than your actual skills. In fact, networking has become a skill in itself.

Denmark is a network of networks which you are not part of… yet

If you are a newly-arrived expat in Denmark, life can be bitter without a network which can take years to build. Consequently, after sending out 200 job applications with top-notch degrees and work experience on the CV, one often hears expats not being able to land even an interview. In a homogeneous society where everyone knows everyone - but you - one tends to wonder what the actual “rules” are. Sociologist professor Peter Gundelach attests: “Denmark is a very close-knit society which is difficult to get access to - in particular immigrants have had a hard time doing that”.

Nonetheless, it can happen that expats see the idea of networking as some kind of “favoritism” or “nepotism”. According to Transparency International, Denmark still scores as the least corrupt country in the world. And here comes a remark: it is not only about your ability to be trustworthy, it is also about the people you might refer for specific tasks - the way they perform and their degree of trustworthiness would also reflect on you. Thus, you do not recommend someone just because they are your cousins or best friend. You endorse someone who you definitely trust with the task, and like a domino effect this creates an interdependent (trust-based) network.

This way, trust is a currency in Denmark - whose value you constantly need to maintain. So, even the simplest interactions with others can mean a lot. Moreover, maintaining trust is harder than it looks, it is not something you do only once - it is something you need to nurture until you die. So whatever social standing one has - they need to prove day in, day out they deserve the trust given to them.

According to the OECD report: How is life? Denmark still stands out as Europe’s most trusting nation both in individuals but also in institutions. Here is an example.

Some years ago, in my local newspaper HerningFolkeblad, I noticed the title of an article: Pedophile man from Herning reported himself. Besides admitting to his pedophile lusts, during treatment the man has also confessed to two assaults on minor children. As a consequence, this is how the judge from Herning Court commented: “I deeply respect the fact that you have chosen to realize your problem and do something about it”, who sentenced the man to a 20-day conditional imprisonment with continued treatment. These kind of examples often shock internationals - it is an unusual case but not necessarily that controversial for Denmark - it is the high degree of trust that allows people to be vulnerable but also feel safer with each other. And most importantly, a high degree of trust allows people to admit mistakes.

In 2018, Denmark was hit by a big scandal. It was found out that Britta Nielsen, a civil servant, has defrauded Danish government welfare agency with at least 111 million kroner. The fraud was possible because nobody thought of making any checks for the last 25 years. Even Nielsen herself, has recently revealed in court that the checks were a joke. Frauds are nothing new to the world but in many ways this is a typical Danish example where the culture of high trust creates little control within the system, in this case as a side-effect. A similar known case took place in 2007 with IT Factory and Stein Bagger who went undetected for years before it was found out that he defrauded Denmark with 831 million kroner.

And here is another remark - in hierarchical societies the responsibilities often lie with the ones who do the control, it is because of controllers’ failure to check that allows the fraudsters like Britta Nielsen and Stein Bagger to get away with it. In contrast, in egalitarian societies it is exactly the opposite, the responsibilities lie with you. It is precisely here where Danes often like to say: freedom with responsibility, meaning that you are given the trust - to be free of any control or supervision - but in return you are responsible for that.

This again becomes obvious in K. E. Løgstrup’s writings, who hardly recognizes mistrust and only sees it as a variation of trust, where “one normally encounters one another with natural trust”. So unless proven otherwise there is no reason to mistrust someone. After all, you will often find yourself hearing that you are free to work within a framework. This in turn creates a culture of independent and unsupervised individuals who find tasks to be done by themselves, without being controlled or told what to do. So, if you really want to offend Danes - show mistrust and tell them what to do - these are guaranteed the worst offences in Denmark.

n 2014, Copenhagen Zoo hit the headlines and received wide international attention. For various reasons, they decided to kill a giraffe named Marius. In the process, the giraffe got dissected in public in front of an audience, including children.

There was an international outcry condemning the zoo officials but also an utter shock on how this could be shown to children. The New York Times headline was: “Anger Erupts After Danish Zoo Kills a ‘Surplus’ Giraffe” reporting that Copenhagen Zoo officials received death threats. The Guardian had reported: “The death of Marius… was followed by his dissection in front of a large crowd, including fascinated-looking children, prompting outrage and protests around the world.” The National Geographic pointed out: “Visitors, including children, were invited to watch while the giraffe was dissected.” Interestingly, a CNN anchor asked the zoo scientific director Bengt Holst whether children cried. To which Holst replied: “Just the opposite, the crowd was very enthusiastic and the kids asked good questions”.

The example might sound extreme, and in many ways it is, but mostly to the outside world - because this is just an example of “extreme” (Danish) trust in each other. When people are so similar and trust each other to this degree, it makes no sense to hide anything or have taboos. That is even if they are children. Children are seen as young adults who need to be trusted with the truth from young age, in order to become independent.



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Associate Professor, Globetrotter, Speaker & Facilitator

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