Why is joining an association your best bet to survive socially… in Denmark?

An Expat Dilemma

Some years ago I visited Lapland, which is a region in the northernmost part of Finland. And if you are looking for a pristine, never-ending place in this world to get lost and feel one with the nature, then this sparsely populated, subarctic wildness is definitely for you. Here I also had to experience a dog sledding tour in the snowy forests. After the four-hours trip we returned back for some rest and warm refreshments.

While I was poring some delicious and warm, berry juice, I also intended to give a cup to the local guide. However, I immediately detected a shocked and hesitant reaction from him. While reticent and humbled for the gesture, he said: “In Lapland nobody does anything for you, you have to do it yourself”. It was as if this was too much politeness from my behalf, or as if I violated his autonomy.

A common complaint that I often hear from internationals living in Denmark is that whenever they take the train and have a bigger bag that needs to be lifted up on the upper shelf — not a single Dane comes to help. Some of my international friends have an implicit expectation that one just goes and helps with the bag. Well, I tried once to help a Danish lady lift her bag without asking her — at which point she stated sharply: “I can lift my own stuff” — so it was actually important to ask, and this what I normally say to internationals, if you need help, you have to ask for it.

The two examples might sound like simple banalities — but after 16 years of my life in Denmark — I find the Danes and the North Europeans to value strongly independence and autonomy — this can definitely create a lot of confusion and misunderstandings for expats. Let me explain how.

Nordic Upbringing

Sofie Münster, who is the founder of NOPA, a magazine about Nordic parenting, explains what those values are when it comes to child development: Whatever the child is capable of doing - should do. We dare to let our children explore the world on their own because we believe that children grow by being independent and responsible. We let our children “fail”. We cherish their courage “to fail” and we pay more attention to the effort they deliver than to the results”. These are only few of the points which are obvious reflections of the strong emphasis on autonomy from an early age. Children, who are seen as small adults need to be trusted to find the truth on their own because this is the only way they can become independent individuals.

Equality and Trust create Independence

It is because of equality and trust that individuals become more independent — control in itself cannot lead to independence, or put it simpler: it is unlikely to create independent individuals without seeing them as equals and actually entrusting them.

In his book “Det er Dansk” the emeritus sociologist Peter Gundelach points to a larger study on Danish values, which he argues have hardly changed in the last decades. The table shows what parents prioritize in their children’s upbringing. Notice how “independence” is favored over many other e.g. “hard work”, “christian belief” and obviously “obedience”.

Furthermore, the professor points to some kind of paradox. On one side Danes are quite pragmatic and in case of necessity they will follow and adapt to external conditions. On the other side, paradoxically, this is paired with the Danes not wanting to receive orders.

Danes: A Collective of Individuals

This paradox can perhaps be explained. Individualism is in itself a cornerstone value the western world. This is depicted by the well-known Hofstede’s Dimensions where Denmark scores relatively high in Individualism (74). Danes, however, make up a strange category which unfortunately cannot be portrayed that well in Hofstede’s value indices. That is because Danes are some sort of collectively-oriented individualists. This means that the emphasis is placed on personal independence, but one is also part of a collective, be it family, workplace, school, clubs, associations, the overall community and even the state. The desire to self-realize oneself is tamed by considering the collective.

The Collective

A clear pattern of the collectively-oriented Danes is seen in the Atlas of European Values, which is the largest study ever made on European values from 1980 to 2008. The respondents from Northern Europe stand out when it comes to the degree they value memberships in absolutely all types of organizations, associations and groups e.g. education, environment, rights, community, politics, professional, sports etc. It appears that social life and connections with others — in extreme contrast with anywhere else — does not just happen by itself. If you want to meet people in Denmark this requires an actual effort by joining associations, clubs or interest groups. The task-oriented Danes work best if they have a common denominator which mainly takes place in various associations. Put it bluntly:

join associations or be excluded!

This also makes sense why the Danish Constitution clearly guarantees: “Citizens have the right to form associations for any legal purpose without prior permission”. Every Dane is part of approx. 2.8 associations - which takes me to a key Danish phenomenon: fælleskabet. The direct translation of the word is “community” but if we dissect its meaning, it is about a group of people who are bound together by something they have in common, not so much by their status but their common interest. With the current Corona-virus pressure the fælleskabet is highlighted even more e.g. in record time 10.000 volunteers have joined the Red Cross Corona Relief Network — it is in this way that Danes show their individual dimension in the collective.

The Individual

Here I will use to the prestigious GLOBE study. Its main focus is to look at the way society’s culture influences leadership behaviors. When measuring the “in-group collectivism”, which is the degree individuals express cohesiveness in their organizations or families — Danes again stand out. They score the lowest in the world. The low in-group collectivism is a sign of strong individuals. However, they do score higher at the “institutional collectivism”, which is the degree to which societal institutional practices encourage and reward collective distribution of resources and collective action. This paints again the same picture that Danes are some sort of individualists with a collective orientation.

Moreover, an absolute lowest of 5% of Danes agree with the statement that “there are absolutely clear guidelines about what is good and evil”, meaning that there cannot be a higher authority out there to tell a Dane what is good and bad, one needs to find out independently about it.

Only 18% of Danes, which is lowest in the world — said that “they think agreement on politics is very or rather important for a successful marriage” — so it is also fine to be in a marriage where each has its own individual (political) views.

If there is something we cannot talk about we must talk about

In May 2016, the Danish MP Søren Espersen called Barack Obama the N…. word, and after he received plenty of criticism why it was totally wrong to use it - just about other eleven politicians made sure to exhibit the use of the word on live television - pointing again to the same: “Who says we cannot say it? Let me show you we can”. Over the years, I came to call this the “Danish tic”- not to be offensive but to point out to something habitual that resurfaces over and over in Denmark.

I would rather die than use the word. And I think examples like this make expats to label Danes as racists and xenophobes. This study, however, shows that only 4% of Danes “would not like to have people of a different race as neighbors”, which is one of the lowest in the world.

Law-abiding, Civil Disobedience

At the beginning of the Corona crisis the authorities had recommended that people cancel events larger than 1000 people. It is worth noticing that it was “recommended” - commands should preferably take the form of recommendations in Denmark.

Although a lot of people followed the government’s guidelines, one could quickly detect a certain form of civil disobedience, like the one on the photo below, which reads instances of people refusing or hardly accepting to follow the new recommendations.

The cultural sociologist Emilia van Hauen points out: "The moment the prime-minister explained (...) then all of a sudden one battles through a wall of autonomous and disobedient mentality which is rooted in equality (...) there is some kind of a childish rebellion in the sense of there is nobody out there to tell me what to do or there is nobody out there who is cleverer than me". The "childish rebellion" explains why 94% of Danes agree that society must be gradually changed through reform while only 1% think it can change through revolutionary action - both of the parameters are on the extremes.

The anthropologist Dennis Nørmark points to a more humorous example. “When the Øresund Bridge was being built between Denmark and Sweden, there were twice as many accidents on the Danish side”. The one who saw these statistics Birger Hermansson explained that “when the Swedish worker is told not to enter a particular area he will do as he is told, while a Dane will want to see why for himself” :)

On one side, Danes are law-abiding and follow rules. On the other side there is a certain hardheadedness and disobedience to rules. One should find out independently why one can or cannot do something.

The Danish “Double Pressure” at Work

The strong value of independence is naturally reflected at work, as well. That is why there is an overwhelming 74% of Danes who think there is freedom to decide in their job. This means workers are allowed to conduct tasks without the need to be micromanaged, supervised or told what to do at all times.

However, for expats, the Danish working culture can seem chaotic and “schizophrenic”. One is never sure who decided what and when. Decisions take long time to be taken and the outcome is just never clear. It reminds me of this diagram from the Business Insider based on the social theorist Richard D. Lewis’ book “When Cultures Collide”:

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To reach some kind of agreement and clarity, the consensus-oriented Danes follow: proposals - apparent agreement - repacking and conclude by leaving the door open. “Leaving the door open” means that one has to go and find out by oneself the rest. It is exactly here where the double pressure comes from. The first pressure of your job is what you are officially employed to do and the second one is the one where you have to show initiative and independent thinking by finding work and tasks by yourself. So if you are used with very precise or exact commands on what you need to do, you will probably get frustrated. Which is why it is OK to ask your manager if you need help, from time to time. Otherwise, you are trusted you can work independently - and even more in these apocalyptic times, when so many of us are confined to work from home.

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Associate Professor, Globetrotter, Speaker & Facilitator

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