An Expat Dilemma
In my last fifteen years of travelling around the world just about anywhere outside Northern Europe, the general cultural patterns point to the same contrasting values: most of the world is hierarchical and very hierarchical. In most of the world people don’t really trust each other (especially authorities). Most of the world is quite polite and formal. Most of the world is a bit corrupt and very corrupt. Most of the world is religious and very religious — now I know this sounds quite provocative and are some heavy generalizations, but they make sense to me when trying to put Danish culture into perspective. And no matter how I look at Denmark, it is always some sort of an “extreme”.
Extremely egalitarian; extremely high levels of social trust; extremely democratic; extremely just (judicial system); extremely informal, extremely private, and extremely happy.
A matter of very different expectations
Danes, in terms of cultural values, often in their disbelief, make up a special (“extreme”) culture. In a larger intercultural context, it is the Danes (and perhaps the Nordics) who are the strangest and stand out — not the other way around. It is because of these “extremes” the social relations and contact with others, do not take place the same as anywhere else in the world.
To use the words of the anthropologist Dennis Nørmark: “This is of course due to some very special historical conditions, the small size of the country, a low rate of immigration and the political decision to change an agricultural society with independent farmers into a very modern and self-conscious nation, and later a welfare society which quietly took functions away from families and assimilated everything from care to religion. A very special history creating a very special culture”.
Equality — who do you think you are?
In 1692, the British Ambassador to Copenhagen, Robert Molesworth was describing Denmark: “I never knew any country where the minds of the people were more of one caliber; […] a certain equality of understanding reigns among them; […] all are of one mind.”
Some 300 years later, in 1992, another British ambassador to Denmark, Sir. James Mellon was writing: “When talking about the idea of a ‘nation’, this also involves the idea of fellowship, but a nation requires if not more, then at least something different. […] Their unity as a people is in fact due to the emphasis on uniformity. […] The Danes are not a nation… they are a tribe”.
What both ambassadors are trying to say is that Danes are a homogeneous entity and they do not fall into the usual category of a traditional “nation” where one has various groups or “something different” — but a “tribe” where sameness, unity, uniformity and equality are the dominant values. To put it simpler:
Equality is first of all about sameness and uniformity.
In this sense, even change in Denmark means staying the same. I can only imagine the expats who have come to Denmark and who are trying to change something or be different. They will only get disappointed. Here is a controversial tip for you: be different as long as you show you are the same!
To survive the October-November-November-November Danish weather, from August to June, I am 3–4 times a week in a local sauna in my town. Only last year, I was twice in the same sauna with the now former Danish prime minister Lars Løkke, who was enjoying the heat quietly, half-naked, just like the rest of us common folks. There was no real security, nobody checked our bags, there were no police sirens, and they did not close down any streets. This might seem a trivial example, but I wonder — how many places in the world would this actually happen?!
However, let us imagine for a moment that the prime minister would demand that the sauna be privately opened only for himself, and in this way he would get some preferential treatment. And here any other Dane would most likely question: “Who do you think you are?” This aspiration to be average leads to the well-known “Law of Jante” which has been coined by Aksel Sandemose in 1933, when he described the code of conduct for the small town of Nykøbing Mors. These unwritten rules are still all-pervasive in the Danish society.
“You shall not think you are anything special” — is like the law of gravity in Denmark
Although there is a tendency to challenge the Law of Jante in Denmark, I have met very few Danes who do not suffer from it, especially in Jutland. I also think this is something misunderstood by expats, and frankly even by Danes themselves. Although far-stretched, in many ways, the Law of Jante is more about the fact that Danes value equality and sameness, or that is a way of saying: “You are the same as us, regardless of your achievements or who you are.”
I have recently applied to become an “Associate Professor”, which in my case one needs four years to qualify for. After receiving the title, I did get some basic congratulations. At the same time, I got a shower of sarcastic jokes like “OK, now that you are big professor, maybe you can do this…” or “Mr. Professor Cantir”, which we know nobody ever uses. It was a bit of an all around innocent title-mockery. What my colleagues were implying was: “Hey it’s fine you got the title but don’t forget you are like us, we are the same”, pointing to the same underlining values of sameness and equality.
On one side, one teases and makes fun of authority whenever possible in order to equalize everyone — it is in this sense that “you shall not think you are special” (Law of Jante). On the other side, people of authority self-deprecate and make harsh jokes about themselves in order to say the same: “I am like all of you and I am one of you — I am no big boss here”. This of course could be complicated and misunderstood in an expat context. Particularly, when one thinks that e.g. he or she is a Professor, CEO or Doctor is really special and deserves a preferential treatment. Here I have a tip to the expats in management positions — One way to show power and authority in Denmark is to show humbleness and talk up to subordinates.
In my daily work, I encounter plenty of examples which come from my students. See the two email letters:
Letter from a Bangladeshi Student
Letter from a Danish Student
The letters might speak for themselves but it is worth discussing them a bit. In the one from the Bangladeshi student I am “honorable”, and in my last 15 years in Denmark, I have never been called that :) Anyone knows that an email like this would probably go to the spam folder in Denmark, simply because it is way too formal and indirect. When I asked the student to call me by first name, he said he could not as he felt like he was offending me. Here I think it is important for the egalitarian Danes to notice that titles and formalities are actually very real pretty much anywhere outside the Danish borders.
The letter from the Danish student could appear very rude but I promise you it is nothing unusual. My Danish students have in fact complained that they were not sure how to start writing letters. “Should we write Dear?” or “Hi” or “What?” — They are afraid not to be too formal or put it bluntly too much of “kiss ass”. People who are that equal and similar, do not need much formalities and politeness, for politeness is some sort of an indirect form of communication among unequal actors, which is typical of hierarchical societies, or:
To be indirect is to be impolite in Denmark!
“Say what you want to say”, or the way Danes like to call it: “At kalde en spade for en spade”. If one is overtly polite in Denmark, people tend to think that there is something “fishy” there, she or he is perhaps hiding something by beating around the bush. The directness works fine in Denmark but sometimes it is nearly a competition of who is more direct and speaks their mind more, often bordering cynicism. Unsurprisingly, Danes feel very provoked and oppose the very idea of being politically correct, which is why freedom of speech is not just a paragraph in the constitution, it is something Danes value highly and find indispensable. As a result, I am again not surprised that expats find Danes the least friendly — because nobody should think they are anything special.
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