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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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