Why should you keep calm and NOT knock on your neighbor’s door… in Denmark?

Privacy is Sacred in Denmark

Privacy is something nearly sanctified in Denmark. When Danes use the word “private”, it often refers to anything that is outside work or public sphere. Which is why you could also hear something like “private economy”, this is actually meant as “personal economy”. I will use the word “private” for all instances and it is basically defined as “it is nobody else’s business”. Let me try to make a list of what is or could be private in Denmark:

  • “Do you believe in God?” - it’s private;
  • “Are you (very) sick?” - it’s private;
  • “Do you have a pet?” - nobody else can touch it without your permission -so it’s private;
  • “Are you grieving?” - it’s very private;
  • “Have you joined a swinger club?”- it is your business what you do after work, so it’s private;
  • “Are you having an abortion?” - it is nobody’s business, so it’s private;
  • “Are you participating in nude marathons?” - maybe it is strange, but it’s private.

Anything you do after work is private

In her book “How to Live in Denmark”, the author Kay Xander Mellish reports on a story from 2000 when a famous guard outside the Queen’s palace got fired. This was a special guard because it was the first ever female to guard the Royal Palace. Apparently, she also had a part-time job on the side - she was a prostitute. Now, you probably think she got fired because of that. This is not the case, she actually got fired for insubordination at work - a totally different reason. After talking to several Danes, Mellish points out that they did not find this case particularly shocking: “It’s her private time, when she’s not at work, she can do whatever she wants in her free time” - again nobody really cares about your private life outside work.

Religiosity is private

Ten years ago I started to attend one of the local saunas with obligatory only naked men. The attendees have been about the same ones ever since, and they actually know each other a bit. The men are are normally very loud and chatty, telling each other jokes about anything from wives to politics and football.

Grief is a very private matter

Sociologists Iversen and Warburg tell of a story about the former editor-in-chief of Politiken, Herbert Pundik. He wanted once to pay a personal visit to an employee who had lost a child and express his condolences. At this, his secretary put up a frightened expression and said: “This is not how you do it here in Denmark”. Pundik, who partly lived abroad and who had also lost a child reflected:

Being sick is a private matter

An international acquaintance of mine who is “danskgift” (has a Danish spouse) got very upset with his parents-in-laws. Apparently he fell ill, and they didn’t even pay one visit to find out how he was. This has escalated into an open family conflict at which the parents defended themselves by saying: “We just did not want to invade your privacy, you are allowed to be ill without us poking our noses”.

“Hygge” is Private

The cultural sociologist Jonathan Schwartz, had made an interesting, if not profound observation. Danish culture is typical of a Danish farm:

Is privacy a quality or a threat?!

The anthropologist Richard Jenkins did his fieldwork in Skive, a small town in the northwest part of Jutland. In a conversation with a local Danish businessman, he got these comments:

Privacy is tolerance

Danish parents prioritize tolerance as the most important value when upbringing children. One is just not very interested, or is tolerant of others’ private affairs. This form of high tolerance and extreme respect for privacy can be identified with “frisind”. The word translates directly as “liberalism” but otherwise it equates it with an open-minded, tolerant attitude and mindset towards others.

When sex in the nature is not forbidden…

  • Have loud sex from the bushes in the hours between 09:00–16:00.
  • Leave rubbers and napkins in the bins.

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