Why should you keep calm and NOT knock on your neighbor’s door… in Denmark?
An Expat Dilemma
Some time ago a new neighbor moved in on my street, whose house is just about 30 seconds walk from mine. When I passed by her postbox I saw the name´, and to my embarrassment, I “facebooked” it to find who the neighbor “was”. Some 16 years ago, when I was a lot less Danish, I would have maybe knocked on the door and said hello, but not anymore. This time I was thinking I will wait for the vejfest (the yearly party with the all the neighbors) in September and then I will get to know her.
The story goes that only police and Jehovah’s witnesses would ever knock on your door in Denmark. So if you want to give a Dane a heart-attack, just appear unannounced at their home. This “rule” applies to everyone: relatives, friends, colleagues, acquaintances or neighbors. This is often perceived by expats as distance, coldness and an ultimate form of impoliteness. It is actually something else: Danes value privacy to such an extreme that it took me years to see both its implications and paradoxes. Let me explain.
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:
- “Are you (re)married, single, divorced etc.?” - it’s private;
- “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.
From time to time an immediate silence strikes absolutely everyone. There is a particular religious gentleman who always starts talking about Jesus. One can quickly detect how everyone starts staring at the floor and slowly the sauna gets empty. Nobody wants to talk about Jesus or any other God for that matter that is while we are all completely naked by the way. Whatever you believe in, keep it yourself, it’s a private matter.
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:
“Due to shyness, discretion and perhaps also of the fear to get too close to each other, personal grief is a private matter in Denmark.”
And I should underline grieving of any kind is a private matter. That can often be misunderstood by expats. If your Danish colleagues do not ask too much about your loss, it is often to preserve privacy.
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”.
Some time ago I fell ill and broke my leg. My manager sent out flowers with a nice card, which of course made me happy. However, it would have been unimaginable to see any of my colleagues visit me at home to find out how I am. And this is how the logic goes: if they come to my home then they put me in the difficult situation that I ought to invite them inside for a cup of coffee. At a later point, they would probably feel obliged to find a specific time to invite me to their place… oh that is just too complicated… send flowers instead ;)
Again, nobody comes too close to each other, and if one does it, it is in a very careful and distant way, in order to preserve privacy. In this sense, I am quite grateful for Facebook, otherwise I would probably have never known anything (privately) about any of my colleagues, who luckily I am friends with - obviously only on Facebook.
One does not make friends at work, one has “private friends”, outside of work. Which is why friends and work are like water and oil in Denmark, you don’t mix the two. It is typical that one has two or three real (private) friends that they have known all their lives and the rest are acquaintances and contacts.
“Hygge” is Private
The cultural sociologist Jonathan Schwartz, had made an interesting, if not profound observation. Danish culture is typical of a Danish farm:
“It tends to be enclosed, fenced in and hedged (…) it is self-contained and even the house is surrounded by protective trees and bushes (…) faces and interfaces look toward the common yard (…) Hygge always has its back turned to others. Hygge is for the members, not the strangers”.
In many ways, the farm comparison is probably the ultimate definition of privacy as some sort of a specific Danish interiority. It paints the Danish mindset as: private, enclosed, safe, exclusive, independent, “hyggelig”, looking inwards, with few taboos inside and often connected to the nuclear family. It is a members-only “club”, with the back to the outside world, also, meaning that members are completely disinterested in others’ business, which takes me to the next question:
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:
“I am not from Skive, I come from Copenhagen, but I have lived here for twenty years. You will have to be here six or seven years before you will get people to talk to you properly. The real people will just look the other way… I have only ever met ten real Skive people, at most”.
I met someone on Funen who told me that after getting divorced he moved out seven kilometers from his small village. Suddenly he was “new” and nobody knew him and he didn’t know anybody; A colleague from work told me he moved from Ålborg to Herning and after eleven years, they still call him the “new” guy.
All these stories, make it easy to accept the results of the Expat Survey Report which makes Denmark the most difficult place to make friends for expats. It is difficult for Danes to get closer to Danes, let alone for expats. This further reminds me of an interview with the famous actor Lars Mikkelsen, in which he points out:
“Here in Denmark you can easily just be left alone, this is my ‘hood, and people leave me alone, it’s nice.”
As an actor he probably found it “nice” to have privacy and just be easily left alone. Or, one can “easily be left alone” as in being lonely. In this sense, “enough” privacy can be a quality but too much of it can perhaps be a threat to the individual and the society.
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.
The sociologist Peter Gundelach, whose observations I have used several times, points to the idea that Danes like to think that they are “frisindet” (tolerant) more than they actually are. They do however score quite high in tolerance but not as high as e.g. Holland and Sweden.
One can see e.g. abortion is actually one of the most tolerated. It is perhaps for this reason why there are no real fierce debates about it in Denmark, as in many other countries. One is tolerant of abortion simply because it is a private matter. So it is hardly a state or a church matter.
When sex in the nature is not forbidden…
“SEX is allowed in the park, but be considerate! Many children attend the park. Therefore do not:
- Have sex on the children’s grounds in the hours between 09:00–16:00.
- Have loud sex from the bushes in the hours between 09:00–16:00.
- Remove semen and so forth from benches after the act.
- Leave rubbers and napkins in the bins.
Copenhagen municipality encourages safe sex! Enjoy.”
Apparently the signs were fake, as they were not installed there by the authorities. They were, however, real as they were placed there by a group of artists who got annoyed by all the littering, especially with the condoms on the benches. According to DR, Jon Pape from Copenhagen municipality reacted with: “We will remove the signs but we definitely do not object with the text and the design (…) overall it is not a big deal”.
Nobody is actually saying that sex is not allowed in the park, as such, as long as it is done discreetly, and nobody leaves trash behind. Per Vagn Nielsen, the head of North Jutland police confirms: “Sex in the open is not forbidden, as long as you do not bother others”. One is actually allowed a certain degree of privacy in public.
This is reflected in the Danish design, as well. Here I refer to the famous Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair, which unique shape allows a bit of privacy, making it ideal for public spaces. The Egg reminds me of the relative and oversimplified “Peach and Coconut” theory developed by the psychologist Kurt Lewin and later popularized by the organisational theorist Fons Trompenaars.
The peach cultures are soft on the outside, and people are easy to get to know but the more you get to know them, the more you might reach a hard “seed” with all sorts of taboos and difficulties. In the coconut cultures, like Denmark, it takes a very long time to get to know the hard-shelled Danes but once you do, they will tell you stuff you don’t want to know.
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