Why shouldn’t you think you are anything special… in Denmark?!

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”.

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.”

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!

“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.”

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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