Foreigners' guide to better understanding the Danes...



Danes are a bit of a paradox. In fact, we can be quite difficult to label as we are full of oxymyrons. Geert Hofstede put perfect words to this paradox in his work on cross cultural analysis. Considering that Denmark is a “taking from the rich and giving to the poor/middle class” society, you would think that a highly collectivistic culture would dominate. Wrong. We are a highly individualistic society manifested by the predominance of individuals' interests over the group interests. I guess foreigners often see it in the shape of privacy being important to us and relationships at work being rather superficial. However, we are also a very feminine society (versus masculine). Feminine is synonymous to emphasis on human relations and quality of life, and as a people we clearly put emphasis on good relationships and co-operation, yet if you get too close, we quickly draw back. So, in essence, we are a helpful and trusting people, but also very private, reserved at first and often superficial in our relationships – especially with foreigners. Consequentially, many ex pats get slightly confused because Danes – often unconsciously - send mixed messages.

Power distance is very low in Denmark and this sometimes gets us in trouble – also when it comes to the school system. Due to the low power distance in Denmark teachers are unfortunately seldom viewed with appropriate authority and many Danish schools are characterized by noisy class rooms and only moderate respect between teachers and children. Hierarchies mean very little to us and we readily question authority and expect to participate in decisions that affect us. We tend to speak our mind all the time – also at times where to some, it may feel inappropriate. But we never mean to be inconsiderate or disrespectful – we simply cannot help it, because it is so ingraned in our culture.

Danes love to take risks. I believe our flexicurity system has a lot to do with it. We call it the “golden triangle” because of its “three-sided mix of (1) flexibility in the labour market combined with (2) social security and (3) an active labour market policy with rights and obligations for the unemployed. The security and safe environment provided by the flexicurity model, however, comes at a high price – especially to the working people. In one aspect, it motivates us to try new ways and approaches, generating a high degree of innovation, but it also renders “free time/vacation” the hottest bargaining chip at the work place since the extreme high level of personal taxes leaves little motivation to go the extra mile and make a difference. So, low stress and positive feelings prevails – leaving foreigners in disbelief when the office is empty at 4 PM.

We may celebrate “flexibility” on the labour market, but do not ever show up unannounced at your Danish friend’s place for a quick chat. We Danes tend to be quite punctual and precise. If you want to meet up with friends, you usually make an appointment. Even when we go to our summerhouses at the east or west coast to rest we feel the urge to plan the content of every day. Sorry, we are truly an odd in this way.

Finally, it is important for you to know that we love our queen (Queen Margrethe II). As a country, we do not have as many local traditions as our friends in Sweden, Norway and Finland – but we have our queen, and if you ever look for guidance in understanding us Danes, then look to our monarch – she is everything we wish ourselves to be.

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