It’s amazing that I have managed to write a blog on Denmark for the last 18 months without writing about Danes themselves. Perhaps it’s because I know I’m going to get myself in trouble writing this post. Writing about culture forces you to make generalizations. And any time you make generalizations, at least someone will get offended. These comments are based on my cultural training, observations and conversations with Danish friends, colleagues and expats over the last couple of years.


The Danish Paradox: The average Dane is tall with fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes. They speak a minimum of two languages, often three and sometimes four. By international standards, they are well-educated, well-travelled, affluent but not ostentatious about their wealth. They are content but have an over-affinity for alcohol.

They are highly trusting and value family and friends above wealth and prosperity. They speak when spoken to but rarely initiate a conversation. They are friendly but difficult to form friends with. They have a small, tight-knit group of childhood friends with whom they maintain a lifelong bond and breaking into that circle may well take several years.

Danes are forthright, honest and well-intentioned. They are strong negotiators yet consensus-minded, excel at conflict resolution yet lack political savvy and correctness. They are innovative, open-minded entrepreneurs yet in many ways inflexible and set in their ways. They are highly organized and structured yet rarely think outside of the box.

They have a high regard for personal freedom but are happy to relinquish it when they believe it is in the common interest. They are firm believers in gender and socioeconomic equality yet lack the common courtesies of other western societies (ie, holding a door open). They seamlessly integrate into other societies yet struggle to integrate foreigners into their own.

In short, the average Dane is a paradox…


Danish Self-Confidence: I have come to the conclusion that Danes are completely fascinated by what others think of their society. Perhaps it is because they are aware they are a paradox and seek self-understanding. Or perhaps it is because they lack self confidence and simply cannot understand why anyone would choose to move to their country.

Telling a Dane that you moved to Denmark is an invitation to interrogation. The first question is invariably “Why did you move here?” followed by “How long are you staying”. While their intentions are harmless, this is off-putting to the culturally-unattuned expat as it makes many feel unwelcome, a fact lost on many culturally-unaware Danes.

While I believe these first two reasons partly explain Denmark’s fascination with outward impressions, I think a third is closer to the core. Danes simply desire what everyone else desires; self-affirmation and self-worth. Despite the fact that Denmark is recognised as a progressive, environmentally-friendly society home to many world-class companies, it is still a small country on the outer fringes of Europe, a minor player on the global scene. I recognize much of its behavior from my own society, perennially living in the shadow of our American neighbour (not neighbor!) to the south.


Advice to Danes: So what is my advice to Danes? First, accept yourself as you are. Every society has its idiosyncrasies. They are what define you as Danes and are culturally ingrained. Change what you can, accept what you cannot and move on. We love you just the way you are.

Secondly, be proud of your society but recognize that there are strengths and weaknesses in every system. While I think the Danish system works very well, every system can be improved. Rather than seek self-affirmation for what is great about the system (regressive), seek constructive feedback on ways to make a good system even better (progressive)!  Think outside of the box.

Third, accept immigrants into society and do as much as you can to help them integrate. If I have one criticism of Denmark, it is the country’s abysmal immigration record. Perhaps I am influenced by the fact that I come from one of the most diverse countries in the world but I must admit that I am shocked by Denmark’s poor record at integrating immigrants. In today’s global society, competitiveness depends on cultural diversity. Rather than focus inwardly on preserving your culture (regressive), focus outwardly and celebrate cultural diversity that comes with immigration (progressive). No, the outcome will not be as pretty (heterogeneity rarely is) but it will be a heck of a lot more entertaining and better prepare you to compete on the global stage.

Finally, make an effort to be friendlier to those moving to your country. I know this goes against the core of your being but actively make an effort to make foreign nationals feel at home. Don’t ask everyone why they moved to Denmark or how long they are going to stay. Rather, welcome them, tell them how happy you are that they chose Denmark and explain to them why you believe they have chosen the best country in the world in which to live!


About Canadianindenmark

A Canadian expat working in the biotechnology industry in Copenhagen, Denmark
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3 Responses to Danes

  1. padma says:

    When I was in the USA I was often asked –
    “Why did you move here?” followed by “How long are you staying”
    It was often clear what their intentions were – it was not a lack of self confidence!

    Few countries are as warm and welcoming as Canada – but even here there were those conferences a few years back on reasonable accomodation that became a platform for the xenophobic.

    The three Danes that I know are warm and friendly and I would love to visit Denmark sometime.

  2. That is is hands down one of the best description of us Danes I have ever seen, short, sweet and terrifyingly accurate, and good advice too :o)

    One thing i disagree with is our perceived inability to think outside the box, I actually think we excel at that, at least in business, and this is coming from a Dane who has been an expat myself. In certain fields like engineering or in specialized blue collar jobs, Danes are in high demand for our ability to think up simple solutions to complex problems, you don’t do that without thinking outside the box. Culturally, politically and sociologically speaking you may well have a valid point though.

    • I think your comment is a fair criticism. You can see there is somewhat of a paradox between that comment and the previous line about Danes being creative and open-minded. My general observation is that Danes have a very structured thought process but have much greater difficulty thinking in a cross-functional manner. I think this is in part because of the relative inflexibility of the Danish education system (difficult to obtain cross disciplinary education such as business and science) and in part because the Danish approach is very process-driven.

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