How to Make Friends in Denmark When it Feels Like Every Danes’ Dance Card is Full
Happiness rankings do not always equal friendliness rankings
You’ve probably heard. Seen the news. Read the reports. Denmark, and the rest of the Scandinavia siblings often take top ranks on World Happiness Reports year after year. We could debate all day about what happiness means to you, while the Nordics just keep winning. No matter what. 2018 saw Denmark’s Nordic neighbor, Finland, atop the charts while Denmark came in at number three behind Norway. But really, what does make a country “happy?” Ask a Dane and it quickly becomes quite clear. In addition to a prevalence of personal freedoms – those social democratic benefits like universal free healthcare and free higher education are big when it comes to feeling satisfied, comfortable and content with where you live.
And beyond being just so darn content as a country, Denmark consistently gets high marks in worldwide quality of life appraisals as well. Sustainable city planning, clean harbors, faith in leadership, relative income equality, economic stability and an overall family-friendly atmosphere are just some of the reasons life is good here in Scandinavia. And can be for you too. Move to Denmark and you’ll see. But happy, high-quality living doesn’t always equal friendly locals. Don’t expect a welcome mat. Or an invite. Just yet.
Denmark gets low marks on ease of settling in indexes
Denmark was also awarded the dubious title as one of the worst countries in the world for welcoming outsiders. According to the 2018 Expat Insider report – the largest annual survey of life lived abroad – Denmark pulls a paltry #64 out of #68 countries in this category alone. InterNations, the global expatriate community that builds connections through local events around the world, surveyed 18,135 people from 178 nationalities living abroad in 187 countries and/or territories.¹ And Denmark didn’t do so well in certain categories.
Sorry, Denmark. I love you, but you don’t always make it easy. Especially at first. While you offer an excellent quality of life and a healthy environment, unfortunately, you get 61st out of 68 countries for friendliness and fall to 66th on the same report for ease of finding friends.² And these sentiments appear to be similar year after year if you follow the reports. It’s not just me. It can be difficult to feel welcome here.
Could it be Small Country Syndrome?
Living here over the past four years, I have cultivated some theories as to why dear Denmark struggles in some of these categories despite ranking so well for overall quality of life and general happiness. The first is what I call “small country syndrome.” It’s just a fact. Denmark is a small country. With a population of 5.7 million people, there are 20 U.S. States with higher populations than the whole country of Denmark. The state of Wisconsin for one.
Wisconsin has a higher population than the entire country of Denmark. I doubt many Danes could point to Wisconsin on a map. Not that many Europeans either. But to be fair, I wonder how many Wisconsinites could point to Denmark on a map. Or Americans for that matter. True story and side tangent – we are often asked by friends and family in the States when we visit if we speak Dutch yet. No. No, we respond. We don’t. Because we don’t live in… The Netherlands. We live in Denmark. And here you speak Danish. Not Dutch. I don’t fault them too much. Both The Netherlands and Denmark are relatively small countries on a world map. And before you question my raising population densities or total square footage as any intention of claiming superiority. Don’t. I simply offer as a reference point. Denmark is a small country. It just is.
For a small country, Denmark holds fast to tradition
Because of their diminutive stature and petite population, Denmark holds tight to tradition. Don’t misunderstand. Danes aren’t short. Legs for days the lot of them. But they do favor a specific way. What I mean is that there is a very Danish way of doing things that goes beyond language and currency and a propensity for democratic design and bicycle driven culture. It is one of the things that I find the most interesting about living here.
For such a forward-thinking, socially democratic, fine with public nakedness and Pride Parades population – Danes are very traditional. This, for me, is a head scratcher and can be quite a conundrum. Where I come from, traditional values usually (but not always) equate to conservative viewpoints, voting records and religious affiliations. Not necessarily the case here in Denmark. Here, you can support equal rights and promote women in the workplace as well as shared family equity in child rearing. Progressive. But still traditional. For a Dane.
You may wave your rainbow flag in support for every iteration of personal gender orientation. You can drop your own drawers for a dip in the sea without flinching or freaking out and don’t bat an eyelash at bare breasts advertising plastic surgery centers on every public bus. You believe in climate change, favor progressive actions to abate it, take pride in your cities’ efforts to be carbon neutral. Ride your own bike and bring your reusable bag when you shop.
But, you will chastise the outsider who doesn’t put down the divider after their groceries at the market. Or scoff if they DARE to stir the “butter hole” (smørhullet) into their own bowl of risengrød. And you will INSIST that Christmas is only celebrated on the 24th of December and you will tell my children as such. (True story.) And for that Christmas dinner, you will only serve a very specific and defined menu to celebrate. It’s tradition.
Don’t mess with Danish Christmas dinner. And don’t get me started if one doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Here is where the general tolerance stops. Recent burqa bans, anti-ghetto laws and increasingly difficult to maneuver immigration policies are evidence enough of rising xenophobic tendencies, at least from the current Danish administration. This trickles down. A let’s circle the wagons type atmosphere that can make it a wee bit less welcoming for foreigners.
READ MORE: DON’T MESS WITH DANISH CHRISTMAS DINNER
Danes are progressive and traditional at the same time
I could go on and on, but tradition is strong with the Danes. Even progressive minded Danes. There is a collective thinking here. Part of it Jante Law, that engrained Scandinavian social conditioning that says we are all equal. We wear the same (ish) things, we buy the same lamps, we decorate our homes the same way. (It is RARE to enter a Danish home and to find walls painted colors other than the ubiquitous white.)
There is a democracy of design. It was actually intended that way. In the 1930s and 1940s – the iconic Danish designers like Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner and especially Kaare Klint believed that good design should be available to everyone. Equally. Maybe nowadays, IKEA has taken over the democratic part of Scandinavian furniture affordability, but it makes sense why the insides of Danish houses look similar here. I overgeneralize, of course. But not that much. There is more that connects Danes than individualizes them. And it goes beyond their furniture, lamps and dishware. There is a WAY things are done in Denmark. And when you do it that way, everything is awesome. (Yes, I am referencing The Lego Movie.) Unless you don’t do it THAT way. Unless you are not Danish.
The Law of Jante You shall not believe that you are someone.
You shall not believe that you are as good as we are.
You shall not believe that you are any wiser than we are.
You shall never indulge in the conceit of imagining that you are better than we are.
You shall not believe that you know more than we do.
You shall not believe that you are more important than we are.
You shall not believe that you are going to amount to anything.
You shall not laugh at us.
You shall not believe that anyone cares about you.
You shall not believe that you can teach us anything.
- Aksel Sandemose, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, 1933
I don’t even think all Danes know they are doing it. Those culturally engrained things that make you Danish. Like sucking in air to acknowledge you are listening to someone speaking. Yep. I agree with you. Gasp. I also don’t think Danes realize that their horrible queuing and pushing onto anything public transportation is anything other than the way it is done. Just try to get off an airplane at Kastrup. If you had a window seat, you won’t be off before everyone who jumped in the aisle first before you. But, conversely, we must all wait at the corner for the light to turn green. Danes don’t cross the street when the light is red. Even if there is nary a car in sight. ANYWHERE. Still. We wait. Unless it is New Year’s Eve. Or May Day. And now I do too.
The Danish look of incredulity
I do it because I am trying to assimilate. And now I am a firm believer in putting down the divider after my goods. It’s just common sense. There. Divider down. Now you can put your goods up. It took me a little while to get that one imprinted. But not too long. Danes are good at waiting at corners AND letting you know you have done something incorrectly. I can’t describe it exactly. It’s not a humph. Or an eye roll, per se. But it is a look.
My husband and I call it the “Danish Look of Incredulity.” How could you not know? That this is the way that it is done. Here. And – if it is something truly offensive (like stirring the butter into the risengrød or not washing your private parts at the pool prior to entering) then you will be told. In no uncertain terms. And even by Danes you come to consider good friends. Maybe a look and a lesson. At the same time.It's not a humph. Or an eye roll, per se. But it is a look. My husband and I call it the 'Danish Look of Incredulity.' How could you not know? That this is the way that it is done. Here. Click To Tweet
You can be going about your business on any given Sunday and think you are abiding by the rules. Happy. For all intents and purposes. Living life abroad. Here. In Denmark. I’ve got this. Look at me Ma, I’m assimilating. But there, smack in the middle of a turn on your bike without signaling – there it is. The look. You may have thought you were being safe. That your lack of pointing to where you intended to turn didn’t impact a soul. But don’t think you still didn’t need to do it. Your rule-breaking was witnessed. And you were notified. That you did it incorrectly. By the look. Have you seen it?
READ MORE: DING, DING! BIKING ETIQUETTE IN COPENHAGEN
If only there was a manual explaining Danish cultural norms
Before you think that I am throwing Danes under the bus (which I’ll admit, I may have contemplated after being bodily pushed past to get on the train first by offenders that won’t look at you AT ALL) – hold up. I know there are things that each culture expects people do and don’t do that no one tells you before you learn them. Or live here. Those little rules, codes and norms.
Danes are just really good at letting you know when you didn’t adhere to them. Maybe other countries and cultures are as well. I just don’t live there. I live here. For four plus years. And there was no manual handed out with my residency permit, darn it. Apparently (according to InterNations) I’m not the only one who has felt like their attempts at assimilation here haven’t been so easily accepted.
Danes are “friendly” – so why can’t I make friends?
So beyond small country syndrome and community enforced cultural norms to contend with, why is it so hard to make friends with the Danes? On a one-to-one basis, they are actually friendly enough. They are. Once you get over the fact that smiling at random strangers on the sidewalk is just not a thing here. Do it anyway. At least I do. I don’t think this little act of cultural sabotage is going to really hurt anybody. And I always feel a little self-satisfaction when I get a smile in return.
Maybe it marks me. As a foreigner. (Probably American.) But smiling is part of my internal make up. My culturally ingrained code of conduct. Passed down from my dad. Can’t be helped. And I am trying. Every day. Even on Saturdays. To assimilate. And I do appreciate the WAY it is done here in Denmark before you tell me if I don’t like it, I am welcome to leave. I don’t want to. I do like it here. And I like you, Danes. Don’t worry. Most of you. Maybe not Inger Støjberg. She is not on my people to meet in Denmark list.
Danish dance cards are already full
Like I said before, I find the average Dane to be pretty friendly. And helpful. And can be welcoming. If there is a reason to be. You ask them a question. They will answer. And be helpful. But that won’t make them a potential friend. The problem boils down to essentially this. Their dance card is full. And while it may sound harsh. Most just don’t have space for you. It’s not really that they don’t like you or wouldn’t enjoy an evening out with you, but they have other people to prioritize before you. You are the newcomer. You need friends. They don’t. They aren’t being rude. And it’s not really about you specifically.The problem boils down to essentially this. Their dance card is full. And while it may sound harsh. Most Danes just don't have space for you. Click To Tweet
Danes have small tight-knit friend groups
Danes value quality over quantity. Their neighbors, the Swedes, have a word for it. Lagom. Not too much or too little. Just enough. Take that concept and apply it to the oft-copied, now marketable, ridiculously misunderstood concept of Danish hygge and it may afford some insight. According to Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, hygge is the key to Danish happy living. And don’t worry – you don’t have to be Danish to have, experience or even enjoy hygge. But, I’ll give you a clue, it really isn’t about the lighting, what socks you’re wearing or whether you have the most expensive Danish design in your home. And believe me, Danish design can be expensive. Beautiful, but expensive. At its most distilled – “[Hygge is] time spent with others [that] creates an atmosphere that is warm, relaxed, friendly and down-to-earth, close, comfortable, snug and welcoming.”Hygge is time spent with others that creates an atmosphere that is warm, relaxed, friendly and down-to-earth, close, comfortable, snug and welcoming. - Meik Wiking, Author, The Little Book of Hygge Click To Tweet
Danish hygge happens with family and close friends
Hygge happens with people you know. Well. To be more clear, hygge happens with people where there is a close connection. And for a Dane, it doesn’t happen in a huge gathering of people that they just met or haven’t known for very long. Not to say that Danes don’t love a good party. They do. But calling someone a friend is different. It has a ton to do with commitment here. Friend groups in Denmark go way back. Since school days for many Danes. If you just moved here, that’s hard to compete with. They just don’t know you that well. And it takes time to get to know a Dane. They are fiercely loyal once you do. It is truly worth the effort. It’s just a tough nut to crack. Keep cracking.
READ MORE: HOW TO INVITE DANES TO A PARTY
Danish work-life balance plays a part
Part of the Danish satisfaction with living here; part of their definition of “happiness” is the importance of work-life balance. Danes work hard. Everyone is expected to contribute in society to reap the benefits and weave the social fabric that is the net here to help everyone. But Danes don’t overwork. Compared to other countries. They get an average of five weeks paid vacation (once you’ve worked here long enough to earn them) plus and an additional nine public holidays. That is one of the best vacation policies in the world. Amazing really. Part of that work-life balance. That you too can enjoy working here, even as an outsider.
And part of that work-life balance provides space for Danes to prioritize family. With both parents working and state-subsidized childcare happening outside the home, you can understand why. Denmark has the highest rate of working mothers in the world. With 82% employed and 70% of those working full time, after work time is for family first. Holidays are for family. Celebrations are celebrated with family. With all the little Danish flags. All of them. It’s part of that tradition I’ve told you about. Weekends in summer are for spending time in your Danish summer house with your family. Again, I refer to Meik Wiking…
On average, 60 percent of Europeans socialize with friends, family, colleagues a minimum of once a week. The corresponding average in Denmark is 78 percent. While you can hygge by yourself, hygge mostly happens in small groups of close friends or family.”
- Meik Wiking, The Little Book of Hygge
READ MORE: DANISH SUMMER HOUSE HYGGE
So where do friends fit into the Danish work-life balance picture with all that family time? Plenty of places. Unfortunately maybe not plenty of spaces for you. As their friend. Those tennis partnerships have already been established. The book clubs already picked. The football teams going strong for years. (And by football I mostly mean soccer – although American football is more popular than say lacrosse here.) Danes are doers, joiners and players. Not the player that you avoided at the bar in your 20’s, although some probably are. But many Danes play organized sport regularly, run together in clubs, form bicycle teams to race up and down the coast in matching uniforms. Sundays are for lycra. And the other bike. For some.
So seriously then, how do you make friends with Danes?
1 | Learn the language
Even though nearly all Danes speak perfect English, unless you moved to a small town in Jutland, language is a good place to show that you want to be here. And while those who know me may be running around like Billy Crystal’s fictional wife in Princess Bride shouting, “Liar! Liar! Liar!” knowing that I myself have never officially taken Danish courses, (does Duolingo count?) I can now order my coffee in Danish without the barista immediately flipping back to English. So that is good. Not exactly BFF material, but might earn a gold star in my book. 😉
2 | Join a club
A running club. A football club (either kind.) A lacrosse team. A movie club. An underwater basket weaving class. An Instagram group. Anything that you have a passion for. Most likely a Dane or two will share that passion too. And while your just joining something won’t give you fast “friends” first off, it affords a space to connect with locals on their common ground. Consistency and effort are key. If you live in Aarhus, the International Community of Denmark there offers a searchable list of different types of clubs in your area. In Copenhagen, the International House has people and resources to help you find something to get you engaged.
3 | Find Danes who do need friends
This doesn’t mean you need to hang around the proverbial playground looking for the last man to be picked. Danes who have lived abroad and returned home might be more interested in breaking from traditional friend circles they had established in their youth. Or how about Danes who have moved across the country to set up shop in another city. Their own dance cards may have more spaces open without historic hometown ties defaulting the allotted number of slots.
4 | Get ready to deep dive, but not on the first date
I’m not talking about Tinder or a night out at Noho in Copenhagen’s meatpacking district. Although I often wonder when I play witness to what happens after a Fredagsbar there. No, this tip is actually about context. And timing. Danes don’t like superficial. They don’t really do small talk. And especially not to random strangers. Unless it is after 22:00 downstairs at Noho, and then I don’t think it is a “friendship” on their radar.
But seriously, pleasantries don’t please most Danes. How are you? That ubiquitous Americanism – is about as preposterous a cold opener as they can imagine. To them, they think that you don’t really care. You don’t even know them. Why would you ask that? Although they know you will. As an American especially. But they don’t want to answer. Unless they get to know you. So then… how do you get to the real conversations before you really know a Dane? While you are just trying to be nice?
5 | Be patient
Wait until summer. Ha! You think I’m kidding. Danes are a whole different bunch come summer. But even then, you’ll need plenty of time. A whole lotta precious time. Patience and time. And maybe some precious spending money. In Copenhagen? Definitely some precious spending money. Danes are definitely meet-able, friend-able and worthy of your time. Most of them. (*wink, wink.) Like the coconut with the tough to crack exterior, they are sweet inside. Again. Most of them. And not necessarily when they are trying to get on the train. Just don’t let your sensitive peachy self get too bruised in the trying.
It’s gonna take time
A whole lot of precious time
It’s gonna take patience and time, um
To do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it
To do it right, child
- George Harrison, “I’ve Got My Mind Set on You”
I know everyone’s experience here is different. I only offer my perspective as such. It is mine. I’d love to hear your viewpoint coming from where you used to be local and how it has gone making friends here in Denmark. Drop me a comment below. Have a tip that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear!
And now I will raise a cup (of tea or whatever you take) to my few fantastisk* Danish friends who I will call such for life. Maybe not a dance card full of peeps perhaps. But what I might lack in quantity, the depth of discourse and support has made my days in Denmark delightful. Not every day. But many, many, mange of them. They have afforded me my quality of life quotients here in this life lived abroad. Hygge that. Come to Copenhagen, she said. And to all my (non-Danish) friends, near and far. Cheers from here.