A Guide for Americans in Denmark

Hi it’s Phoebe again 😀

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Dennis Nørmark, an anthropologist and author who’s spent many years studying his own Danish “tribe.” Dennis confirmed a lot of what I had already observed, but my biggest takeaway was this: how you perceive life in Denmark has a whole lot to do with where you’re from. I don’t know how Denmark looks to someone from Italy or China or Brazil; I can only give my American perspective. And while I may not be a typical American (what even is that in a country of 325 million?), I will try to make this as general and widely applicable as possible.

So, without further ado, here are some things Americans should prepare themselves for when they come to Denmark:

Danes Mind Their Own Business

I’m an introvert, and I sometimes feel like Denmark is an introvert’s paradise. People respect your privacy here so much that they will look straight through you and pretend you’re not there. I can totally understand why this is off-putting to some, but I love it. I can go about my day and not have to interact with anyone unless we both want to. I also feel much safer walking down the street both during the day and at night because everyone is just minding their own business.

You don’t have to wear headphones and sunglasses to be left alone on public transit

There’s a flipside to this, and it’s something that Dennis addressed in his presentation: if you are struggling with a heavy bag on the bus, for example, Danes will just sit there and observe, expressionless. His explanation for this? You did not ask for help, and they don’t want to presume. This got a big reaction from the expat audience along with several anecdotes confirming the commonality and frustration of such a scenario.

I, personally, have experienced the opposite: I was dragging two heavy suitcases up to a train platform when I dropped my backpack and spilled stuff everywhere. While I gathered up my things, a few guys hoisted my luggage to the top of the stairs and made sure I was okay before quietly re-dispersing into the crowd. I was especially grateful that they didn’t make a big scene because I was already flustered and embarrassed.

Smash the Hierarchies

I knew that Denmark was a very egalitarian place, but that’s a rather abstract concept until you experience it. Calling your professors by their first names? Okay, that’s not too weird. What about calling your doctor and dentist by their first names? Unexpectedly awkward. And then, one day, your professors are asking students for course evaluations… and they get honest, constructive, not-necessarily-positive feedback right to their faces. How can something so right feel so wrong? I’m really looking forward to getting used to this.

“Martin, what’s this?” “It’s a stethoscope, Bobby!”

Parliamentary Politics

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Danish politics, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions! While there are too many parties for me to keep straight, this chart does a nice job of showing how they all relate to each other and how everything is shifted to the left when compared to the US. I find it amusing that the party named Venstre (‘Left’) is in the center. 🤔

US vs Danish politics

I would have expected the nationalist party (DF) to be all the way to the right on this scale, but I guess they still support the welfare state, unlike the Liberal Alliance (another party with a confusing name), which wants to cut taxes and privatize everything. There’s no doubt I’m missing the point and over-simplifying—it’s a good thing I’m not eligible to vote for another three years!

Freedom from Shopping

You may have already heard that businesses close early in Denmark. It’s true! Some supermarkets are open 24/7, but most shops are closed by 6pm, maybe 8pm, maaaybe 10pm during the holiday shopping season (and earlier on Sundays if they’re open at all).

The reasons for this are complex (remnants of an old religious law), but also say something about Danish values: night and weekend overtime pay is expensive because people want to be home with their families. To keep the inconvenience in perspective, I remind myself that we make people go to work at 4am on Thanksgiving… that’s not really ideal either, is it?


Cars Don’t (Completely) Rule the Road

Cars are small here. I think I’ve seen one pickup truck in three months. I assume this is because cars are expensive and gas is expensive. The driving age is 18 (older than the drinking age) and getting a license is time-consuming and expensive (noticing a theme here?). Even exchanging your US drivers license for a Danish one is going to cost you: I just shelled out 880 kroner for the privilege.

Itty bitty hatchbacks everywhere!

Every car I’ve seen in Denmark has been manual transmission (I can’t help saying stick-shift, which usually elicits blank stares). This gives drivers increased control over the vehicle, and I’m going to blame that for the fact that Danes drive quite aggressively—they accelerate and decelerate abruptly, and if you’re in a crosswalk while they’re turning, they will nose right up next to you and glide past as soon as you’re clear of their bumper. This would not fly in the US, and often I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that it’s not personal.

Biking is the obvious alternative for those of us who can’t afford to drive, but it’s a little bit less popular in Aarhus than in other big Danish cities due to the fact that everything is uphill from the center of town. (I thought Denmark was supposed to be flat??) Aarhus’s cycling infrastructure is not perfect—there aren’t always separated bike tracks—but it’s immeasurably better than anything I experienced in the US.

What Else?

I could go on and on about little differences between Denmark and the US (the food alone deserves its own post), but the reality is we have a lot in common. Danes drive on the right side of the road, they nod their heads to mean yes and shake their heads to mean no (unlike Bulgarians), they send their grandparents away to live in eldercare homes, and they celebrate New Years on December 31. All in all, Denmark is foreign enough to be exciting but familiar enough to analyze, criticize, and (almost) understand.

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