How to make friends with Danes

Expats find Denmark one of the most difficult countries to make local friends, as is shown in the annual survey of InterNations, the global network for expats. But why do expats find particularly Denmark difficult for making local friends?

I dove into all the books I could find about Denmark – written by historians, anthropologists and other expats – to find out more. Here I would like to share a short summary of what I found out, and which is published in this article1.

Denmark as a tribe

The key thing to know about Denmark is that it is a very homogeneous nation with little past experience with immigration. The historic losses of territory in the 19th century have led to the Danes turning in on themselves, focusing on their own ‘tribe’ where they find community and unshakeable trust, as the British ambassador to Denmark Sir James Mellon observed in the 1980s. Historian Jespersen describes Danish mentality as a circle of people sitting around a campfire “shoulder to shoulder around it, with their backs to the darkness outside the circle of light from the fire” 2. This homogeneity and inward-looking mentality make it more difficult for outsiders to be part of the social circle. Danes often have an established social circle that dates back to their time in ‘folkeskolen’, since they spend the years from age 6-16 in the same class with the same classmates. It is no wonder that many expats observe that Danes all seem to have friends that go back to childhood.

The value of equality

Closely connected to homogeneity is the value that Danes place on equality – the famous Law of Jante that states, among others, that nobody is better than others. When everyone is the same, it is easier to create the trust that is the backbone of Danish society. Anthropologist Anne Knudsen adds: “The important part is the inclusiveness: we want to include you, but that is only possible if you are equal. It’s what peasants do”3. This value of equality can make things difficult for newcomers because you can’t ‘get a seat at the table’, where everyone is equal, unless you are invited in. Another complication is the norm that Danes only talk to those they know and that introductions are usually not made, because this would only highlight your outsider status, and make you lose face.

Public-private divide

The divide between public and private life is a third important aspect to understand why it can be difficult to make friends with Danes. Their private zone only covers family and friends, which can be interpreted as cold and difficult to access by those who come from a culture where there is less of a divide between work and private life and more spontaneity. Danes spend their time outside of work with family and friends, so expats should not expect their Danish colleague to become your friend outside of work. Danes also value privacy, which is why they do not appreciate unannounced visits to their home. The unfortunate thing for expats is that Danes also value your privacy, which means that they will not easily strike up conversations with you, since you are a stranger.

Speaking Danish

Language is another complicating factor. Even though Danes are very proficient in English, they do not necessarily feel comfortable speaking it in front of other Danes. Together with the fact that the language is an important part of ‘being Danish’, Danes often switch to their native language, especially outside the large cities. Social life, naturally, takes place in Danish, and Danes often are reluctant to include those who do not speak Danish. The added difficulty for expats is that many Danes are not used to hearing their language spoken with an accent. Expats seem to have an easier time in large cities such as Copenhagen, but there an often-heard complaint is that Danes too easily switch to English which then prevents the expat from learning Danish.

Some tips

So, what should you do if you find yourself in Denmark and you would like to make local friends? First of all, it is important to not take it personally and realize that Danes also don’t reach out to fellow-Danes. They have an established social network and are not actively looking for new friends. This does not mean they might not want to meet you; but it does need an effort to participate in local life, learn (some of) the language, and join in some of the social rituals (there are many of them in Denmark!). Joining a club or association is a great way to make Danish friends; almost all Danes are member of one or other association, where their community spirit is expressed, and trust is built. A final recommendation is to learn to read between the lines of what the Danes say. An unfortunate consequence of valuing privacy is that Danes don’t easily give invitations for fear of imposing. Don’t sit around and wait for them to invite you!

Sources

1 van Bakel, M., & Vance, C. M. (2023). Breaking out of the expatriate bubble in Denmark: Insights from the challenge of making connections with local Danes. Journal of Global Mobility: The Home of Expatriate Management Research, ahead-of-print(ahead-of-print).

2 Jespersen, K. J. V. (2011). A history of Denmark: Macmillan International Higher Education.

3 Booth, M. (2014). The almost nearly perfect people: Behind the myth of the Scandinavian utopia: Random House.

3 Comments

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