Social life and the search for Danish friends
My first experience living in Denmark was as an exchange student. I picked Aarhus University a little randomly, in the list of partner universities, and to my surprise got accepted. So I took my chances, my rain boots and my ski jacket and left for Denmark (yes I really wore a ski jacket in August, because you know, I was moving to the great “Noooorth”).
On the first day of the university introduction week, we had a presentation on “Denmark and the Danes”. In between two jokes about surviving the Danish winter, we heard that we had better focus on making friends with other internationals, as we would most likely not make any Danish friends during our exchange. I found that a little harsh. I thought “surely they’re assuming that we don’t want to make any effort or that we’re not outgoing enough to make new friends, and I heard that all Danes speak great English, so the language won’t be a barrier”. But it turns out that the speaker was right – if you don’t count that I got a Danish boyfriend after one month-. To this day, 5 and a half years later, even though I speak the language fluently and got a much better cultural insight (I don’t wear my ski jacket in August anymore!), I still very much struggle to make Danish friends. Sure I know some Danes that are friends with my international friends, and I met some through university or work, but there isn’t one Dane that I can call to meet up for coffee one-on-one. Although I can’t say I haven’t tried.
I know I am not the only one having that issue, Denmark has, after all, been found to be one the worst countries to make friends. But because at times, I have felt like there must have been something wrong with me, if that is your case now, I want to let you know that there is nothing wrong with you. Most Danes are satisfied with the handful of friends they have since primary school, and are simply not interested in making new ones. I heard a conversation between two Danes in the bus once, where one was saying that he “simply didn’t have time to invest in a new friend”, and the other one nodded like it was obvious. They are also a more solitary people. While in other countries like France or Spain, the system is built around the family providing for their children and then caring about the elderly, in Denmark the state provides for each individual throughout their life. This means that 18 year-olds can leave the family home supported by state funding and housing support, while the elderly can go into state-funded retirement homes. My interpretation is that this system makes the Danes less dependent on social interactions.
You will certainly meet some Danes that are nice to you (most are), answer politely to your questions, and might even go out with you for a drink (or 10). Usually, getting drunk with a Dane makes them “open up” and become very friendly. That’s when you start thinking that you’ve finally cracked the code, and you are getting close to having a Danish friend! But sadly, you often find out that whenever you meet them next, they either ignore you, or just say “thank you for last time, it was nice” and get on with their day like nothing happened. Let me reassure you: they are not ashamed of having spent the night with you, as if you were a bad one-night-stand (pardon my French), but this interaction is simply not enough for them to call you a friend. It’s gonna take more time for them to include you in their life -sober-.
So my advices are:
- Do not give up but make sure you have some international friends to not feel lonely during the process.
- Learn Danish if you plan to stay for a while, it helps a lot for them to feel comfortable speaking Danish around you, and therefore you might be invited to more things, plus you’ll be able to understand all the informal talk which can sometimes be super important.
- Find some internationally-minded Danes, they are often easier to approach as they have an interest for internationals. Danes who have lived abroad or travelled extensively are more aware of what it’s like to be alone in a new country.
- Find a hobby. Danes are easier to bond with when you catch them in their free time, as they are not stressed or rushing from one thing to the next, and actually have time to talk to you, plus it will make you meet people with whom you share an interest.
- Try and make the first move, by suggesting going for a barbecue or to the cinema, because Danes are often too shy to do it, or they don’t want to bother you in case you already have plans (we’ll see that on a post about the law of Jante).
- And finally: plan well in advance with people you don’t know so well. Most of the Danes I know have their calendar booked at least two weeks ahead, and even if it’s not, many of them don’t like to rush things. If they have already made a mental plan to stay home and “hygge” with candy on a Friday night, they will most likely not agree to meet up with you (especially during winter). And don’t get sad if they refuse, it’s not because they don’t like you.
Disclaimer: this post only reflects my own experience with some Danes, and the experiences I’ve heard from other internationals, but of course not all Danes are like that. Many actually have the same issue with making friends as internationals do. Loneliness is a serious issue here and can lead to depression. There is no shame in feeling lonely – we humans are flock animals-, and when that’s your case, there are many facebook groups available, and weekly meet-ups for internationals (in Aarhus and Copenhagen at least). So please reach out and remember that statistically everyone has been lonely at some point, especially in Denmark.
What is your experience with making Danish friends? Have you managed? How hard was it? I would love to hear about it, leave a comment below!