Together, separately – The Danish collective mindset during a crisis

Together, separately – The Danish collective mindset during a crisis

10 April 2020 0 By claudia

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemy, I have been paying attention to the way people react to the whole situation, both in Denmark and in France (from what I can gather from the news and talking to my friends). I decided to stay in Denmark during this lockdown, as I am very fortunate to have a house and garden, and because travelling at this point would have been too risky.

To give an overview of the situation in Denmark for my friends abroad: All schools, public institutions have been closed, non-essential shops have been forbidden to receive guests inside, but restaurants are still open for take-away and for example IKEA is still open as a drive-thru. But contrarily to France, Denmark has not imposed a ban on going out. Instead, they chose a more responsibility-based approach, encouraging and trusting their people not to go out unless it’s necessary, and to keep their distances to one another. After the first few (sunny) days where a lot of people were seen going out for a stroll to enjoy some fresh air, it now seems to be working, as the famous “curve” is now flattening and hospitals don’t seem to be outcapacitated, contrarily to France.

In this post, I offer my own observations as to why this approach works in Denmark.


Self-discipline

I already knew that the Danes generally have a certain degree of self-discipline (except at Roskilde festival :P), but this situation has made it even clearer. Our university lectures all got moved online, but instead of thinking of this time as holiday and slacking on school work – with exams still being quite far away – I was surprised by how many of my fellow classmates attended the lectures, participated and still made their homework. Furthermore, the closing of all gyms has brought many Danes to run outside, or quickly create a home gym (although I’m not saying everyone has turned into a health freak , and I hear people are still drinking a lot of alcohol). The self-discipline of not going out to gather with friends is even more impressive when you know that Danes hadn’t seen the sun in about 4 months and that it’s been shining bright everyday since the beginning of the lockdown. Danes are not used to wasting a sunny day, when they’ve been waiting so long for it :'( but still most of them are respecting the rules and staying inside for the greater good.

Social shaming

Although scenes of supermarket hoarding have been witnessed in many countries, I feel like in Denmark, people have quickly started feeling very self-conscious about being seen buying an unreasonable amount of toilet paper (after the first day of panick, that is). I have rapidly seen my social media feed boom with status updates from my friends, videos by comedians making fun of “hamsters” (the Danes call “hoarding”: “hamstering” which I find quite cute) and official government statements, all shaming people out of hoarding supplies. Pictures of people enjoying the sun in crowded public spaces in Copenhagen the day after the beginning of the national shutdown have also been released and provoked a flow of angry comments on social media. While in France, stocking up on provisions may be seen as legitimate, and finding excuses to sneak out of your house when you’re not supposed to, a heroic rebellion against an oppressive state, in Denmark it is considered selfish and a threat to the collectivity.

Fostering the collective spirit

I have always thought of the Danes as a rather individualistic people, never speaking to strangers, rarely getting involved in politics, keeping to themselves, etc. Although I have heard of the Danish collective mindset, I have always assimilated it to Jantelov, that set of cultural rules that for me foster a bad herd mentality, telling the Danes to never think of themselves as special, and thereby keeping them among the crowd. But it turns out that the true Danish collective mindset is coming back to life during this pandemy. Danes have an ability which I have always admired: to turn a bad situation into something positive. I believe that it is a trait that is engrained deeply in the culture and might have to do with the harsh weather (but that is my own humble interpretation). They therefore came up with the inspiring slogan: “Sammen – hver for sig” which translates in English to “Together – separately” or actually even better in French “Ensemble – chacun chez soi”. For me, it conveys the idea that we’re all in this together, that everyone matters and has a role to play by social-distancing, in order to reach the common goal. Although that slogan sounds a little cheesy, something your hippie grandma would come up with, it actually sounds much nicer than the cold term of “social distancing”. And according to my communication class: all efficient marketing efforts need a “sexy title”.

A Royal scold

If all of the above-mentioned factors weren’t enough to convince people to stay inside, playing the Queen card was apparently very efficient. In a historical statement (her first non-new year’s eve speech ever), the Queen calmly expressed her disappointment towards people who were hosting private birthday parties, in what the Danes like to call a “mom is not angry, mom is disappointed” manner. And nobody wants to disappoint the Queen, who is extremely popular in Denmark.

Respect for authority

The Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen has been praised for her rapid action to stop the propagation of the virus, closing public institutions even before the first death had been declared in Denmark. The Danes generally trust their government to take care of them, especially in times of crisis. Businesses knew that the government would support them, and therefore some restaurants chose to close down in order to protect their staff and customers, even before they were forced to, although that meant losing their income.

I did see a few posts on social media, where people criticized the closing of some public spaces, saying it was a disproportionate measure. However, all of them were eventually answered by other social media users, with the same picture of Søren Brostrøm, who is a doctor, leader of the department of Health and advising the prime minister on the measures to be taken. Under the picture was a detail of his CV, stating the various places he’d been a chief doctor or expert medical advisor, and at the bottom it said something like: “Are you more qualified than Søren? If not, we’re not interested in your opinion!!”.

This example shows that in Denmark, people who don’t trust the government, or contest the decisions of experts are mocked as stupid or uneducated (for another example see: anti-vaxxers). In France, however, criticizing the government can either be seen as a sign of intelligence (if you went to a prestigious private school and speak with enough confidence, people will often assume that you “know better” than the government), or of stupidity (in case you didn’t continue past high school, and just repeat what angry commentators say on TV). But in France, agreeing with the government (no matter which one it is), or saying that you like the government, is often seen as a lack of critical thinking. Therefore, even people who agree with the government’s actions, will rarely dare to say it out loud, or will quickly follow their remark with a negative opinion of the government, to counterbalance it.

Trust goes both ways

Another thing that strikes me in this situations, is that the French government seems to be witholding information, minimizing the duration of the lockdown, etc, and French people are rightfully annoyed of being treated like children, patronized. As always, there seems to be an inner circle which has more information than the rest of the population, and this creates rumours, mistrust, and frustration of not being a part of the “inner circle”. Some journalists have for example talked about WhatsApp chain messages being sent directly to them from the government, while the population is being kept in the dark. In Denmark, however, everyone learns about new developments at the same time. For example, Roskilde festival, the biggest in Denmark, had to learn through a public press conference, at the same time as the rest of Denmark, that all festivals would be cancelled this summer. I find that this openness creates more trust from the public to their government.

In both countries: solidarity

However, one thing that is common in both France and Denmark (and many other countries) through this unprecedented situation, is the level of solidarity and heart-warming initiatives that have blossomed. From Facebook groups offering to buy groceries for people at risk, to singing from balconies or sending money to struggling small businesses, there are at least some silver-linings.


I don’t know how the world will look like in a few months or years, and this post was not meant to bash France, which I miss dearly and hope to see again in a not too distant future. It breaks my heart to see my people suffering (Parisians being bashed for spreading the disease to the rest of the country, elderly people dying alone at home or in institutions, not to mention all the people who lost their jobs or are sick, etc). I just wanted to focus on the positive, and to salute the Danes’ spirit of collectivity, that I have heard so much about and am now witnessing more than ever. I wish you all to stay safe and sane during these troubling times.