Why are internationals in Denmark so negative? + 4 myths about Denmark
If you’ve been living in Denmark for some time, chances are you’ve experienced that as well: you are meeting a fellow international for the first time, or catching up with friends, and someone throws in a little sarcastic remark about the Danes’ behaviour or something as mundane as the range of yoghurts in Danish supermarkets. And suddenly, a flow of complaints and resentful comparisons starts pouring out of you and your friends, and it is hard to stop it. You start picking out on everything that has been secretly bothering you about the country: the weather, the coldness of your neighbours, the shops that close too early, the poor service in restaurants, the price of… well basically everything, etc… It is only natural, because you are too happy to find someone who understands you and who will not be offended by your complaining.
I know I used to complain a lot to my Danish boyfriend (although he will probably tell you that I still do, but I’m making efforts now!). Because he was the only one I was close enough to to share this, at the time where I didn’t have any real friends here, and because I was frustrated and in a way held him responsible for all the wrong his compatriots did me (or rather: didn’t do me, as their lack of interest for me was one of the main issues) and even for the weather. Of course it sounds ridiculous and unfair, and as patient as he is, he got enough of it. I understand, I would also be annoyed if someone who chose to live in France was constantly complaining about the French striking, or driving like madmen or doctors not taking credit card (apparently to the rest of the world, bank checks are a medieval form of payment, take note France). Because that is exactly what makes France what it is. Somehow, many of us got the idea that Denmark was the most perfect country there could be, just because it ranks in the top of most human development and happiness indexes. But let me drop a truth bomb here: it’s NOT.
Having met quite a few internationals during my time here, and working as a tour guide for people who come to Denmark for the first time, I can tell you the most common misconceptions people have about Denmark, which put stars in the eyes of first-timers, but later lead to disappointments and frustrations. So let’s adress 4 of them here to avoid further misunderstandings:
1 – Denmark is one of the most environmental countries in the world
It’s true that Denmark invests a lot of renewable energy, such as wind turbines or tidal energy (and to a lesser extent in solar panels, for obvious reasons), but most internationals are disappointed by the recycling system here, which is far from being the best in the world (Denmark doesn’t even make the top 6). It is a pale comparison to San Francisco, or even to the German neighbour, who manages to make it work better, with a much larger population. No composting, no sorting of plastics in different categories, and I have seen many large items in great shape, like couches or tables be collected by the municipality, compressed in a truck to be incinerated. As for vegan options (as meat consumption is the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and destroying forests and ecosystems, so switching to a vegan diet is a good way of being eco-friendly), they are very limited in Denmark, where the national dishes revolve around pork and beef. So not exactly a leader here either.
2- Everybody speaks English in Denmark, so you don’t need to learn Danish
The first part of the sentence is true, the vast majority of Danes either speak fluent English, or at least can understand an English speaker. This is due to their early exposure to American movies and songs, as opposed to France or Germany dubbing all movies. And this is very handy when you visit Denmark as a tourist. However, if you wish to stay in Denmark, get a job and make Danish friends (although that latter part is a bit more complicated than just the language, see why here), you absolutely need to learn Danish. Yes it is tough to learn (mostly the reading and pronounciation though, grammar is simple), yes it is only spoken by 6 million people, but without it you will not get a job with any kind of customer contact, not even being a waiter. So get started now! 🙂
3- Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world, so people must be super friendly!
I wish it were that simple. But to be honest I think (and I’ve heard it from other people) that what is measured in the World Happiness Report is contentment, satisfaction, which the Danes attain rather easily, as they tend to prefer enjoying the small things of life instead of having big ambitions. In fact you don’t see them jumping around in joy, smiling all the time, or demonstrating happiness in any grandiose way, and they will never ever come and chat with a stranger on the bus. As I talked about in another post, meeting Danes and developping a relationship with them takes time, and it’s in their culture not to bother people if they meet randomly in the street, or not to want to make new friends all the time. They value meaningful relationships with the time and attention that this requires.
4- Denmark is a progressist democracy, so there are no racists here
Many internationals (myself included) are startled, when they begin to understand Danish enough to follow political debates, about the way Danish media and politicians talk about immigration and foreigners in general (in their rhetoric, they separate “western” vs “non-western” immigrants, yet nobody can clearly explain to me what is “western”). Some label it as racism, but in my opinion, it has to do with the fact that Danes talk very openly about the challenges of immigration and integration, while many other countries tend to avoid talking about it, or use a very careful language when doing so. There is also a part of ignorance or maybe naivity, as the Danes are a very homogeneous people, with no history of colonization or mass immigration, and therefore simply do not know how to behave with people who are not like them, or what is offensive to some cultures. For example during the introduction week at university,the dress-up theme was America (they call it the Western party). One student dressed up as Barack Obama, certainly out of admiration, as Obama is very popular here. But that included painting his face black, which was understandably met with shock and anger from some people who saw it as a reenactement of ancient racist practices. The year after, someone dressed up as Donald Trump with an orange face and a wig, showing that the intention was the same, just care-free dress-up. However this time nobody was offended. And of course there is a fear discourse spread by some media and politicians who want to blame every problem on refugees and immigrants, but that sadly seems to be the case in many country nowadays.
So once you’ve acknowledged and moved past these misconceptions, and just realised that there is no such thing as a perfect country, you can start appreciating the good things about Denmark, which for me personally are:
– The Danes are laid-back and informal
Pyt means “just let it go, doesn’t matter”, and I think it’s a word even more important than the very hyped hygge. That’s how they achieve contentment. Danes rarely ever complain, even when it’s past midnight and it takes double the time to get from Copenhagen to Aarhus, because the train tracks are being renovated, including two changes and a crowded bus ride in the middle of Funen island. I was truly amazed that people were still smiling there… They also never try to feel better by making others feel worse. Arrogance, big egos or superficial judgements have no place in Denmark. All in all, they don’t take themselves very seriously and they have empathy for others.
– Life is easy here
No corruption, no war, no violence, no thieves, no political oppression, no street harassment, free education, free health care, good work-life balance. You can trust your neighbour and the welfare state has your back to take care of you and your family if you suddenly can’t. Having your basic needs covered is the solid foundation that one needs for a fulfilled life.
– Nothing is taboo
Naked bodies, stretch marks, peeing your pants, finding your newborn child ugly, religious extremism, there is nothing that you can’t talk or laugh about in Denmark, and in doing that you never have to fear people’s disapproval. They value freedom of speech very highly. And as one of my favourite quotes from Voltaire goes “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. I think I have found the right country for me.