4 Cultural traits about Danish people that explain their odd behaviour

04 May 2018
Article written by By Anna Balk-Møller

If you do business with Danes, you will encounter cultural traits that are quite peculiar to basically everybody else. The Danes themselves are not likely to be conscious about these traits as cultural awareness in Denmark is generally low. In fact, only 5% of Danes have high cultural competencies, while 66% and 29% have low and average cultural competencies respectively.

However, there is a good reason for this. Historically Denmark has been an enclave where homogeneity has been valued. It has been quite common for immigrants to assimilate into Danish culture as a ‘requirement’ for social survival. Therefore, the Danes have been less exposed to other mindsets than most other cultures and have not had the opportunities to develop the competencies needed to manage cultural differences. This has two foundational consequences:

  1. Danes have limited knowledge of other cultures.
  2. Danes have limited awareness of how their behaviour is perceived by others.

It is when we engage with others, that we become conscious of our own features. Non-Danes might therefore experience positive results by being explicit about the way you are and how you work when you interact with Danes. This approach can bring potential differences out in the open. For there will be differences! What is interesting is that the Danish features are consistently at the extreme end of almost any cultural dimension we can measure. And therefore, I give you four insights about Danish behaviour that might help you interpret their odd behaviour and underlying intentions.

1. Authorities, decisions and orders will be challenged

The Danes are schooled from an early age to ask questions, challenge ideas and debate positions. As virtues such as ’Democracy’ and ’Freedom of speech’ are highly valued in Denmark, it is no mystery that the Danes are competent in making up their own mind and speaking freely. But when combined with an extremely low power distance, there are not really areas in life where they won’t feel entitled to share their opinions.

It can be wearisome if you as a manager must always answer loads of questions and explain decisions when giving a Dane an order. Just be aware, that their behaviour is not an expression of insubordination. Management in Denmark is, to a large extent, about developing your employees to take initiative and make good decisions. So, when the Danes do not passively receive orders, it doesn’t mean that they won’t execute it. They just need to understand the assignment, to better assist with deciding on the best way to do it. If you are an employee with a Danish manager, it will be expected that you engage in the assignment by asking questions and filling in the gaps in instructions yourself.

The extremely low power distance in Denmark means that organisations are structured with flat hierarchies. Egalitarianism is precious to the Danes and therefore respect is shown by being at eye level. Remember that eye contact is considered an important signal of this – no matter how high or low the person you engage with rank.

The flat structure also means that very little importance is placed on titles, courtesy phrases, and clothing. This is because people are being measured on their achievements far more than on their position and appearance. What you might interpret as a lack of respect is not an attempt to be disrespectful. The Danish parameters for respect simply differs from most other cultures. Often, they are not conscious about how they appear to outsiders or are unwilling to adapt.

2. Danish trust will surprise you 

A reason that courtesy phrases are not widely used in Denmark is that Danes all have a semi-familiar bond to each other. The Danes are amongst the most trusting people in the world. Though you will experience their immediate confidence in you, this should not be confused with naivety. In Denmark, strangers are usually not that distant from one another as they all know each other in some way, have mutual acquaintances, or went to the same school or kindergarten.

It is not only the degree of trust that separates cultures. What builds it varies. In Germany, facts and information inspire confidence, while in Japan it is relations. In the U.S. it is performance, in France, it is honesty and in Saudi Arabia it is authority. In Denmark, honouring agreements build confidence.

What builds trust can also break it. When dealing with Danes you should therefore pay attention to agreements and keep to deadlines. Generally, punctuality is important to the Danes and you ought to know that in Denmark people arrive on time. For social occasions, it is acceptable to be up to ten minutes late, but no later than that (and don’t ever arrive early!).

3. You can be the best of colleagues, but you are not necessarily friends

The high degree of trust causes Danes to be less dependent on relations than you would experience in, for example, Asia. The Danes nourish a profound respect for personal life. In Denmark, a good neighbour is a neighbour that keeps to himself. You will experience that the great relationship you have with your Danish colleague ends at 4 p.m. By then, workplaces are emptied, and people go home. Social arrangements are not highly valued and especially not if spontaneous. So, if you are hoping for an invitation to a private dinner at your Danish colleague’s house, you will likely be waiting for a while as the Danish home is a very private place.

Focus on personal relations are de-emphasised in a country where people are fundamentally individualistic. Though the Danes love collective decisions, their behaviour is individualistic. An implication of this is that unless you are close personal friends, asking a Dane for a personal favour is a very transgressive behaviour and they will likely react with more hesitancy than you expect.

4. They honestly think that their educational system/health system/parental leave/butter is the eighth wonder of the world

On the old website "you know you are Danish when…" one of the answers is: ”… You know that all the flags in the world are irrelevant, because yours was first". The statement is an ironic remark about the unique Danish smugness that you will undoubtedly meet regarding numerous Danish products or social structures. Danes genuinely believe that all other people wish to have what they have.

To be ’un-Danish’ (an actual word in the Danish vocabulary) is used when ideas or behaviour are not quite good. You can’t really do anything about this character trait but knowing about it might lead you to simply smile as they bluntly promote everything Danish as the best thing in the world. However, be aware that though Danes like to talk about the superiority of seemingly endless amount if Danish wonders, they hold a deep dislike for bragging in general. There is a codex (’Janteloven’) that makes all forms of bragging or self-promotion distasteful to the Danes. So, though they might be smug about anything Danish, but they will not brag about personal achievements. And they do not appreciate others’ self-promotion either.

No matter which cultural preference you choose, the Danes are likely to be found in the extreme end of the scale. This means that Danes are consistently the most… or the least… This also means that regardless of where you are from, they will be more extreme than what you have encountered before.

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