Paradoxes of “Danskhed”
After spending a semester in Denmark, I can confidently say that I got the most cultural insight by living with a host family. While talking with and observing my host parents, host brothers, and host relatives, I discovered things that supported and challenged my initial assumptions about Danish culture. Richard Jenkins states precisely what was most unsettling to me during the semester: “Everyday lives and everyday worlds are, routinely, full of paradoxes… Identification, the complex process of knowing who’s who and what’s what without which everyday life wouldn’t be possible, is just as paradoxical as anything else” (292). Jenkins means that not everyone in a culture is the same and cultures inevitably have contradictions. I learned the paradoxes of “Danskhed” or “Danishness” not only in my classes, but also by living an hour outside of Copenhagen in the sleepy town of Gevninge with my “host guides,” so to speak.
Alexander Kjerulf, an author and speaker about occupational happiness, talked to my positive psychology class about thriving in the workplace. He said that if one does not get feedback or acknowledgement for his efforts and achievements, he may become dissatisfied with his job. Kjerulf mentioned that this may pose a problem for Danes since Danish co-workers don’t greet or praise each other as much as co-workers in other countries.
After the lecture, I observed that Danes praise each other less frequently than me and my American counterparts. For example, I noticed that no one commented on the dinner that my older host brother made for us one night. In my family, it’s rude not to openly appreciate the deliciousness of my parent’s meals. If you don’t explicitly say, “this is delicious,” a nod, smile, or thumbs-up is sufficient. Since I thought the silence and blankness was odd, I purposefully said “Mmm” and told him how great the flavors tasted. He blushed shyly. A couple nights later, when I cooked paninis, I wondered if they would give me positive affirmation. I waited for a signal that they approved the meal, but the only hint I got as that everyone wanted seconds. However, neither my host mom nor younger host brother complimented me. Only my host dad told me afterwards that they were “quite good.” Phew.
I think Danes praise less because of Janteloven, which states that one cannot think he is better or more special than anyone else. The law downplays personal successes. I agree with Nidedita Eskesen’s view that this is “the flip side of the strong sense of equality that pervades Denmark” (Andersen 3). Also, the collective emphasis on modesty may prevent Danes from congratulating or acknowledging one another too much, and from expecting these congratulations. Therefore, I’m sure my host brother didn’t even notice the lack of commentary, but I took offense since I use praise for reassurance.
Another baffling concept of “Danskhed” is the stereotype that Danes are blunt. I agree with Eskesen when she says that Danes are open and direct (Andersen 2). For example, Danes are widely known for their bluntness and political incorrectness. Danes stereotype and make rude comments, just as Americans do, but they don’t experience the whiplash that happens in the States. This frustrated me because if a Dane and an American made the same comment I think everyone would deem the American as “insensitive,” but excuse the Dane because he’s “just blunt.” I this relates to their idea of “frisind,” translating to free mind or spirit, which encourages one to speak his mind and live a life without judgment. It seems that Danes use “frisind” as a way to be racist or prejudiced because it encourages freedom to say and live how they want. But, they aren’t direct about everything. Instead of using their words and saying “undskyld” when they need to pass by someone on a bus or train many Danes shuffle their bags and stand up. In this situation they are not blunt at all, but are in fact, highly passive aggressive. The paradoxes continue.
When I arrived in Denmark, I expected everyone to be passionate and adamant about ecological friendliness and sustainability. This is true in some respects, but false in others. The numerous wind turbines that I saw on my commute through Gevninge provided evidence that the Danes are open to alternative energy sources to protect the environment. But at the same time, my host dad made double the amount of food we could eat at dinner and threw out the rest. Moreover, it’s uncommon for someone to take a “doggy bag” home after eating in a restaurant, which means that what is left on the plate goes in the trash. A Dane told me it’s a social norm because saving food gives the impression that you’re frugal or cannot afford dinner. Wait a minute, I thought Danes could live how they pleased without fear of being ridiculed, like “frisind” says? One last contradiction is that the only people walking around Denmark I saw with reusable water bottles were my fellow American classmates. Since reusable water bottles are scarce and water fountains don’t exist, Danes buy overpriced, unsustainable plastic water bottles. Or they don’t drink much water at all, like my host family.
They prefer their beer and wine! Christensen et al. Says that Danes are among the top smokers and drinkers in Europe, and excessive smoking and drinking are associated with low well-being. How is it that Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. Talk about contradictory! I think one reason is because at the frequent gatherings my host parents had, they smoked and drank. A lot. For every holiday, birthday, anniversary, television special, or even handball game my family would entertain company or visit others. Thus, drinking marks the maintenance of strong relationships with friends and family which correlates with positive well-being. One of my funniest memories while studying abroad was on Easter day at my host aunt’s house. Everyone had been drinking since noon and we decided to take a 4-mile walk in between the herring and main course. Beforehand, my younger host brother pushed a wheelbarrow full of jackets down the driveway. When I asked what it was for, he said nonchalantly that it was for the alcohol. I looked under the jackets and saw cans of beer, hard cider, and vodka in a Styrofoam cooler. We must have looked hilarious, 15 people marching down the winding country road with a wheelbarrow full of alcohol.
Grappling with the Danish culture was one of the most challenging parts of studying abroad. “Danskhed” has bewildered, excited, frustrated, intrigued, angered, inspired, and awakened me. I constantly compared Danish culture to that of my home culture, which means that my interpretations and feelings were largely shaped by my own cultural background. I also realized that one Danish family does not represent a whole culture. Living with a host family helped me understand the lives of five Danes, who supported and guided me through my process of deconstructing and constructing Danish culture. Now that I’m home, I continue to analyze my own identify, lifestyle, and culture with the acceptance that paradoxes are inevitable.
– Courtney G.
Andersen, Marie G. “Omnibus.” Why Are Danes so Weird? N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2014.
Christensen, K., A. M. Herskind, and J. W. Vaupel. “Why Danes Are Smug: Comparative Study of Life Satisfaction in the European Union.” British Medical Journal 333.7582 (2006): 1289-291. Print.
Jenkins, Richard. “Being Danish in the Twenty-First Century.” Being Danish: Paradoxes of Identity in Everyday Life. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 2011. N. pag. Print.
Kjerulf, Alexander, “How Can a Workplace Promote Thriving? Arbejdsglæde Nu.” Positive Psychology. 4 April. 2014. Lecture.