The cold Danish shoulder

Statues in Copenhagen

Yesterday a news program in Denmark on DR1 called “Magasinet Penge” or “The Money Magazine,” did an episode entitled, “Kold dansk skulder til udenlandsk arbejdskraft,” which means “the cold Danish shoulder to foreign workers.” During the show a number of foreigners were interviewed including an American couple that just relocated from Seattle (the husband was transferred with Microsoft), as well as others in Denmark working for international companies.

The main theme was that Danish companies are losing a significant amount of money because international workers leave Denmark after a short stay because of high taxes and a general dissatisfaction with life here. One of the culprits is spouses not being able to find work or integrate. This was also highlighted in a New York Times article, “Denmark Feels the Pinch as Young Workers Flee to Lands of Lower Taxes,” and then a follow on article on a Time blog entry entitled, “Are young Danes really emigrating because of high taxes?” The problem is that Denmark desperately needs foreign workers to support its growth and to be more competitive. According to this program, it is estimated that the country will need approximately 20,000 more foreign workers by 2011.

These non-Danes describe having difficulty connecting with Danes. They expressed that they think Danes are not very open, warm or friendly towards them. In general, it was a real candid look at what foreigners think of Danes. The funny part is that when surveyed, the majority of the Danes see themselves as friendly and open but very few actually admitted to inviting a foreign colleague over for dinner or for a cup of coffee/drink outside of work.

The wife of the American guy from Seattle actually stated how she noticed that Danes just don’t smile or say hello. It was such a refreshing thing to see and hear for me. I have lived here for over five years and have said the exact same thing. I simply do not understand why this is the case. It seems like simple courtesy. The reporter just chocked it up to Danes being “shy.” But, is it really just shyness? Or is it something more in the cultural fabric of society? It is because everyone is taken care of so to speak by the State through the social welfare system that people don’t really owe anything to each other, not even a simple greeting or acknowledge that you exist? I feel sometimes that people just look through me, like I am invisible.

Because of this I have sadly perfected the art of not making any eye contact with anyone when I am in public. This sort of reminds me of when I used to live in New York and learned not to make eye contact with anyone while riding the subway. The subway is one thing, but in your workplace or being out on the street and in the shops, etc. is another.

I see the behavior on the streets especially when I’m in my car. Danes have the tendency to ignore you even when you are driving. They act as though they don’t see you even though they are right beside you. If they want in, they just merge in with no eye contact. If you pull out in front of them though you will get a reaction, but it’s not likely a friendly one.

It’s something I always notice when I return to Denmark after being away for a trip home to the States. I go to the grocery store and no one, not a single person is speaking to each other. It’s a silent store with crowds of people. The check out clerk doesn’t say hello or even give you a glance. As I stand ready to pay, I feel a little bit like a ghost with a nameless face. To take this further into building relationships with Danes, that’s another matter. Danes are very private and I respect that. I know it takes a while to get to know them. I am married to one! But, it seems they have a very difficult time making casual acquaintances and perhaps view making new friends as something they don’t need because they already have all the people in their life that they need or want. For an outsider, it makes it impossible to open the door to something that may just be meaningful.

 As for the workplace, I too have experienced this phenomenon of being in the lunch room at the lunch table and everyone speaking Danish around me. I recall sitting and looking out the window while sitting at a full table and wondering if I really belonged there. But I chocked it up to experience and just sat and smiled and chimed in when I could.

The Danish Queen made her New Year’s speech as she always does this past year and mentioned something about foreigners that, “we need them and they need us.” This was also highlighted in the program. No disrespect to the Queen, but is it really good to have an “us” versus “them” mentality? Aren’t we are all human beings just trying to find our place in the world?

I guess sometimes I take for granted that I come from a country that has a very high tolerance and openness to foreigners. The only natives are Native Americans and they are considered a minority.  Americans are used to people speaking their language with a different accent or pronunciation. They are willing to take a chance and talk to and get to know one another. Many times than not they find that they have something in common or have something to learn. They may even find that they get the opportunity to reach out and help or touch someone.

If Denmark plans to be successful in recruiting international talent, then the public needs to become more comfortable with foreigners living here. Not only that, but they also need to recognize that it’s not always easy learning a new language, a new system, building a new network of friends and a new support system. It’s not just about foreigners learning about Danish culture so they can integrate, it’s also about Danes learning how to tolerate and have compassion for outsiders.

24 Comments on “The cold Danish shoulder”

  1. Hi Laura
    Your article sums up almost what every expat goes through in a foreign land. Even though I missed this program on TV I can connect with what you mention above. I am an Indian who was transfererd from the Middle East office where I was working for this Danish company. While Danes are better or lesser snobish compared to the Brits with whom I had major runs ins in the Middle East, I do feel left out because I don’t speak Danish. Your lunch time incident is something that I go through every day but sometimes they also explain to me in English since they do feel at times that I am left out. Here in our office we have the customary Friday morning breakfast which I avoid since the medium of conversation would be Danish and I have at times mentioned this to my colleagues as to why I am avoiding the breakfast.
    Same goes for meetings but then ground rule is that if I am around only English is to be spoken.
    While I was in the Middle East we had a lot of Indians working in the office from different parts of India. As you know India has so many languages and is not possible for everyone to be proficient in all languages. Even while we were in a gathering where most of the people spoke the same language and if there was one person who didn’t speak our language we would make it a point to speak in English so that the person would not be left out.
    With no friends it is difficult, so I haven’t actually been around DK and spend most of the time at home killing time,working or maybe just visit the pub for some beers.


  2. Hi Laura,
    I totally agree with you, as if you reat my mind. I have been in Denmark for almost a year now, working in an international organization. I still have no friends here. I find it very strange that my colleauge pass my desk every morning without saying good morning or just a simple hi, some don’t even smile.
    I don’t know my neighbours, I go to the same grocery once or twice a week and not a simple good morning or have a nice day.

    Coming from the middle east where people are warm, smile at each other, make jokes sometimes, they welcome you and greet with friendly smiles asking about you and the family.. i feel so isolated and lonely.

    Although workwise the danes are more down to earch but socially i must say i am suffering a lot.

    Thank you for voicing what most of us expats is going through.

    best regards


  3. Hi Laura,
    I think the more time I spend here the more I become like a Dane as you described them. Whether thats from cultural influences, or climatic influences or whatever. There does seem to be some kind of national influence that turns a person living here into the type of behavior you mention.
    And its pretty hard to remain out of that influence, living here, like its pretty hard to stay dry submersed in water.

    But I do think that this is true for every country.
    Mike [american, in for 12 years]


  4. Hi Laura,

    I was happy to read ur bolg. your openness to expressing the feelings is quite appriciative even though its just a bolg. I am from india and been living here for about 3 years now and i have experienced most of what u say. i did my masters here and i am presently working here. i can tell u danes behave very differently when they r drunk almost like if its a different person. i personally feel that danes r not freindly-type or community living people not just with the foreigners but also in between themselves unless they r drunk, kind of its the culture. n when i look at the immigrants, most of them are from turkey or pakistan, living in thier own communities (u can see if u go to norrebro or istedgade) and they r different people (if u go to pubs u can see they r trying to tease or forcibly dancing with girls when they want their women not even be seen by other men). i personally dont relate to them in anyway, i cant be freinds with them i am sorry to say this but its the truth, n so dont blame danes for doing the same. n they r all doing shitty jobs very few of them are actually in good positions in the soceity and most of them actually depend on the social benefits. i also know some stories about people working every alternate years then they could get continuous full social support. n they have been here for quite long n i guess eventually danes have grown to dislike foreigners (or not to get too close). i would guess that probably lot of foreigners from other places would change the danes. i think they need some time n thats the only thing they need. but the change might be for good or bad, denmark will probably grow into a commercial country with heirarchial society which they need to be to exist in this commercial world.


  5. Hi Laura

    Thanks for this well-written piece, which prompted me to reflect:

    I find that where I live (as well as when I lived in Copenhagen) I greeted and smiled to people in shops (and dispute those who would say that Brits don’t do that) and got a friendly response. However, that is different from the workplace, where you are with people everyday, and I agree with the Laura (and with the film) that are few invitations out from work colleagues and wonder if there is a sort of ambivalent culture of ‘don’t mix business with pleasure’… and then at the same time there is this ‘enforced jollity’ of communal social arrangements – departmental sports days and so on, which are not quite the same thing.

    What is difficult is not having a network. I find that the Danes that I work with and have worked with in the past, all knew each other or knew of each other, through old study contacts… and if you did not do your degree in Aarhus, Aalborg or Copenhagen, that makes it a bit difficult doesn’t it?

    For every ‘expat’ that is here struggling to find their way, I bet there are 10 foreigners who have settled, and are now trying to get on with careers. I live in a remote part of Denmark, no big cities, and struggle to get any further with career development – in part, it is language – although my Danish is reasonable, but a part of it is the fact that maybe we have a funny name, funny qualifications from funny universities that potential employers don’t know how to interpret… Away from big cities where they are used to employing foreigners, academics with foreign qualifications are a bit of an unknown quantity….

    So, yes, I say hi to people in shops, most of the people I socialise with are Danes (by default), I struggle with Danish in the work place (I teach), but despite all that there is an ‘essence’ that I miss… and that is hard. But whether Danes are more introverted that other nationalities, I can’t say… surely if you go to live in any foreign country you struggle with the tenuous minutiae of culture…? and I don’t know what we can do about it.

    OK – more of a rant than a reasoned argument, but I just needed to share that with someone.

    cheers, Helen


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  8. Thanks for that! I’ve just come home after driving 1 hour ten minutes from another day of isolation and xenophobia in Denmark. I came here 7 months ago with my car from my homeland, bought a Danish one for 20000kr a month ago due to cash shortages and the need to drive so far (it doesn’t strike me as a place where you can flaunt your disrespect for the law by driving an unregistered vehicle :-). The car has gone belly up already, so I’m back to driving my old one until I can find a mechanic who will help me out (they aren’t friendly either).

    Your thoughts most likely reflect those of others in this situation. I have to say that maybe you have written those passages with an… embassorial frame of mind. You should be commended for your lenient and tactful ways of making your points. I for one find it hard to be charitable in my opinions of the people here. The very fact that the governmental system seems to practically nurtute this culture of xenophobia, racism and ill-feeling to other kinds of people is one that should not go unmentioned. I have never been in any country in the world where so many people will outwardly show their distaste for who you are, and I am a white northern European (but not the much-revired British kind that they seem to aspire to be)! In my less compassionate moments I cannot help but compare this socialist society to what I believe Germany was like 60 years ago. I’m just glad they don’t have enough population or landmass to attempt what their ultra-nationalistic attitudes really want them to.


    • As i Dane I must say that this seems a little extreme. There are lots of reasons why Danes aren’t all that social compared to other cultures, but its isn’t mainly because of racism or ultra-nationalistic attitudes. I actually find this the whole blog post extremely interesting. You see for me it would be strange to be in a place where everyone would want eye contact and random social interaction. Lets say, talking to or greeting a fellow pedestrian, making eye contact, talking to somebody on the train. I wouldn’t want people to keep interrupting my business, or requiring pointless social interaction. My goal when I’m shopping or traveling or working isn’t to make friends, but to complete my task. If one wants to make friends, they can join a club, go to a bar or concert. Here social interaction is expected and accepted. Trying to force people to be social outside these situations, will be seen as rude.

      I’ve heard that Danes has it sort of reverse of countries like southern Europe, the middle east or Indian. Granted, this is just from what i heard of these cultures (i haven’t actually been to these places and could be terribly misinformed.) Were people will be polite and sociable, but were it doesn’t translate into friendship or dependability. Danes tend to only really talk to people that they are friends with, or are interested in becoming friends with. That might sound rude, but really its all about sincerity. We don’t fake being nice or kind to people we don’t know, and prefer to know where we stand socially with people. Which is why talking to people with out an excuse to will often seem suspect. As if your goal isn’t really friendship, but merely to the person to do you a favor, or pay you money.


  9. Wow! Spot on. The whole eye contact thing in the subway was hilarious. That’s so you either a) don’t get stabbed or b) don’t get drawn into a conversation with a loon.

    It’s been 7 years for me and I’m still very much feeling like a guest. And unwelcome guest. Sure at times it’s nice and would be nicer if I could actually make some real friends my age. I live in Ribe where the only people who are willing to maintain a social life are 18 year olds or 65 year olds. People my age are pretty much through with leaving the house. So it’s all relative … when I go to Copenhagen I really appreciate the cold shoulder and have a great resistance to it now. So much so that I can penetrate the frozen wall with enough booze and wind up linking up with people I wouldn’t have dreamed of talking to a few years ago! The good ol buffer – drinking!

    The grocery store phenomenon is hilarious too. I frequent the local Føtex and Kvickly and outside of the obligatory “hej” they clerks pretend they’ve never seen me before. Even after almost 2 years.

    I have often reinvented myself, acquiring a new attitude assuring myself that if I smile then they will smile. If I am open then they will be. Not easy.

    The worst are the companies and services from TDC to my labor union and A-kasse. 99% of the time someone fucks up, but nobody is held accountable. If my accent slips and they detect I’m a foreigner they get even more obnoxious and short. People say that it gets better when you speak Danish? Bull doody. It does in some ways, but if you want them to speak slower…good luck. It only means they can get away with more. Slight nuances in sounds…vowel variations and they shut down.

    Definitely more flexibility in the English language. And more reach for understanding. In the States people will extend themselves to figure out what you mean based on context. Here there is no such thing as context. If you miss a vowel you’re lost. I once returned a library book that was late. I kept saying, “den er for sent”…ok at the time my Danish was a bit poor, but the word in question was “sent”. I was saying sent like pronouncing the “e” like “Edward”. Not like “EEK”. For “seeeent”. The librarian was just dumbfounded.

    I hate being negative, but these are real issues. I have a distant eye in Canada while my Danish wife dreams of sending our children to school in this little Danish town. I think of spending the next 17 years here and I just want to commit myself into a hospital and stay drugged up. I think of the next 2 years and I want to abuse illegal substances:) Where to find them though. In Ribe you have to go to a crack den or something to get weed. Long time since the New York days of ordering it with a pizza on a Wednesday night.


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  11. Charlie and Jonathan, thank you! I often feel I’m the only negative foreigner here, but catching up on your comments makes me realize I’m not alone. 🙂


  12. well,
    yes, when u take the first step (the breaking of the ice…) and u can with danes…after a few drinks…then progress in the form of a civil friendly relationship is expected…the next day you are in square one. You could be having dinner conversation and wine and the next day you are strangers again. Intimacy has a scedule or needs and excuse for danes.
    I am an artist resident in a prstigious arts school. The other day, the girl i always see and smiles and says (hey) hi asked me a question in the elevator.
    “so, when are u going?”…
    “in two weeks” i reply
    “so its not long”…
    she looks away, still smiling, i wait for more conversation…
    elevator door opens and we go our seperate ways…

    people frown and look away in the street, (i am an ethnically arab) does that have to do with it?
    its confusing…


  13. This should be printed and handed out as a warning to incoming foreigners at the airport.

    I actually went searching google for articles on Danish culture and Danish people, in the hope that I’d read something that say’s it gets better after time…

    As if!

    Someone above me in the replies said that for every immigrant who is dissatisfied here in Denmark, there are probably 10 that are satisfied – that couldn’t be more wrong. I work in a bar here and I’m yet to meet someone who’s been here for a long period of time that will praise the culture and the people.

    Integration is a great idea until you realize that you don’t want to become more like the things you hate in the culture around. No thank you.


  14. Wauw, thank you for this post!

    As a Dane, who has been living in China for the last two years, I find it very enlightening to read this blog and these comments.
    I truly agree with you, so many Danes are completely oblivious to how hard it is to fit into another culture. I don’t know if it’s because the majority of them have never tried it themselves, but I find the lack of tolerance sickening.
    When I lived there, I did know that immigration wasn’t easy, and I despised DF and the media and whoever else wanting to tell us that immigrants are “dangerous”, but it isn’t until leaving the country that I truly realise the difficulties immigrants face in Denmark.
    I wanted to come back to Denmark this summer, but since I am engaged to an Australian it might be hard. Not only because I fear that he might be left out (even my own family, who are lovely people, sometimes switch to Danish when he’s there) but also because of the fact that it is impossible to get him into the country unless he gets a job (I am not 24 yet).
    Thanks again, very interesting to read about Denmark from an outsider’s point of view!


  15. Intersing, but it seems to me sad. Particulary becouse I`m preparing go to Denmark for living and working.
    I was so enthusiastic…

    The more I read, the more doubt I have.
    I thought Denmark is nice, tolerant country.
    But, thanks for this information. Always batter is “to know”.

    But they still have great modern, contemporary architecture, so mayby I will not cancel my plan 🙂

    Joanna, Poland


  16. I’m German and I’ve lived in Denmark for more than 7 years. I love it here. I don’t know, I don’t think the Danes are generally rude (even though they might seem to be, I’ve experienced it too – and more than once :)). They are just this tiny and rather private society.
    Very often, I think, it’s really just cultural misunderstandings and differences. I mean, I know quite a few Danes and Germans, who really struggeled in the USA with what they called “fake friendliness”. They said, they never quite knew whether people were “real” friends or just faking interest out of politness.
    Sometimes it just seems to be different perspectives of the same phenomenon.

    Or maybe I’ve just been here for way too long and don’t really notice anymore :P.


  17. Laura,

    Thank you for this article. I am an exchange students from India in Denmark. I live in esbjerg.

    Been here for the past 7 months and I have absolutely No Danish friends. In school, yeah my whole class treats me like an invisible person.

    The Danes think of themselves as very friendly people but does does giving directions to a stranger in English count as being friendly?? Yeah, sitting on the table with my class mates all speaking english, make me feel like a complete outsider.

    At parties, my class mates talk with mee as if I am there friend, we are sharing stories from our life and talking about stuff, hugging and kissing each others AND THE very next day they behave like absolute STRANGERS!

    Kinda Sad, but we Indians will never ever treat any forigner in this way in India!


    • Laura,

      Thank you for this article. I am an exchange students from India in Denmark. I live in esbjerg.

      Been here for the past 7 months and I have absolutely No Danish friends. In school, yeah my whole class treats me like an invisible person.

      The Danes think of themselves as very friendly people but does does giving directions to a stranger in English count as being friendly?? Yeah, sitting on the table with my class mates all speaking Danish, make me feel like a complete outsider.

      At parties, my class mates talk with mee as if I am there friend, we are sharing stories from our life and talking about stuff, hugging and kissing each others AND THE very next day they behave like absolute STRANGERS!

      Kinda Sad, but we Indians will never ever treat any forigner in this way in India!

      (Sorry there was a minor mistake in the 1st post)


      • I’m married to a Dane. We do live in the States, however I’m a appauled at Danish rudeness. I travel to Danmark 3 times a year to see my husbands family ,and they have actually taken up being more care free, and have accepted the fact that when i visit everyone will get a hug. Danes are extremely uncomfortable in showing emotions, and very detached even from their children. One 1 occasion we all got together to tavel to Malta. Imagine my dismay when the family appeared all 18 of us no one greeted one another. Slowly this has changed when i’m around, and they have embraced that i’m a hugger and like to laugh. As for other Danes my experience has been totaly one of their disdain for an American. When shopping, i had been bumped with a shopping cart and they just keep going… I say hey no problem it’s only a broken arm. At a check out I had a 20 something kid tell me, if your not buying something you have to go out thru security, not once did he feel he needed to explain this to me, it was more do as i say. Way to many incidents to mention, just letting off steam
        Thank you for listening


  18. I’m not American,nor Dane, but have been to many countries around the world. I agree with most things you mentioned about Danes. However, I personally would prefer strangers just to ignore than giving those fake smiles that most Americans do. I sometimes hate Americans staring with judgmental look or making sarcastic comments trying too hard to look funny or smart. It’s just stupid and ignorant.


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