The cold Danish shoulder
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.