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Danish Humour

April 29, 2021

Why can Danish humour be so confusing?

The way Danes and non-Danes choose to have their duvets is an example of something most people never even consider because it is so normal to them. It’s a classic example of “well that’s the way I’ve always done it”. In this podcast episode, we speak with Danes, expats, and people around the world to

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Why is Danish humour so confusing?

If you’ve ever spoken at length with a Danish person, chances are that their dry sense of humour has resulted in instances of confusion rather than fits of laughter.


While Danes seem to have a peculiar pride in their dry sense of humour, many non-Danes struggle with the irony and don’t get if their Danish counterpart is trying to be funny, or is just being a bit weird.


In this podcast episode, we look at our own experiences of Danish humour resulting in misunderstandings and two humour experts help pinpointing what is particular about the Danish way of being funny.


After reading you’ll get a better understanding of what Danes are doing when they’re being funny, and why Danish humour is deeply connected with Denmark’s history of social democratism.


Loving sarcasm and self-irony

There’s no way around it. Without sarcasm and jabbing comments towards yourself and others, Danish humour wouldn’t be, well… Danish.


One of the experts What the Denmark speaks with in the episode is Mette Møller who has a ph.d. in humour and rhetoric.


She explains that irony and self-irony are key aspects of Danish humour. The irony isn’t hard to detect if someone says the weather is beautiful outside while it’s raining cats and dogs, however, this mentality is taken to the extreme by many Danes, Mette Møller says.


“It’s the same thing we do in many other cases where we make fun of something that we’re not very happy about.”


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VcUS2on37oc (IN DANISH) - A satirical song from 2003 about irony, declaring it “the new humour form”.


No distinction between humour privately and professionally

One reason that irony isn’t limited to weather jokes is that Danes use the same humour privately as well as professionally.


That’s according to Lita Lundquist, professor emeritus at Copenhagen Business School and author of the book Humour socialisation: Why are Danes (not as) funny (as they think)?.


“Danes don’t distinguish. It’s the same kind of humour [used in private and professionally]. That’s very different from German and French people, who are careful not to be too private when working in an international firm for example”, Lita Lundquist says.


“I think that’s one of the reasons why non-Danes can be very surprised to say it mildly, because Danes are very direct in their reactions and use of humour. Then it’s not conceived as humour by others because they don’t expect it in that context”.

A blunt physio

While writhing in pain at the physio’s table, with a grown man deep into his groin, Sam, who is originally from the UK, experienced first hand how Danes let their “private” humour seep into professional settings.


“I was clearly in a lot of pain and my physio’s like: ‘Look, I’m sorry, mate. I’ve got to do it now, otherwise I need to go home and beat up my kids”.


If he didn’t get Danish humour Sam is certain that he would’ve thought of the physio as a madman.


“I could see that he was a little bit cautious of saying it, but he just went straight for it.”


According to Josefine, Sam should take the joke as a compliment.


“It means that basically he believed that you were in the same space and you could laugh together”, she says.


The Campfire mentality

Examples like Sam’s physio story goes a long way in explaining Danish humour, but even among Danes everyone probably doesn’t find the joke funny due to its flirtations with domestic violence.


But Lita Lundquist has a metaphor which explains what Danes try to achieve with their humour.


“We have this mentality of sitting around a campfire. We are at the same level, and no one is higher than the others. Our backs are turned to the wild outside. This creates an atmosphere of trust and complicity where you can use humour, because the others [around the campfire] will understand that it is irony”.

Freedom of speech and Janteloven

While the characteristics of Danish humour may not be so surprising to most of us, there is a good explanation behind the ironic madness. According to Mette Møller, one reason is deeply rooted in Danish society and our history of social democratism. 


Because everyone is treated as equal, being ironic towards yourself and others can function as a way to embrace being on the same level.


Another important aspect in Danish humour is the sacred position freedom of speech holds in Denmark.


“No one goes clear. We can make fun of religion, we make fun of our queen and of politicians. Having freedom of speech also means to have the freedom to joke”, Mette Møller says.


However, while Danish people believe that you should be able to say what you like, you better not be bragging. Boasting about your success can easily result in sceptical looks from a Dane.


This instant reaction is usually connected to Janteloven - the Law of Jante. Despite not being an actual law, Janteloven plays an important part in Danish culture, originating from a 1930’s novel by the Danish/Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose. 


Janteloven consists of 10 commandments, the first one being “Do not believe that you are anything”, and the theory goes that the mindset which Janteloven represents is an important part of Danish society as well as the humour of Denmark.


As Mette Møller explains, humour is a brilliant tool to instrument others, and Danes love of sarcasm sometimes come from a desire to peck people above you down.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVM049S7E7A - great Danish actor Ulf Pilgaard doing his returning Queen Margrethe parody from Cirkusrevyen, Denmark’s biggest revue/variety show


https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sandemose_Janteloven.jpg memorial plate of Aksel Sandemose/Janteloven


Olsen-banden

In some ways Janteloven plays a major role in the biggest franchise success in Danish film history - the Olsen-banden (the Olsen Gang) films.


Each Olsen-banden film follows the struggles of a group of working class small time criminals who despise the riches of the elite, but they are desperately trying to join them by completing a coup. Everytime Olsen-banden comes close, something goes wrong and they tumble down society’s ladder once again.


“I can see how that fits into the Janteloven aspects of “you’re not better than anyone”. I can imagine an American audience finding that very frustrating”, says Sam.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oh_ERa9bi6k (the clip that I also recommended for soundbites)


When outrageous goes wrong

As Sam’s story from the physio shows, Danes do like to take their jokes to edge. Almost like there’s pride in being as outrageous as possible.


Sometimes, though, Danish humour goes too far when the freedom of speech is used satirically.


“The Mohammed cartoons are such a good example of humour gone terribly wrong”, Josefine says in the episode.


Though the drawings were intended as satirical cartoons, the international community didn’t view them as such. This led to one of the largest international crises Denmark has ever experienced.


A perfect example that Danes should be aware that humour can be misunderstood, and a point which shows that globalisation affects the ways humour can be used.


Humour is an act of socialisation:

In Lita Lundquist’s book Humour socialisation: Why are the Danes (not as) funny (as they think)?, a key theory is that of humour socialisation.


Basically, the theory says that our humour is created and shaped during the multitude of encounters we have in our lives, from our family early on through school and later in the workplace.


Because Denmark is a small and homogenous country not too influenced by other cultures, the humour socialisation process is similar for many Danish people. According to Lita Lundquist, all these individual socialisation experiences eventually lead to the creation of a so-called Great Humour, which becomes a big part of the way we approach life.


What this means is that if you're not familiar with Danish customs and traditions, then you're naturally bound to have a harder time understanding Danish humour.

The language barrier

Now that we’ve been through the societal aspects which influence the humour of Danes, there is one important thing that looms above most kinds of cultural understanding: language.


While many Danish people can speak perfectly serviceable English there are a lot of little Danish words, often adverbs, which we use all the time in our everyday language, most of them are not easily applied or translated into English.


As Lita Lundquist explains, Danish words like jo, mon, vist, vel, blot are super, super important when it comes to joking in Danish or understanding irony.


Sam tells of the experience of a wall coming up, when Danes speak to each other while non-Danes are present, because the language leads to feelings of exclusion. And without the adverbs it’s harder to be on common ground when people are making a joke, because the translation will naturally erase them from the sentence. And you will have a hard time knowing that I'm joking.

Pirate joke

In practising his Danish, Sam shared a joke he came up with in Danish

  • Hvornår er en pirat mest glad? [When is a pirate most happy?]
  • Når han er i sengen med sin skat [When he is in bed with his skat]

Here skat has a double meaning of "treasure" (i.e. pirate gold and a term of endearment).

Aske and Josefine laugh were sympathetic in their laughter...


Danes, be thoughtful!

While researching for the episode, one thought has kept occurring in Aske’s head. Should he - and other Danes - be concerned with non-Danes not understanding the humour?


Mette Møller believes that being aware of how excluding humour can be helps a lot.


“In today’s society which is becoming more and more globalised you have to take into account that humour can really exclude someone”.


Perhaps, as Aske suggests in the show, Danes should be better at opening up the circle around the campfire. This way, hopefully, we can all enjoy the benefits of sharing humour.

Main takeaways

  • Danish humour often relies on irony and sarcasm. Realising that not everything should be taken literally makes it easier to understand jokes from a Dane.
  • If a Dane cracks a joke or sarcastic comment at your expense, it’s usually a compliment. Many Danish people have a weird way of showing affection; joking creates a shared sense of equality and is often used to show that you are equal and friendly.
  • The language barrier is real. Most Danes can converse easily in English, but a lot of sarcasm and irony are hidden in the small adverbs that bind Danish sentences together. They don’t always translate well, which can create a lot of confusion when dealing with a deadpan Dane.

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