Danes are notoriously known for being hard to make friends with. In the 2019 report by InterNations, Denmark ranked at the absolute bottom of their ‘Ease of Settling in’ charts. But why is it so hard to make friends and feel at home in Denmark? In these two episodes of What Denmark, we explore this critical issue and try to give advice on making friends in Denmark.
When moving to a new country, one of the hardest things to do is create a new network. This network is essential if you want to feel at home in the new country. But according to InterNation’s ‘Ease of Settling in’ charts, Denmark is one of the most challenging places in the world to get that sense of ‘home’ and a feeling of belonging. It is so bad that most internationals and expats end up having only other international friends.
A place to meet people could be at work or during hobbies or volunteering, but even then, Danes will hardly ever invite people to their home or to the pub or to lunch. It can be really hard to break through that initial shell and make meaningful connections in Denmark. Something we will explore a bit later in this post
I think in Denmark we have two spheres. We have a private sphere, which is very private. And then we have the work sphere, which is for work friends. And the one in between doesn't really exist. So that's where people from abroad often tend to drown.
If we move outside of the Scandinavian countries, we tend to see some very different ways of creating social spheres. During Sam’s stay in Kenya he noted that he was often invited to the bigger gatherings but not only that, he was invited into their homes and to their weddings.
“When I was moving to Kenya I met lots of people and it just feels very ‘Ooh, I'm here and I've got people and I got this network’, whereas coming to Denmark, it was very different. Maybe there's a little nod at the school gate, or you might exchange a brief hello with someone at the office.”
When both Sam and Josefine moved to East and South Africa respectively, they also experienced interest and curiosity. People wanted to know about them and their lives, and they would go out of their way to be as hospitable and welcoming as possible.
Throughout this episode, we explore a few reasons why it is difficult to get close to Danes. From a mix of personal experience and research, here are our top suggestions.
Denmark is a relatively small country, and so you are often not far from your birth town unless you actively try to move as far away from it as possible. Therefore it is easier (and expected) to stay close to family and old friends and be able to catch up with them regularly.
Connected to the first point is this idea of staying close to old friends and relatives. Many Danes form meaningful and long-lasting friendships in their early childhoods or teenage years and maintain those into their adult lives.
Denmark does not have a big tradition for throwing parties with a large gathering. There is usually no more invited than those who can fit around the dinner table, and so we end up with smaller dinner parties of 2-4 guests. To Danes, in these small gatherings, you can be more personal and talk about more intimate subjects.
In the temperate climate of Denmark, the outdoors are mostly inaccessible during the colder months of the year. This means that we don’t have a lot of outdoor celebrations or gatherings and again, this means that the amount of people who can show up, is limited to those who can fit in cramped apartments in the city centre.
This is in high contrast to Sam’s experience in Kenya. Here, they could easily have a full-day Barbecue party where everyone chipped in and came and went as it pleased them. There could easily be 40 people gathered there at any given time. This would be unheard of in the Danish culture.
We don't tend to have a local pub or a local restaurant that we go and hang out in where you could just invite more people along. We tend to invite people into our homes for dinner parties. And for that reason, it's a bigger hassle whenever you have new people coming through.
Another reason why Danes are hard to get to know is their punctuality and their lack of spontaneity. Those Dinner Parties mentioned above? More often than not, those are planned ahead of time, usually a month or two in advance. Most Danes do not fare well with spontaneous events, and they often plan their gatherings way in advance.
Our last obstacle is the Danish concept of 'Hygge'. Hygge is an integral part of Danish culture, and it is hard to translate since it does not have an English equivalent. Hygge is everything from drinking hot cocoa on a rainy day to the feeling in your chest when laughing with your friends. It is cosy, warm and joyful.
But the concept of Hygge is also rather exclusive. It is something you share with only the people you are the closest to, and it rarely extends to the outer social circles. When this integral part of Danish culture is not shared, it leaves expats and outsiders with a feeling of not belonging. All of this combined leaves people feeling like they can never be at home in Denmark.
Once you have cracked through that initial shell, there can still be some challenges with having a group of Danish friends. The big hurdle is the language barrier. The communication itself is not so much the issue because most Danes speak English fluently. The problem is feeling like an inconvenience. If you are sitting with five Danish friends, they will speak English to you to make sure you are included and can participate in the conversation.
“My heart goes out every time I see Danes switching for me.”
Most Danes want to use their English, either because they want to practise or maintain the language. But that also means that you won’t get to practise your Danish if everything is happening in English. We will be examining this in a later episode.
The Danes want to meet you where you are. I think that’s something that shows the Danes actually do want to engage. It’s just the Danish friendship space is a very difficult one to break into.
Many theories have been used to describe different types of social spheres, and one that we will be using today, is the allegory of Coconuts and Peaches
If you consider a peach. It's very soft on the outside. You can access a lot of the peach without much difficulty. Contrast this with a coconut where it's very tough to break it open
By using this metaphor we can describe Danish relationships like Coconuts. They are hard to break through the shell, but once you have made the connection you can count on them and you have access to everything.
On the contrast, Peach relations start out very open and it is easy to become acquaintances. But it is harder to get close to them on the more intimate and private level. These people have a hard peach core
This video below explains the concept in more detail
If you want to read more on Coconut and Peach relationships, I can highly recommend this short article that examines Americans and Germans and their Facebook activity. If your curiosity is not yet sated, you can find even more information at the bottom of this blog post, where we have linked to the articles and research that we did in preparation for this episode
The direct opposite to the hard shell of the Danes is the soft peach-like Americans. Josefine has spent a significant time around Americans, and in her experience, you only have to sit next to an American for 5 minutes before you know their cholesterol levels. Americans are incredibly outgoing towards strangers and will get personal quickly.
However, the big difference is that Americans will easily let people into their broader network of Acquaintances, these softer and more unreliable friendships. It is a lot harder to get into that tight and personal sphere of an American.
The more outgoing and casual approach can still be refreshing and pleasant, even if it never comes to a deep and emotional relationship.
In these few paragraphs we are going into detail on the points made a bit earlier in this post and try to explain the reasons.
A place where the Danish convention is reinforced is in the school system. The standard middle school education takes ten years, and you are encouraged to stay at the same school and in the same class for the duration of that time. But not a lot of contact is initiated across homeroom classes or years.
Sam had an entirely different experience when growing up in the UK. There, they had a mix and match depending on which subject he had. He could be having science with one group of students in the morning and then music with another in the afternoon.
This mix-and-match is unheard of in Denmark, and a lot of Danes consider it a disservice to the kids. According to Danish parents, the kids should spend time with those they already know and are close to. This structure of “stay close to those you know”, is so integral to Danes that it is reinforced by kids and adults alike.
To the Danes there is an upside to fostering these close friendships. Denmark often rank high on the lists of “World's Happiest Countries” and these friendships are a big part of making that happen.
If you break down the elements of happiness, at its core it is meaningful relationships. Having somebody who you can rely on, who you have a deep sense of connection with. And that only really comes from having a really sort of honest, open, longstanding friendship.
In the long run, these long standing relationships help combat loneliness and feelings of isolation.
To elaborate on an earlier point, the size of Denmark might help attribute to the way they form relationships. Traveling by car, it would take roughly 6 hours to get from one end of the country to the next (the example used here is from Skagen to Gedser). But you are not expected to live in opposite ends of the country, and many Danes will end up living within a relatively close distance to their hometown. This way you can stay connected with friends and family easily.
You're expected to go home. Danes get quite upset if you don't prioritise your friendships and your family. Even when I was living across the world, people expected me to fly back when there was an important round birthday party. And I did try to go home!
We contrasted this with Sam’s experience in the UK. When he moved out to university he created an entirely new network there and rarely went home to visit because of the distance between his old life and his new.
In Denmark there is an expectation to stay close to your family. You should pick the university closest to your home (Copenhagen, Aarhus or Odense) and at most live an hour away from your family, so you are within a “reasonable distance”.
Summing up the episode:
This episode explored the why to understand the reasons and causes for how Danes form relationships. Next week, we are covering how to break through that tough and fuzzy coconut shell and we give advice on forming those close relations, so stick around for that!
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