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Denmark - Personality of the Danes

Danes are brought up to question authority, which makes them powerful innovators. This small country is constantly coming up with revolutionary approaches to design, environmental science, pharmaceuticals, biomedicine, food, agriculture, and many different types of technology.

Common to all Danes is their tendency to take the ups and downs of life with a touch of irony, often self-irony. Foreign spouses in mixed marriages often complain that they find it difficult to understand what their partners really mean because they tend to say the opposite of what they think, in keeping with the nature of irony. The tone between Danes is relaxed. Almost everyone is addressed by the informal “du”. The formal “De” is rarely used and only when speaking to an older, distinguished person. In the schools, the pupils are on firstname terms with the teachers.

With an open economy and great dependence on what is happening in the surrounding world, the Danes have benefited from their open and international attitude. Thus they consistently support maximum free trade in the world. Over the years, there have also been traces of local insularity, snobbery and conformity. It was best not to be different. “The Ugly Duckling” of the fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) is given a hard time because it is odd.

The Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose (1899-1965) invented the concept “Janteloven” (“The Jante Law”) with the bigoted rules he felt dominated his birthplace, a provincial town in Jutland. The (fictitious) rules include: “Do not imagine you are anything special” and “Do not imagine you can teach us anything”.

For a time, Denmark experienced very violent clashes between biker gangs such as Hells Angels and Bandidos, but through the mediating intervention of the police, relative peace has descended since 1997. A hood ban has been introduced as one of the measures against riots by autonomous groups. The police do not use water cannons for street disturbances, although tear gas is sometimes used.

An area of Copenhagen, Christiania, has declared itself a “free town” and to a large extent observes its own laws and rules of conduct. The authorities have now turned a blind eye to the experiment for more than 25 years, although the police occasionally carry out raids in the area. In the past year, the future of Christiania has once again been hotly debated.

Danish youth cannot be called phlegmatic. Nonetheless, the establishment in Denmark found it overwhelming when a conflict between young people and the Municipality of Copenhagen about a free youth centre in early 2007 resulted in street demonstrations and clashes with the police.

A unique and dominant trait of Danish culture is the consensus-seeking behavior found both at the lowest level, for example between two persons in a junior league football club or a cooperative housing association, and at the highest level of wage negotiations between powerful trade unions and employers’ organisations. The effort to reach consensus and compromise in everyday life is ingrained in Danish culture and can be found at the highest level in the parliamentary system, where nine parties debate even the smallest issues in committees. The typical government consists of minority coalitions generally supported by backing parties from the respective wing. Often, however, an effort is made to seek a compromise including as many parties as possible.

A consequence of the consensus culture is the low power distance in Denmark. For example, if the Prime Minister is on a tour of provincial upper secondary schools or the Minister of Finance is visiting a university, it is completely ordinary and even expected that the students address the minister by his or her first name before asking a provocative question about government policy. This is not to say that there is not a relatively clear social hierarchy in Denmark, but it is important for the international colleague to understand that this hierarchy is often completely obscured by the daily informal dealings between Danes in, for example, an army unit. It is not uncommon to attend a party in Copenhagen and find a carpenter discussing unemployment with an actual unemployed and a member of parliament in the corner of the bar.

In Denmark the low power distance coincides with a high degree of individualism. Denmark, despite being a universal welfare state and having a widely homogenous population in terms of ethnicity and economic equality, is characterised by a very high degree of individualism. This is partly because of the welfare state itself, which has replaced the individual’s dependence on the social security and employment opportunities of family networks with a dependence on the state as the primary provider of social security in everything from health care to child nursing and unemployment benefits. This development is part of the reason for the deliberative and consensus-seeking nature of Danish social and professional culture, which leads to another characteristic of the consensus culture: the tendency to question and discuss authority and designated courses of action, socially as well as professionally.

Danish culture is to a high degree characterised by ‘Janteloven’ or the ‘Jante Law’, coined by the Danish author Aksel Sandemose. The law is a collection of 10 commandments, beginning with ‘You must not believe that you are anything’. Difficult to translate directly, the law and its commandments basically state that you must not pretend to greatness in any way or form, or your friends and social peers will look unfavourable on you. Picked up and often used sarcastically by the population at large, the Jante Law does affect Danes’ perceptions of each other.

  • You're not to think you are anything special.
  • You're not to think you are as good as us.
  • You're not to think you are smarter than us.
  • You're not to convince yourself that you are better than us.
  • You're not to think you know more than us.
  • You're not to think you are more important than us.
  • You're not to think you are good at anything.
  • You're not to laugh at us.
  • You're not to think anyone cares about you.
  • You're not to think you can teach us anything.

Possibly a remnant of a peasant culture with a small ruling class concentrated in the capital, the Jante Law is especially seen in official and social relations, where an implicit game of showing social value without showing off is constantly and subtly performed. This is so because the syndrome, basically a symptom of other Danes’ expectations of neighborly modesty, clashes with the underplayed, but still very real self-confidence of the Danes.

Danes are permitted to lose face and admit publicly that they were wrong. It is actually more of a taboo for, say, a politician to try to cover up and pretend that nothing wrong has occurred, or for a friend to consistently pretend that he is more educated or smart than your experience of him.

The phenomenon of humor is universal, but its application and interpretation is, of course, culturally dependent. What is humorous in one country, is not necessarily in another; there may even be wide differences. This is especially true in Denmark, where two elements, irony and sarcasm, dominate.

In the Danish perspective, irony is a form of expression where you, in order to amuse, state the opposite of what you are actually thinking in a way that makes your true opinion obvious. Naturally, it requires great linguistic familiarity and consciousness to decode an ironic remark. Ambiguity, self-contradictions and indirect jokes about either Danes or others are typical elements constituting the kind of irony Danes apply. For example, if a Dane botches a task completely, his or her employer could answer, ‘Well done’. However, it is not here understood as bitter criticism, but as a resigned, joking commentary.

Another aspect of Danish irony is the extensive use of self-irony, where Danes by directing the irony at themselves show to the public or their social or professional peers that they do not take themselves too seriously. Sarcasm, also widely used in Denmark, is defined as a variation on irony, where mocking or spiteful remarks are phrased in more or less humorous ways. A classic Danish example of sarcasm is when someone is attempting something without much success, and another person then says, ‘That went well’. This example is illustrative because it, on the one hand, signals to the recipient the opinion of the sender, while the recipient at the same time is pacified, since it is virtually impossible to give an answer that keeps your dignity intact and refrains from showing self-effacing vulnerability and self-irony through signalling that you do not think too highly of yourself.

An important thing to consider when working with Danes is that they are not always able to identify the borders of sarcasm, and this can, in some cases, lead to misinterpretations and affect social relations negatively, if the international colleague is not aware that this is simply Danish culture.

A British observer said: "The National characteristics of the Danish people are generosity, slowness of speech; a good humor which has become proverbial; determination almost amounting to truculence, especially in the case of the peasants; an immense capacity for hard work and sustained effort; extreme democratic principles; a strange fatalism which is a mixture of skepticism and hesitation; and finally a complete and wonderful fearlessness in throwing over traditions and prejudices." As to the great Danes, those in power and authority, "they are neither great optimists nor extravagant idealists. Their dreams are of a very practical nature and there is about them a certain atmosphere of clean and sane humanitarianism which is very attractive. They seem to carry out their reforms in a spirit of common sense which is almost scientific. Perhaps this is because their temperament is genuinely, rather than sentimentally, democratic. They are a balanced people, their democracy is broad and practical, and the type is probably nearer English than any other on the continent."

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Page last modified: 24-09-2019 19:12:40 ZULU