Copenhagen 2012: Danes Really Care

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After a month in Denmark, I certainly wouldn’t say I have any special insight into Danish culture. It takes a while to figure out what makes any new country unique, and this one is no exception.

I heard a lot about the Danes before I left the US. That they’re quiet, they’re reserved, they don’t do small talk, they have made-up letters. Intimidating, maybe, but how different could it be from the Brits I met last summer?

Pretty different. See, it’s easy to hate on the Danes for their general lack of public affection and aversion to colored clothing. Unless you’re being solicited by Greenpeace while shopping, public interactions just don’t exist here.

If I wanted to, I could spend every day busting through the streets in my hot pink coat and wondering why no one smiles back at me on the street. Come on, people. Blank stares certainly don’t make 7 a.m. on the Metro any brighter.

It also makes me cringe to imagine how endlessly friendly people like my mother might survive here. There are times when extricating our family from a routine grocery store trip involves physically removing her from the stranger she’s just made friends with. That sort of thing just wouldn’t fly in your average Copenhagen Netto.

But for me, thriving here is not so hard. Besides the fact I’m used to crossing campus with what I call my “busy face” but what my friends have affectionately titled my “don’t talk to me face,” I’m getting by well here because I’ve figured out a not-very-well-kept Danish secret. It all boils down to the difference between genuine friendship and superficial connections.

The Danes I live with and who teach my classes are neither quiet nor reserved. They don’t do small-talk, but they do want to hear about my life. They may not wave at passing bikes in the opposite lane, but they will spend six hours sitting around the dinner table with close friends and mountains of food

That’s part of the Danish hygge—a word my host family has been dutifully trying to teach me since my arrival, and which I’m sure I’ve only just begun to grasp. From what I’ve gathered, it’s a sense of coziness and comfort that comes from sharing your time with the people you care about the most. It may sound a little exclusive, and at times I think it is, but it’s also easy to understand why a culture that so values true connections might be averse to chatting up the nut vendor on Støget.

And I have to respect that attitude. I’d be lying if I said I really wanted to know how that nut vendor’s day was going. Living among the Danes has inspired me to be more genuine, to (mostly) ask questions when I’m really interested in the answers, and to spend my time with people because they make me truly happy.

But in the end, I think I like that my default is friendly. So while I might be a little more interested from now on, I refuse to stop asking people how their days are going. I refuse to stop smiling at strangers, and pets, and bikes, and attractive buildings. And, occasionally, I might even channel my mom and make a new grocery store friend.

Photo: at http://www.netpublikationer.dk/um/8583/html/chapter01.htm

Claire Wiseman

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