Picture borrow from 2oceansvibe.com
New year, new post. Welcome to 2017 and happy (delayed) New Year from. This time I had actually planned to do a historical post on Copenhagen and its very long history, but I’m currently sitting in Toronto, heading to New York City in a few hours, and I couldn’t help but feeling like another post is a little more relevant. Relevant both to me and also to people outside of Denmark having an interest in getting to know the culture a little better.
To me, one of the best things about traveling is getting to know new cultures, with new perspectives and new weird habits and social rules. This is also why I rarely go on classic tourist trips when going abroad. I mean, of course, more often than not, you are completely a tourist when visiting new places. With that I mean, you don’t live there for a longer period of time and you usually don’t interact a lot with the local community.
I think a lot of times you can have an amazing time abroad on a beach or in a city, where you and your friends or family can enjoy time together and escape the everyday life, which is great. However, while still also loving these trips from time to time, I often end up not feeling like I have visited the country I’m in. Not for real anyway. Usually, I catch myself thinking “this could be any place with a nice beach and warm sunny weather” when for instance I’m sitting on a beach enjoying the sun in Spain. And this is exactly my point, ‘cause to me, that’s not visiting a country. To me, that is an escape from the everyday stress, which could be anywhere because the cultural part disappears in all the standardized tourist friendly activities, restaurants, hotels and so on. And no, I’m not saying a beach looks the same everywhere, but I’m saying that these places usually doesn’t reflect the local communities.
So what I love the most when traveling is this engagement in the place you are. I have lived with host families many times, which has been very enriching in so many ways, because Host gives you an opening into the actual life wherever you go and a longer stay with some engagement as well, also forces you to get to know the place and the people. Now I’m going to NYC to stay there and work/volunteer for three months, which I believe is another great way of getting a more complex idea and experience than what the guide books tell you.
So with all of this circling in my head, I thought an interesting post to make, which you will never find in the tourist guide books the same way, is a local trying to explain some of all the things which make a culture different from others. I’ve made a list of weird things you should expect from a Copenhagener. A last note before getting started on this, is that it’s very much on purpose I write “Copenhageners”, because even inside of a small country like Denmark, you still find diversity in habits and social rules, and I cannot call myself an expert on anything by my own city and our habits. Now, I must admit I didn't come up with all of these myself, but many of them are both common knowledge, even for us, and then I hand picked the ones I thought represented us the best. So if you’re up for getting to know our small Capital’s weird habits, then keep reading!
- Never wear sweatpants
To a Dane (especially one from the city) looking good is important. You rarely see people wearing sweatpants - not even for grocery shopping. Sometimes you will find Danes with loose trousers and somehow could be a little like sweatpants, but 9 out of 10 times these will also be fashionable trousers, meant to hang loose for a relaxed, but stylish look.
(This also goes in line with the Danish never-look-like-you-are-trying-to-look-good, it just has to look like something you don’t even have to work the slightest bit for)
2. We never ever sit next someone if there’s a free seat elsewhere
This goes especially for public transportation, which Danes use a lot (if the bike is broken or you for some other reason can’t use it). If a Dane steps into a Bus, for instance, we will scan the bus for available seats not being next to anyone. This comes with your pretty big inability to talk with strangers. Usually (especially on public transportation) the only people who will start a conversation with you is nice elderly people and the “village idiot”.
3. We can be the best friends in the world when drunk, but not even say “hi” if we meet each other next day
This is as good a description as it can get. We Danes turn into the most outgoing and talkative creatures, the moment we get a bit of the golden liquid into our body and let the ethanol go in our blood. We get all friendly and cozy with strangers, only to turn back into the reserved and slightly introverted as soon as the alcohol is out of our blood and we’ve slept the rest away.
It has nothing to do with you, that’s just our weird ways with drinking.
4. Majority of Danes do not like wearing bright colours during autumn/winter. Wear a red coat and you will be stared upon
And this does not limit to autumn/winter, even in the summertime, you will see a fashion way less colorful than most places. We don’t do bright colors and we usually stick to “Black is the new black” all the way. I even remember my old high school class were known as they one “always dress for a funeral” - I think that’s a good enough indicator of the level of black you see in a Dane's wardrobe.
5. There is no age restriction on buying alcohol in Denmark. Seeing drunk 15 year-olds in the streets (weekends) on their way to parties is a pretty normal sight
Yeah, we like our beer and we start early. In Denmark, the consumer can never do something wrong when buying alcohol and the age restriction for when the seller is allowed to sell the alcohol is as low as 16 (up to 16.5% alcohol) and if you get served or the percentage is over 16.5% you have to be 18. By tradition, youths are also privately allowed to drink alcohol even under the age of 16. Also, everyone can buy anything with an alcohol percentage of under 1.2%.
6. Danes hate surprise visits. We don’t know how to handle unexpected guests. Please, call and warn us in advance – even though you are childhood friends and see each other all the time anyway
I honestly don’t get this myself, but it’s true. I too hate surprise visits usually. We Danes just don’t know what to do when people just swings by without warning. I guess this is just another add on to our lack of social skills in general.
7. Refusing to take sole credit for anything
In Denmark, we have something called “Janteloven”, which is basically that you should not believe yourself to be better than others. I think this is where the refusal comes from. A Danes will most likely claim a success to be a group achievement, even if the person did the work all by themselves.
8. Riding a bicycle in the winter is considered normal
We Danes (especially us in the cities where nothing is much more than 30 minutes away) love our bikes. I personally can’t stand not having it. I feel like some of my freedom is taken away, as I can’t move around independent of any busses, trains, taxis or cars, so even with snow falling down and a storm warning, I’d still hop on my bike. I mean, our ancestors were Vikings after all.
9. Danes get confused and embarrassed if you compliment them
Again, I think this is the result of the “Jantelov” culture. We are not raised to think ourselves better than other, not smarter, not prettier, not more important and not better, so when people compliment us, we get confused and don’t really know what to do with ourselves, which results in a very awkward situation, making us embarrassed too.
10. Want to upset a Dane? Call us or compare us to a Swede
I think that’s a bit of a Napoleon Complex we Danes have. I don’t know how many times I haven’t heard “Oh Denmark! The capital of Sweden, right?” when I’ve told foreigners where I’m from, and it stings every single time. I personally love Sweden, but I think every Dane has a little fear of being in the shadow of our neighbor and fellow Scandinavian country.
11. If something is cozy and nice, it’s called “Hygge” and no Dane can explain exactly what this is
Even after a Danish author wrote an entire book about the concept of “Hygge”, we still can’t explain this. We have invented our own word for our own special mood, and we are not even able to share this brilliant thing with the rest of the world. I tried to explain this to my Indian host family and they got the idea, but still not entirely the whole concept.
12. If you’re at a party, approach a Dane, give him/her a hug and ask “So long, how have you been?” – Most Danes will be confused but play along for quite some time, embarrassed to tell they don’t know you
Again, what can I say? We really just have our weird ways with socializing and general communication with none-Danes (and other Danes too). We are usually nice, though, once you get courage and try to talk with us. Don’t be scared of the none-smiling faces, we light up if you start talking with us.
Okay, so basically we celebrate two of our big holidays in a very Danish way - we have a new and stronger beer coming out on the market. At easter and at Christmas the big breweries brew special holiday beers. At Christmas, we even have a day to celebrate where free beer is handed out in many bars and such. This day is called J-Day and is probably one of the busiest nights of the year for the Copenhagen nightlife - right after NYE and last day of school/after exams.
14. Swim with the spirit of the Vikings
The ocean is cold in the winter? Well, our ancestors were Vikings after all, so to many Danes, a little cold is not enough to scare one away from a little ocean dip. We even have people going out in the ocean when snow is falling. (It’s good for the blood circulation - just not too often or for too long at a time).
15. Leaving the baby alone in the carriage
My mom actually never did this, but many mothers leave their baby outside in the carriage if they, for instance, go in and grab a coffee or something similar. Copenhagen is one of the safest big cities to live in, and the countryside is even safer, so there’s a lot of trust in the community in Denmark (of course with its better and worse times).
16. Refusing to be indebted to you
This one I can relate to a lot. If let’s say you were to pay for a dinner, I would either use an app to transfer the money for my part of it or suggest that we do something after where I could pay then. Same goes for going out - you buy me a beer, then I buy you one too. Debt is not something we fancy. At all.
17. Flags. Everywhere. All the time.
Yeah, we are crazy with our flags. We put them on everything; even birthday cakes and Christmas trees. I guess with such a small nation, we held on to the romantic period’s traditions for national pride.
18. Many Danes don’t close/zip their coat even in the winter time... They would rather be cold than look uncool!
No, fashion is important to us - maybe a bit too important. Scarfs are a must and sweat pants are a no-go. I guess there’s a reason for Copenhagen International Fashion Week and Copenhagen International Fashion Festival happens every year.
19. Ask a totally wasted Dane if he or she is drunk and the answer will most certainly be “No no no no no, not at all!”
We want to be Vikings, not only when dipping our cold bodies into the even colder water in the winter, but also when it comes to drinking. So when asked if we’re drunk, we will never admit to being lightweight or anything near that. You can alway estimate our drunkenness on how much of denial we’re in.
20. Danes have no problem with self-irony and being laughed at 😉
So I hope I haven't scared you entirely away and maybe made you want to come and get to know us weirdos in Copenhagen. As I've been writing this post I've also gone from sitting in Toronto to sitting in New York City, while writing, and I can confirm that these weird behaviors are still more or less limited to us Danes and sometimes our close neighbors 😉