A Danish Social Life

One of the differences that I remember first noticing between the Danes and Americans was the contrast between our public personas. When I walked around the streets or rode the metro, I would try to meet people’s eyes, smile, and generally exude warmth. In return, all I received was coldness: blank stares and confused looks. I realized that Americans have warmer public personas (or at least Los Angelenos do), and this was a cultural expectation I carried with me from the States. Later, I’ll discuss what it looked like when I discovered the private lives of Danes.

Recently, I got another taste of the Danish social life. After a volunteer event for my service learning, my organizers threw a party, celebrating both the success of our event and that of the Danish soccer team, who qualified for the European cup (peep my jersey). Although I have been to my fair share of social events with my host family, this was different because I didn’t have a designated interpreter for both the Danish language and cultural encounters occurring around me. As a result, I felt more like an outsider than usual to the event and the subsequent jokes, cultural references, and traditions. This was all underlined by my newness to the organization. Thankfully, my friend Eva took pity on my predicament and accompanied me through the second half of the party. If she hadn’t, I surely would have continued to wander, feeling confused and out of place.

Danes, including the organizers of this event, are wildly punctual, but then overly laid back. What do I mean by this? For example, parties in Denmark that should last 2 hours in the States “drag” on for 4-5 hours as the hosts serve their third or fourth rounds of coffee. I was taught that when the host serves coffee, it’s a sign that it’s time to take off. But not here! In Denmark, coffee means “Let’s move to the living room and start a fire and relax. Stay as long as you’d like!”

I felt this difference most strongly when, a week into my time abroad, my host family took me to their grandson’s birthday party that lasted 4 and a half hours. At hour 2, I began to feel unsettled, thinking we were overstaying our welcome. However, I read the room and realized that I was the only one feeling this way. So I relaxed, poured myself more coffee, and let the Danish language wash over me.

Thankfully, I understand this difference now, as my service learning party was no different. There was a loose schedule for the night, but no one was in a rush. People meandered through the night and Eva emphasized the importance in greeting every person she knew at the party. So I followed as she deftly navigated through the boisterous crowd. There was a short speech toward the end of the party thanking us volunteers, but it was clear that the event and the organizers prioritized time for people to connect. If I was organizing a similar event, I would probably have created a more structured schedule, but in retrospect, I enjoyed the flexible plan more.

As I mentioned before, Eva became my bridge between my culture and her’s. Thanks to her, I enjoyed the night so much more. I think after my time abroad my relational boundaries are becoming more flexible. In my opening, I talked about the public persona that the Danes display: blank and non-forthcoming. By comparison, Americans have a higher expectation of warmth in public. We also expect that friendships will slowly and steadily grow over time as we invest time and energy. The process from stranger to acquaintance to friend to trusted person doesn’t happen overnight. We peel back our layers as we each take steps towards each other.

By contrast, the Danes are explosive and immediate relationally. They are cold in public, but as soon as you switch from stranger to acquaintance in their eyes, all bets are off. The transformation from public to private is night and day. I experienced this across the board with my host family, my host family’s friends, my professors and even my organizers for service learning. Multiple times while in Denmark, I distinctly remember thinking, “we only met an hour ago” because we were discussing anything from politics to personal trauma to familial drama.

I think this dynamic is causing a shift in my view of relational steps. I’ve found that even in the four months that I’ve been here, I’ve grown more forthcoming with my story and life experiences, as I’m more willing to match the Danes in their relational courage. Now, I’m also aware that there are ways that both over-sharing and over-vulnerability can be inappropriate. However, I think that our relational culture in the States has grown rather guarded, and I think there’s ways I can continue to push myself to the edge of my comfort zone and be intentionally vulnerable in courageous ways. This is an area of difference that I want to maintain upon return.

Also, the Danes have an enormous value for hosting. Hosting events are no small matter and this is another value I want to bring home. Both my mom and my girlfriend’s family have huge values for hosting and making people feel at home in your space, and this is something I want to tap into more while home.

An aspect that I’m excited for and that will be refreshing is the public warmth in Los Angeles. While I recognize, understand and respect the Danes’ value for a protected public persona, I love to smile at passerby and it’s a habit that’s hard to kick. I’m ready to be back in a place where that’s culturally acceptable.

While at the party (thanks to the Danes’ value for going all in relationally), Eva and I struck up a conversation about her/Danish public opinion of Americans/USA. And most of her thoughts aligned with my host parents and other host country nationals I’ve discussed it with. Every Dane I’ve interacted with around this topic are incredibly direct. There is no beating around the bush when it comes to political, social, or cultural values. It was a bit shocking at first, but I have since grown appreciative of their candor.

Conversations about the States always open with some sort of apology on my end for whatever current issue is in the news, courtesy of our sitting president. Recently, it’s been all the talk of the impeachment. That always puts a lovely spin on the conversation as most Danes, and Europeans for that matter, are well educated on international politics, and are mystified by the Trump administration. For that reason, most of my views have aligned with both Eva and other host nationals when it comes to the status of the States. However, they don’t hesitate to ask, “Why did Trump do this?” and “Why did Trump do that?”. I’ll typically respond with a sheepish shrug.

By comparison, I knew shockingly little about Danish politics and culture. I have since been well educated by my host parents, but I am always surprised as I talk to other host nationals because of how nuanced the topic is. Eva was no different as she reminded me that there’s always another couple of sides to the story, and how important it is to consider those. I often forget that lesson. Many of her explanations for those nuances aligned with my interpretations of local culture, as my host family has been my interpreter for both the language and culture during my stay.

In these conversations, language and culture are intertwined, both in content as well as the way we communicate. Discussing political/cultural differences in a foreign country remind me to pay attention to non-verbal communication/read the room, as this is also a form of language that communicates just as much as speaking. One of the main observations I continue to make is how comfortable Danes are, even when speaking about topics that are considered taboo in the States. It’s a refreshing cultural difference discerned from both their verbal and nonverbal communication.

Analyzing the party, and Danish social interactions in general, connected to Gordon’s writing in “Going Abroad” in a number of ways. Firstly, his categories hit the nail on the head. If I was going to define the way that Danes related to America, I would classify it as “amusement”. From our political divisiveness to our health insurance issues and general capitalistic values, we may still be a world power, but are a bit of mystery to local host nationals that they chuckle and shake their heads at.

Secondly, I reacted to when Gordon wrote, “It is the [power, status] that makes is seem as if they are popular after all.” In Denmark, as I said above, I’ve experienced the opposite. Not only are Danes comfortable around Americans, they consider Denmark’s current state of affairs to be superior to America (perhaps rightly so). The States consider to experience mass shootings, racial tension, a polarizing presidential figure, etc. As a result, I should have less power in Denmark. Instead, thanks to both the accepting nature of Danish social settings and my apologetic presentation as an American, the Danes mostly approach me graciously and weigh me as an individual, rather than a cultural representative of the entire American culture, and the slew of issues that come with that identity.

Thirdly, I strongly associate with the idea of an exit option. I, as a traveler, am able to engage with activities in Denmark and not necessarily have to live consequences, or at least the onerous ones. This leads me to tread lighter culturally. I definitely feel the privilege in this, especially the privilege that travel inherently carries thanks to the high monetary bar.

The bottom line is that I feel incredibly grateful and blessed for this opportunity to study abroad, and there are certainly social practices that I hope to take home with me! Thanks for reading if you stayed this long!

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