The Danes have no word for please

Tonight, Heather and I skipped our first post-holiday Danish course (oops!), to attend a lecture organized at the university hosted by our friends at International Community. The speaker was a Danish anthropologist, Dennis Nørmark, who spoke to an audience of about 200 people on the scintillating topic of “How to Get Closer to the Weird Danes.”

The lecture covered some unusual Danish customs that Heather and I are already pretty familiar with, like:

  • Never sit next to anyone on a bus, ever. Then, if you do have to sit next to someone, absolutely say nothing and don’t look at them, even if you have to get past them to get off at the next stop.
  • If someone bumps into you, observe that they will pretend like it didn’t happen and hope you didn’t notice.
  • Don’t hold doors for people.
  • Don’t speak to cashiers at stores.
  • Don’t smile at people. They’ll think your drunk, crazy, or American…or all of the above.
  • etc. etc.

All of that can make Danes sound pretty unfriendly, which really isn’t our experience. Denmark is just a very different place from the United States. People are not very friendly to strangers and, unlike in Minnesota, random people on the street don’t say hi to you. Indeed, the other day during a walk a man gave us a smile and a “Hej”. I’ve been here long enough that it made me think he must be crazy, so Nørmark’s anecdote above resonated.

The talk also touched on some larger points about Danish history and customs. Notably, he argued that Danes don’t realize they have lots of customs, which can make situations sometimes very awkward. For example, telling someone “Good morning” after about 9:30 can be construed as an insult (i.e., “your morning is starting kind of late, isn’t it?”) because the time of day is actually midday. Nørmark also noted that Danes’ desire to avoid conflict can create problems interculturally because they simultaneously want to come to agreement on points of debate while also avoiding situations that might be unresolvable. Religion, for example, is generally off the table.

Nørmark’s major argument was that these Danish customs, which can be so striking to foreigners like us, are part of a larger (and somewhat uniquely Danish) culture that emphasizes trust and individuality. Individuals trust each other to do what is right, to work for their own benefit and solve their own problems, and to generally follow the broad set of cultural norms (and smaller behaviors noted above). Interacting with strangers and lending a helping hand aren’t common because it would be insulting to that person’s individuality. For example, I as an American would typically be inclined to help someone who was struggling with their luggage on a train or looking lost on the street. Here, however, giving that help without first being asked could be insulting. Despite initial hesitations about offering help, Nørmark made clear that the high levels of trust also mean that Danes are ready to help out once asked. This strange mix of individuality and trust is what defines Danish culture. As another example, Nørmark said it would be quite uncommon here to offer someone free food (e.g., some apples from your trees or vegetables from your garden) but it is quite common for people to leave such items out for others to take for free.

Overall it was an interesting lecture and came with free coffee and cookies, like any good Danish event. We also signed up for a copy of Nørmark’s book, which will be delivered to us by mail with the unwritten expectation that we eventually pay for it. Ah social trust!

The most interesting part of the talk perhaps came at the very beginning when Nørmark pointed out that Danes love being casual and informal but have perhaps taken this to an extreme. They’ve removed all the formalities that typically appear in English. Because Danes have no word for please and rarely ask one another for help with things, the Danish language has evolved to have people frequently speaking in statements rather than requests. For example, sitting at the lunch table where an American might ask “could you pass me a napkin?”, the Dane will simply reach across the table and say “I’m taking a napkin.” This is absolutely true in my experience and comes in all contexts, like when shopping individuals will reach around you to take an item off the shelf in front of your rather than inconvenience you by asking you to move or hand it to them. To imagine how this works, consider the feeling you have every time you drive on the freeway and someone turns on their turn signal after merging in front of you. That is Denmark.

6 thoughts on “The Danes have no word for please

  1. I’m going to copy this for Aunt Vi. I’ll probably have to read it to her as her eyes are failing but she will like to know about the Danes. Thanks, Karen

    • Hopefully she’ll appreciate it. I keep wondering if Denmark today is anything like Denmark and Norway were back in the 1800s when all our ancestors lived over in this neck of the woods.

  2. Thomas, I love your (and Heather’s ) posts. This is so interesting; I did not know any of those things. Stranger in a strange land, eh? I have often noted how we Minnesotans randomly greet strangers on the street. Lately, I notice how we all thank the bus driver when we get off. He/she must be terrible at the job, per Danish standards! Wonder where we got that– the Germans? Keep gathering cultural intelligence and sharing it with us.

  3. Wow, must’ve been a really interesting lecture! I’ve definitely picked up on almost all of this in my time here. For example, I was in a really crowded bus just last weekend, and no one offered me (in my overdue pregnant condition) a seat until eventually an elderly woman did! But I’ve actually really grown to love the individuality/trust balance here, and has found that it’s really helped me find my ability to ask for help when I need it! Wondering if culture shock’ll hit me when I’m back in the Midwest for a visit…

    • I know I experienced culture shock when we went back to Minnesota! We went to a coffee shop and the person taking our order was really, really friendly and there was lots of small talk. I was expecting something more Danish; ordering, paying, and moving on, which would have been fine.

  4. HAHA! I just met Dennis when he came to Greenland about an Asia Insights Seminar so it was funny to come across this post. He was also talking about culture and gave the same example of good morning. I yelled out, ‘It’s morning until 11.59am~!!’ but I don’t think anyone heard me.

    I think Heather comes by my blog sometimes, and now I’ve had a read I will definitely start to come by yours! Enjoy Denmark, I had one year there as an exchange student and can’t say I really had the normal experience, but I see some reflections of myself in your interactions and musings.

    Living in Greenland now, I’m still interacting with Danes…

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