Thanks to the internet there are endless hours you can spend researching what it will be like to live abroad. But there are some cultural norms that only in-person experience will uncover for you, as one Yorkshire lad is discovering on arriving in Aarhus.
By Andrew Knowles
Before you move to a new place – especially when you’re just about to leave – it’s quite easy to let your imagination run wild with irrational expectations; of various exaggerated hopes and fears of what the new life will be like. For Denmark, I based my expectations largely on anecdotal evidence; on things I’d read on travelers’ forums online. So I didn’t really know what to expect when I arrived from the UK in August, apart from obvious things like the fact it’s hugely expensive here and that the official language is gobbledegook.
It turns out that is pretty different. The cultural differences I’ve noticed aren’t exactly numerous but are certainly existent. Despite often being lauded as the ‘happiest country in the world’, Danish people – particularly on the street – seem awfully morose and cold. This is particularly telling considering I come from the UK which is well known for being a nation of relentlessly dour moaners. The women here seem to exude a particularly austere persona to outsiders, due to the fact that they wear mainly dark colours, in a conformity general Mao would have been proud of. When watching the emotionless expressions of Danes moving to their next dinner party, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d all just been told that beer prices had just doubled, or trebled, even.
As I just alluded to: Danish people adore dinner parties. They seem to be a crucial part of the social life of your typical Danish student. My common room is often full of industrial–sized Dinner parties, characterised with abundant candles and copious miniature Danish flags. From what I’ve heard this is an accurate reflection of normal student life. It certainly makes a pleasant change from the incessant binge drinking that British students often revolve their lives around. The Danes do drink but not in the obnoxiously dangerous way us Brits across the pond do.
I had read that Danes can come across as exceptionally reserved and sometimes rude. I have found this to be true. I’m used to a culture where you’re basically expected to apologise for everything to everyone, as much as possible. For example, when trying to move passed people in the bus, or even if someone bumps into you on the street, you just have to say sorry. The politeness of Brits is always surprising since people moan and whinge like it’s going out of fashion. But I don’t think it’d be controversial to say that politeness is as important to us as humour is.
But it’s different here; it’s incredibly rare for someone to look behind them when passing through a door and hold it open; most of the time doors are happily left to slam in your face. When someone needs the toilet in busy bars and nightclubs, they’ll transform into a human bulldozer and plough through the revellers until they reach the loo; there’s no squeezing through gaps of people here. Of the few times people have accidentally bumped into me, I’ve only heard “Undskyld” muttered once. But of course, Danes don’t consider any of this rude at all. It has been explained to me that this is because of the Danish mentality, where individualism is a central tenet.
I think the best things about Denmark can be found out without living here. University education is free, and everyone gets paid to go, the health service actually functions and although the social welfare system is hugely expensive, it pays off; Denmark has the highest social mobility in the world, far higher than in the UK (particularly in England), where the top universities (and jobs) are disproportionately filled with pampered privately educated students. In Denmark the society is probably as equal as it can get, and the numerous social indicators that Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia top show for it.
Also, cycling here is a big deal. In Britain the cycling infrastructure is anorexic, badly designed and underused. Here, the cycling infrastructure is the complete opposite of those things; you’d only see so many cyclists along one street in the UK during a charity bike ride. And crime here is much less of a problem. For example at the university’s maths department there’s a massive coat room which is unlocked and literally open to outside, and people leave their coats there for a whole day. If a room like that was discovered in London, the valuables would quickly be stolen by local petty criminals within a few hours. But at least they’d hold the door open for each other as they left.
Andrew is studying Biology in Aarhus for one year on exchange, his home University is York in the North-East of England. He’s previously dabbled in student media in before writing for Jutland Station.
Eds note: We want to hear from expats and Danes alike about your experiences navigating the cultural minefield that is being a foreigner. What makes your background unique and how does that fit in with your experience settling into life in Jutland? Alternatively, if you’re Aarhus born and bred, then what were the cultural differences you experienced when trying to live like a local in another country? Or perhaps you’re half Danish or a second-generation Dane with multiple cultural identities? We’re interested in getting under the skin of this place and that means exploring how how different people view life in Jutland. Pitch us your ideas for an opinion piece on cultural differences and similarities to email@example.com.