Following the publication of a series of survey results by Worktrotter last week, Politiken wrote that “well-educated foreigners feel rejected”, Jyllands Posten has published an article suggesting Denmark “be more like Switzerland”, The Copenhagen Post interviewed Lars AP about “being (swear word removed) nice to each other”, and in the same paper, my colleague Peter A. Lemmich addressed the debate by asking “Are Danes really Anti-Foreigner?”. I can also refer to our own on-going survey and debate on the Expat in Denmark Blog.
What do the surveys tell us? The Worktrotter survey posits that 54% of the respondents feel that Danes are very, generally, or kind of open. 34% answered “not really”, and 12% don’t think Danes are open to foreigners at all. Interestingly, respondents are also asked to specify why they answer what they do, explaining that their impression of the “openness” is a result of, for example, social interaction, government and authorities, media, language, or the general feeling of not “being treated as equals”.
In my opinion, the report lacks some important methodological considerations resulting in a too simplistic view of a complicated issue; not least what is meant by “open”? Is the foreigner / newcomer / Expat supposed to represent the respondent or a general definition? Do superficial impressions of Danish authorities, politics and media constitute a valid argument?
Moreover, from our own surveys and especially the extensive surveys the like of which have been compiled by Oxford Research in their Expat Study (the latest version being published next month) , the picture is far more complex and sophisticated than can be dealt with a solitary question. For example, yes – a majority of expats feel that Danes could be more open with them. However an even higher number of the same group state (1) that they find Danes friendly and (2) that Denmark is an excellent place to live? A clear picture? As clear as mud, and in need of serious discourse.
Of course, the overall message is one which generally underlines what we have known for quite some time: that retention isn’t just a question of lowering taxes or building more international schools. More than anything else, it’s feeling a part of the society you’re living, working or studying in. At the very least, as part of the local community of foreigners or Expats.
The survey results also demonstrate that it’s still early days for the Expat community – Denmark has only recently experienced an expatriate influx which is both visible and permanent. As we have mentioned before, Expats in Denmark are true pioneers! Society and social culture is only just trying to understand what is going on, and what the practical implications of a new, modern, multi-cultural Denmark are. What is Danish social culture? How do we interact with each other? Until recently, Danes haven’t had to address their social discourse, not to mention its effect on foreigners – expatriate or otherwise. That’s why debates like these are so important, just so long as we recognise the complexity, dynamism, and maintain a positive and constructive attitude.
Danes are generally hesitant of initiating contact with foreigners because they don’t want to ‘trænge sig på’ – to intrude others’ privacy! (Dennis Nørmark)
So what can we do about it?
Well, first of all we (Expats and Danes alike) need to try to understand the Danish social culture and code. Danes won’t change overnight. No ‘big red button’ exists which can be pressed. Had it existed, I’m sure it would have been pressed long before now! In other words, if we wait for Danes to “open up”, we’re in for a very long and frustrating wait.
Dennis Nørmark, anthropologist, commentator and consultant at Living Institute confirms this: “If you wait for the Danes to take the initiative, you’ll probably be waiting forever”. According to studies, however, this isn’t because they don’t want to meet expatriates. Danes just generally don’t initiate contact with people they don’t know in advance, or know through someone or something. As Lars AP, the man who wants Danes to “be nice” says, 42% of Danes don’t intiate contact because they respect the privacy of the other. As Dennis Nørmark puts it, “Danes are generally hesitant of initiating contact with foreigners because they don’t want to ‘trænge sig på’ – to intrude others’ privacy!”
This cultural trait doesn’t just apply to foreigners – as any Dane will tell you, it applies to other Danes as well! In other words, they’re actually trying to be nice by showing you that they respect you. It seems cold (and no, it’s not exactly the latino spirit), but in, by far, the majority of cases it’s neither racism, xenophobia or particularly anti-foreign.
The logical consequence then is for Expats to initiate the contact. We need to be “first-movers” and challenge the social bubble that surrounds the Danes. Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but you could try to invite a colleague out for a beer, a couple you’ve met over for an informal (!) dinner, or suggest a family activity if you have kids. If you’re learning Danish, you might suggest a weekly 1-hour coffee+language session. Just remember to keep the relationship light, and expectations realistic and clear.
Books like the Xenophobes Guide to Danes are a wonderfully entertaining read, and do indeed point to many of the traits that frustrate expats. There are, however, around 30 Xenephobes Guides to various nationalities, not just the one book about the Danes. One might pause to wonder why.
If Danes really are cold, then we probably just need to chill. Denmark and the Danes will surely open up over time, but they’re not going to do it on command, and they’re not going to do it without the patient warmth of the Expat community.