The program I wrote about had quite an impact on the international community in Denmark and inspired around 20 posts on the Yahoo group devoted to Foreigners in Denmark. I must admit that it even though it was intended to be a kind of cathartic exercise for me, it also stirred up something that I may have portrayed in a negative light. For this, I need to clarify that I by no means have a negative view of Danish people or the Danish culture in general. What I need to put forth is that while there are aspects of my daily life in Denmark and general attitudes towards foreigners that puzzle me, the majority of the time I am very content with life here. So much so that in many ways I prefer to live here than in the U.S. There are aspects that I dislike, however there is no such thing as utopia in any society – it is simply a very complex issue.
Life here does frustrate me at times, however it’s more a matter of understanding the culture and adapting and adjusting to it instead of expecting people to act or behave a certain way because that is what I am used to. What may seem like simple courtesy for me may just be the way people behave here that is completely accepted. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people are rude or inconsiderate in nature. To an outsider, it can be seen like this if you have not encountered this kind of behavior before.
A very, very important point to note here is that while it may not be in the nature of the Dane to reach out to others, i.e. smile, say “hello” to strangers or say “excuse me,” or switch to English when there is a non-Danish speaking person present, I have found that if you take the effort yourself, it is *almost* always reciprocated and warmly returned. Not only that, but I believe that Danes are non-assuming, not outwardly pretentious or self absorbed. They are very down to earth, direct, sincere and authentic. This is one of the most admirable traits that Danes have in my opinion and is extremely refreshing. Two posters to the Foreigners in Denmark group captured this quite eloquently here.
I suppose this misunderstanding of Danes’ attitudes is partly due to their homogeneous nature and something called Jante Law. The law originated in the writings of a Danish/Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose in 1933 in his novel A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks. “The ten rules are:
- Don’t think that you are special.
- Don’t think that you are of the same standing as us.
- Don’t think that you are smarter than us.
- Don’t fancy yourself as being better than us.
- Don’t think that you know more than us.
- Don’t think that you are more important than us.
- Don’t think that you are good at anything.
- Don’t laugh at us.
- Don’t think that anyone cares about you.
- Don’t think that you can teach us anything.”
Some young Danish contemporary thinkers have an attitude of “fuck Jante” and a famous woman handball player sported a t-shirt to promote this view, but it’s an important shift that’s taking place. Jante Law on its own taken to the extreme can be dangerous in my opinion, but a balance of it can be healthy.