Xenophobe's Guide to the Danes

Xenophobe's Guide to the Danes

by Helen Dyrbye

ISBN: 9781906042271

Publisher Oval Books

Published in Humor & Entertainment

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Sample Chapter


Nationalism & Identity

The Danes and their neighbours

Denmark is a Scandinavian country, but not a very Scandinavian country. It has no midnight sun, no ski-jumps and no reindeer.

Outsiders tend to think of the Scandinavians as all the same, but they are not. The Norwegians are like the Scots; a hardy mountain folk. Swedes are the Prussians of the North; they stand up straight, dress alike and do what they are told. The Danes are more relaxed and easy-going. They sit down: it increases the chances of everyone seeing eye to eye.

The differences between these three peoples are best understood by considering the most famous writer of each country: Hans Christian Andersen for Denmark, Ibsen for Norway and Strindberg for Sweden.

They are also reflected in attitudes to alcohol. In Denmark alcohol is freely available and relatively cheap. In Norway and Sweden alcohol is pricey and sales are under state control; a licence is needed not just to sell alcohol, but to buy it. This is good news for Copenhagen bars, which do a lively trade selling Danish firewater to thirsty Swedes and Norwegians on the razzle. No Swedish politician would ever be seen with a beer in his hand, but Danes are happy to see Danish politicians not only holding a beer, but drinking it – although they baulk at footing the bill if it's done 'outside office hours'.

The Danes think of their neighbours as they would members of their family. Denmark is the baby sister whose idea of fun occasionally shocks. The other Scandinavian countries are of course brothers. Finland is the one who is moody, unpredictable and possibly autistic. Norway is accepted as equal, perhaps even slightly envied for its oil wealth, natural beauty and exclusivity. Sweden is the boring older brother who thinks he knows best, is well dressed, well behaved and infuriatingly politically correct. However, Sweden offers lower tax, cheaper housing and luxury cars at giveaway prices compared with Denmark. Younger Danes have a sneaking admiration for the Swedes that they try to keep hidden.

The Swedish countryside is much admired and many Danes holiday in Sweden, but they feel somehow that Swedes don't deserve their wonderful surroundings. In Danish eyes Sweden is a cultural and human desert. There are rules about everything and you need a second mortgage to stand a round of drinks. Both countries have fines for dogs fouling the pavement, but in Sweden you actually get caught.

In the spirit of New Europe, Danes try very hard to like the Germans, but it's hard work not to bite the hand that feeds them. Danes are convinced that the Germans are trying to take over Europe, cunningly disguised as tourists. They are intensely concerned that the pølse tyskere (sausage Germans) will buy Jutland as soon as they get the chance and turn it into a windsurfing centre. Germans regularly fall asleep on their sailboards and have to be fished out of the North Sea halfway to Grimsby by the long-suffering Danish air-sea rescue service. All the summer houses are rented out to Germans, there are even German editions of local newspapers, and LEGOLAND, complete with a part of the Rhein Valley, is filled to the brim with Germans determined to enjoy themselves.

However, Germans are more acceptable if they buy plenty of Danish products. They are also partially forgiven for being German if they employ Danes in their businesses.

Inflation in Denmark is negligible, the economy is strong and technical development is world-class – not bad for a country with a population roughly that of South London. The Danes attribute this success to their having all the virtues of their neighbours and none of their vices. They share the Germans' methodical attention to detail and the Swedes' egalitarianism and level-headedness. Gone is the plodding, constipated German imagination (or lack of it) and the dreary Swedish party-pooping pedantry. According to the Danes, what's left is a unique mixture of conscientiousness and informality that makes Danish overseas travellers breathe a sigh of relief when they cross the border home.

High fliers

The Danes fly their flag with pride. The red and white 'Dannebrog' against a clear blue sky is enough to bring a tear to their eyes. Rural inhabitants invariably have their own flag pole set squarely in the middle of their garden. Town dwellers rent an allotment and plant a pole along with their broad-leaved parsley. Both have lists of dates magneted to the fridge giving details of when to 'let rip' – public holidays, festivals, state visits, their own birthdays, anniversaries, etc., and town 'fêtes' when flags line the main street to remind everyone that the local shops stay open late that night.

Danes who cannot fly flags out of doors have mini flagpoles as part of their table decoration for high days and holidays, and even fly the flag on cocktail sticks. Shops and advertisers use the flag to promote their goods, and Danish football fans were the first to paint their faces with their national flag.

There is nothing threatening about this nationalism. As a nation, the Danes have not been a threat to anyone for hundreds of years.

How they see others

The rugged individualism of American society is at odds with the importance which Danes attach to social cohesion. Americans are seen as an essential ally and the scientific research they generate is admired, but if a situation is approaching unacceptable levels, for example, Danish children are being fed too much fast food, a Danish academic of some description will appear on the news proclaiming that Denmark is hurtling towards an 'amerikansk tilstand' (an American state of affairs).

The British are regarded as class-ridden with Dickensian social values, a view supported by costume dramas shown on television. This does not prevent Danes from showing great enthusiasm for the English language, English pop music and league football. Though deeply censorious of the Germans and pitying of the Swedes, the Danes are angels of patience and tolerance when it comes to the English. The drunken buffoonery of English football fans is met with smiles of understanding. The sight of an English football fan halfway up a lamppost swilling beer from the anus of an inflatable rubber pig caused little more than some shaking of heads. A German or a Swede would have been arrested and heavily fined.

The Danes look on the outside world confident that they may not have achieved a perfect society, but they are closer to it than most other people. There are really only two things that Danes may envy other nations: one is warm winters, and the other is a beautiful language.

How they see themselves

Efficient, environmentally conscious and generous to those less fortunate are how most Danes would describe themselves and their society today. However, behind this idyllic description lurks the Danish tax man, 'skattefar' (tax daddy), wielding more power than George Orwell's Big Brother.

The substantial taxes needed to support the well-developed welfare system (about 50%) are chalking up an ever-widening distinction between those who work and those who don't. Scratch the surface and you find that the Danes' image of themselves varies a great deal. At one extreme there are self-employed Danes who see themselves as freedom fighters manacled to an interfering state. For them, hours of extra paperwork mean that a working day often stretches into the night, and 'black work' (moonlighting) is a national sport. At the other extreme, more and more Danes are languishing on one of the highest unemployment benefits in Europe. The majority of the working population jogs along on the verge of Utopia, somewhere between the two.

The tax situation might explain the Danes' love of a good deal. Haggling is not unusual and impromptu flea markets are common. Non-money transactions are also popular. "I'll paint your windows if you update my website" (Copenhagen). "I'll swap you a pig for your trailer" (Jutland). It's another way of diddling the taxman.

Taxes aside, Danes know with 100% certainty that Denmark is the best country in the world. To debate this immutable truth is evidence of mental instability. Denmark took top place in the 2012 United Nations World Happiness report – a fact that was only surprising to non-Danes. Deep down Danes believe that being Danish is a privilege and makes them special. They say that if Scandinavia is a bowl of rice pudding, Denmark is the 'smørhul' – the golden hollow in the middle, full of melted butter. Ask them why, however, and they are unlikely to be able to string together enough positive adjectives to convince you. Sentences containing more than two such words prompt most Danes' innate 'anti-brag' filter to kick in. Positive words used by youngsters to mean 'cool' include fedt (fat) and sej (tough), both of which can be applied to bacon.

The Danes' mission in life is to help the rest of the world to see just how wonderful Denmark is. They feel sorry for all the poor souls who aren't Danish, have never visited their country, or otherwise live in heathen ignorance of their land of milk and honey. However, they cannot bring themselves to boast about how fantastically lucky they are so they use an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to get others to see the light.

How they see other Danes

Even a country as small as Denmark has strong regional differences. Copenhageners make great show of not being able to understand some of the thicker regional accents in Jutland and regard travelling there with foreboding. For them it's full of scowling, muscle-bound yokels itching to put the city slickers in their place. Jutlanders are also seen as rural masters of understatement. According to popular belief, the Jutlander rarely says anything downright positive, for example when asked if he wants coffee, he doesn't say "Yes", he says "I wouldn't say no."

Jutlanders see Copenhageners as a bunch of lily-livered, silver -tongued fops who like nothing better than doing them an injustice. They claim they are "not as bad as all that". In fact, all Danes have a better opinion of themselves than they allow themselves to express.

How others see them

The Danes are seen as the epitome of good order and good sense. They are not very excitable or romantic, they have neat painted houses set in neat countryside and they're good at business – a bit like the Swiss, but without the mountains.

Their language is unlearnable, their cultural identity elusive, but once their occasional childlike lack of tact is forgiven, everyone likes the Danes. It is difficult not to like the creators of LEGO, the producers of so much bacon and butter, and the brewers of (probably) the best beer in the world.



Today's Danes are a peaceable people. The only helmeted warriors left are bikers. When the Danish Vikings colonised the British Isles, they must have taken with them all the most unruly elements. Ever since, the British have behaved like Vikings, while the Danes have constructed a modern liberal welfare state where everyone is cared for, and their football fans are generally models of propriety.

Denmark is a land of modesty and moderation. This is largely a consequence of the Danes' sense of social responsibility. The touchstone of any activity or point of view is whether it is samfundsrelevant, that is, socially useful.

Indoctrination concerning the individual's responsibility begins early. Danish children are brought up with stories featuring Teddy, Chicken and Duckling. Teddy and his friends regularly face the conflict of individual needs versus the common good. The peak -rated televised version shows the characters having a witty and wonderful time, eating, drinking, dancing and laughing, so the young get the idea that social responsibility does not have to be onerous. Adults are still enchanted, not so much by the message as by the sight of three grown-ups wearing fur costumes, huffing and puffing about in a forest while trying to sing and avoid heatstroke in unison.

However, to really get to grips with the Danish character one needs to understand two words: hygge and Janteloven.


A love of or need for hygge is an important part of the Danish psyche. Hygge is usually inadequately translated as 'cosiness'. This is too simplistic: cosiness relates to physical surroundings – a jersey can be cosy, or a warm bed – whereas hygge has more to do with people's behaviour towards each other. It is the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality, and contentment rolled into one.

Friends meeting in the street might say that it has been hyggeligt to see each other, and someone who is fun to be with can be called a hyggelig fyr, when he would hardly be described as a 'cosy fellow'. The truly emotive depth of the word hyggelig is best captured by considering its opposite, uhyggeligt, which means anything from cheerless through sinister to downright shocking and grisly.

To have a hyggelig time is social nirvana in Denmark. Candlelight is used to encourage a hyggelig atmosphere. The Danes love candles and use them everywhere, both in public at cafés, bars, restaurants and offices, and in the home where they are put out along with the cat last thing at night. The dim lighting helps to soften the clean, uncluttered surfaces and uncompromising white walls that are typical features of Danish living rooms. The ideal is to have a Christiania kakkelovn (antique stove) or an open fireplace and feel the warmth from its hyggelige glow.

Achieving hygge generally involves being with friends and family, and eating and drinking. Older Danes are horrified by youngsters who hygger themselves alone on the sofa with a rented DVD and family-size bag of sweets.


Whenever there is a group of Danes at work, at the sports club, even when supposedly letting off steam, group pressure is evident. Danes even applaud in unison.

This code of conformity was first put into words by Aksel Sandemose, a Dane who was so weary of its effects on the people in the area of Jutland where he lived that he broke ranks and moved to Norway. He then wrote a book about life in a fictional Danish town called Jante, which was governed by laws (loven = the law) that described the deep-rooted social attitudes he had observed.

The core of Jante's laws is that anyone who sets himself above the rest of the group will be knocked off his perch. There are ten commandments, so similar in nature that one or two are enough to put any would-be Danish individualist squarely in his place:

1 You must not believe that you are anybody.

2 You must not believe you are as important as us.

3 You must not believe you are cleverer than us.

4 You must not deceive yourself that you are better than us.

5 You must not believe that you know more than us.

6 You must not believe that you are more than us.

7 You must not think that you are good at anything.

8 You must not laugh at us.

9 You must not think that anyone cares about you.

10 You must not believe that you can teach us anything.

The code is so ingrained in the Danish mind that a good many believe it originated in the Middle Ages. In fact, it was written in 1933. Though created in irony, these codes have become crystallised in a set of modern-day values every bit as entrenched as the fictitious ones:

1 You must believe everybody is somebody.

2 You must believe everyone is as important as everyone else.

3 You may be cleverer, but that does not make you a better person.

4 You must believe everyone is as good as you.

5 You must believe everyone knows something worth knowing.

6 You must think of everyone as your equal.

7 You must believe everyone can be good at something.

8 You must not laugh at others.

9 You must think everyone is equally worth caring about.

10 You can learn something from everyone.

Every now and again the media focuses on the question of whether Janteloven still exists. Although many people say it no longer does, Danish behaviour proves that Janteloven still casts a long shadow. For example, if an author is naïve enough to give a fellow Dane a manuscript of a story he is writing, the Dane will read it, give it back and say, "I read another book about the same subject last year." Park a brand new car in the driveway and the questions begin. "Is it a company car?", "Bought it second -hand, did you?", "Someone leave you a little legacy then?"

It's a foolish Dane who bursts in on his friends, brimming with excitement and announcing "Guess what, I've just won a contract to sell a new kind of water softener!" The right way to handle this is to walk in looking tired and announce that you've just come back from a really tough meeting; then wait to have the good news drawn out of you like a rotten tooth.

The spirit of Janteloven makes life difficult for Danish copywriters. Companies dislike drawing attention to their achievements, or pointing out their strengths, preferring to distance the accomplishments from the people who achieved them. This results in a palatably modest, or even humble, tone.

Excerpted from "Xenophobe's Guide to the Danes" by Helen Dyrbye. Copyright © 2013 by Helen Dyrbye. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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