THERE’S AN UNSPOKEN RULE in Danish society about privacy and the public sphere. Danes believe that everyone has the right not to be bothered in public, and that they should be able to go about their business free of awkward exchanges, unsolicited greetings, or general inconveniences created by others.
This silent cultural norm is something I began referring to as the Privacy in Public Act (PIPA), and slowly learned that stepping out of line in public is one of the easiest ways to provoke anger in this flock of stoic Scandinavians.
Research was gathered over 18 months of daily life in the Danish capital of Copenhagen. Some of the following strategies were immediately obvious to me, while other conclusions were drawn after long periods of observation, inadvertent social faux pas, or passive-aggressive provocations.
Tactic #1: Ask “How are you?”
I learned this one within days of moving to Denmark, and was fortunate enough to be clued in by a teacher the first time I made the mistake.
The American phrase “how are you?” is a source of amusement for the Danes — it’s a big, fat joke that Americans ask this question in passing with no intention of stopping and listening to the response. If you want to make a friend, ask this question when you have 5-10 minutes to spare. Ask it merely in greeting/passing and that Dane will probably think you’re the most insincere person on the planet.
Tactic #2: Speak their language.
As far as Scandinavian languages go, Danish is considered the most difficult to learn. Only half of the written letters are pronounced in conversation, and a combination of guttural “r’s” and soft “d’s” make developing the proper accent a lifetime achievement. There’s been recent speculation that even the Danes don’t understand each other.
Only 5 million people in the world speak Danish, so their fluency in English and other languages becomes vital from a very young age. They speak English. You know they speak English. They know you know they speak English. So attempting to order your latte in Danish is perceived by your impossibly chic barista as an unnecessary awkwardness that can easily be avoided. She rarely hears her language spoken by foreigners, and it’s easier for her to switch to English than it is to try to understand your accent.
So refuse the English and order your vee-ner-brawd (danish) with confidence. Demand the right to speak the language. She’ll go tight-lipped and speechless.
Tactic #3: Fail to signal in the bike lane.
Like all other aspects of Danish society, bike etiquette is designed to operate like a well-oiled machine. All anticipated actions should be signaled: point low to the right or left if you plan to turn, hold your right hand next to your face if you’re planning to stop, and only use the left side of the lane to pass.
Fail to signal and you will trigger a chain reaction of last-minute breaking and a string of surprisingly violent hisses from passing bikers. They work 37-hour weeks for free healthcare and childcare. Minimum wage is over $20 and the government pays for their college education. Your failure to signal is probably the worst thing that’s happened to them in years.
Tactic #4: Wear your sweatpants in public.
This may seem harsh if you’re on a budget, especially hungover, or attached to the trends of American college campuses. But venturing into the cold light of day in your leggings and university sweatshirt is frowned on, at best. If you insist on wearing your comfies outdoors, invest in a black trench coat and cover that shit up.
The advantage of PIPA is that blending in is generally easy because everyone really wants to mind their own business in return for the same courtesy. But the Danes can stare like Germans if provoked, and there’s nothing worse than being watched like a hawk with your sweats on backwards and last night’s Carlsberg binge on your breath.
Feeling disgruntled that you spent $60 on four weak cocktails last night? Bitter that foreign workers are exempted from that dreamy Danish minimum wage? Feeling wounded by your expat plight? Wear your sweatpants to the 7-11 for hangover hot dogs. That’ll show ‘em.
Tactic #5: Smile at their children (or dogs).
Years of working as a nanny has ingrained in me an unbreakable habit: if a kid stares at me on the train, I smile. Or cross my eyes and make a face. I’ve found that parents in the US tend to appreciate this casual, communal act of entertainment in an environment where meltdowns are potentially imminent and especially embarrassing. Not so in Denmark.
Smiling at Danish children will elicit awkward squirms and suspicious glances from the parent. There’s something about it that’s too close for comfort and in blatant violation of their PIPA. Never mind that their child has watched you turn the last ten pages of your book like an episode of hipster Sesame Street.
Standing in soggy rain gear during your 30-minute commute? Feeling miffed that a woman is monopolizing an entire row of seats on a crowded train with multiple bags and a small dog? Reach down and pet that dog without asking. Rant and rave enthusiastically about how cute it is. In Danish. Get in her space HARD.
Tactic # 6: Act like a human at the grocery store.
The Danes are grocery store robots. Maybe it’s because shopping is one of the few public situations in which they’re forced to cooperate in close proximity, or because budget grocery stores in Copenhagen are notoriously tiny and disorganized. But there’s something about grocery shopping that elicits a deep-seated need for order in the heart of every Dane, and they expect things to go smoothly without having to speak or make eye contact with anyone.
Refuse to play their silent game of chicken as you gather your groceries. Don’t allow yourself to be shouldered out of the way. Don’t move until they’re forced to mutter undskyld (excuse me). Look them in the eye and smile before stepping aside. Acknowledge their existence, and demand to be acknowledged in return.
Approach the register. This is where the game gets serious, and you can’t falter for a second if you hope to maintain your place in line. Half a step to examine the gum rack is all it takes for the Dane behind you to elbow past and claim your spot. And don’t be deterred by the fact that the person behind you is practically on top of you, mirroring your every inch forward as though their life depended on it. Stand your ground.
An expat friend once eloquently observed that a Dane would climb inside your asshole if only to be a few inches closer to the front of the line. But he was in blatant violation of PIPA that morning, and had dared to smile at a Danish child while wearing sweatpants. Perhaps it was the resulting glares that provoked such an extreme analogy.
Photo: Nick J Webb