Over a trendy pot of chia-porridge at Grød, the world’s first porridge-only restaurant, Brock Willis shares his experience of relocating to Denmark.
“I was mostly interested in the culture and lifestyle,” Willis explained. “Since I moved here I can see why it’s ranked as such a happy place – everything is quite perfect and Copenhagen is a very easy city to live in.”
Willis moved from Perth, Australia to Copenhagen seven months ago and chose the Danish capital because of all the positive stories he had read, and heard, over the years. And he’s far from alone in making the move. According to Copenhagen City Council, 36,000 foreign nationals moved to Copenhagen in 2015, the majority from USA, Italy and Germany. Numbers from Danmarks Statistik show that the number of foreign residents in Denmark increased a massive 57 percent between 2008 and 2016, to 468,000 – around eight percent of the total population.
Their choice of destination is unsurprising given that Denmark regularly tops international rankings for happiest and most liveable countries. Its cultural practices are now on trend, with at least nine different books all being released in the past year on the concept of ‘hygge’. Living standards are undoubtedly high, and Danish social welfare is among the world’s most generous.
Happy for all?
But free student grants and cheap childcare is not enough to secure Denmark’s position at the top of every poll. In the most recent annual report from expat organisation InterNations, Denmark ranked among the worst countries when it came to settling in. Out of 67 countries surveyed, Denmark scored dead last when it came to the ease for internationals to make friends with locals.
Willis agrees that Danes can be hard to make friends with.
“I personally find it quite difficult to integrate. I feel like you have to try a lot and, from experience, Danes are quite hard to reach. You have to know someone that knows them before they let you in.”
Expats living in Denmark found Danes were less friendly to foreigners than in most of the countries surveyed. On average, 65 percent of expats around the world said their host country was composed of friendly people; only 49 percent of expats in Denmark could say the same.
Participants were also encouraged to comment on both the benefits and downsides of living in their current country of residence. In Denmark’s case, repeated statements from responders included: “everyone keeps to themselves”, “the Danish do not mingle easily”, “they tend to keep their circle of friends limited to family and childhood friends”, and “people are too closed off”.
InterNation’s founder and co-CEO Malte Zeeck points out that the statements indicate that Danes are a tightly knit community, which makes it hard for foreigners to break in and find common ground.
“Beyond the fact that Denmark is a relatively small and homogenous society, there could also be cultural differences making an impact. Scandinavians in general have a reputation of being very reserved and aloof.”
Inaccessible culture codes
British journalist and writer Michael Booth relocated to Denmark over a decade ago and his fascination with Nordic societies led him to write The Almost Nearly Perfect People, a book that takes a look at both the bright and dark sides of Scandinavian culture.
He argues that cultural and structural factors make Denmark seem like a closed society to foreigners who try to settle here. The educational system, for example, keeps children with the same peers for a number of years, which accustoms them to maintain tight knit groups.
“I’ve had Danish close friends for 15 years, but I still feel like I’m on a second level of friendship. Danes make friends at school and they stick to those friends for the rest of their life. And one part of this survey picked out that it is hard to get into the inner circle.”
Booth also points out that because Danes are so socially homogenous, there is less need for friendly reassurance to mask over social differences, which are more pronounced in many other Western countries than in Denmark.
Working your way in society
Laura Francioli moved from northern Italy to Denmark eight years ago for university and never left. She grew up in the warmer and friendlier climes of southern Europe, which is a strong contrast to the reservedness of Danes and the cold climate they live in.
Francioli now works as a psychologist in Copenhagen and says her experience of relocating to Denmark has been mostly positive. She stressed the importance of adapting to Danish society and playing by its rules – once you demonstrate a willingness to break the ice, nothing can go wrong.
“I believe the most important aspect of relocating here is adapting to Danish lifestyle rules, which you have to understand thoroughly,” she explains. “Danes often come across as reserved because they tend to plan everything – even their social life.”
The biggest culture shock southern Europeans experience, she argues, is the lack of spontaneity.
“Italians here complain that Danes are unable to plan a coffee or lunch break straight away. Southern Europeans are more flexible when it comes to this and Danes are not, but you have to respect.”
Helen Russell, originally from London, recounts her life in Denmark since her relocation to Billund in her book The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country. She agrees with Francioli’s assessment.
“When I moved here, I just had to live Danishly because I knew that I was the one who had to make an effort. You just have to make your way into the inner circles,” she explained.
“I have talked with people about living Danishly, and I’ve found that those who come from from warmer countries with expectations from an outdoor culture all year round find it hard to integrate here.”
Breaking the coconut
Kristian Næsby, a visiting Danish lecturer at the Department of Scandinavian studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, argues that you can’t judge a Dane based on a first encounter – you first need to “crack the code”. He recalls an analogy made by an American student he was teaching, who described Americans as peaches, accessible on the surface, but with a hard and unreachable core. Danes were coconuts, hard and almost impossible to crack, but once you are in, you get it all.
“Danes are not good at being first to extend a helping hand to strangers, but I do believe that Danes are really friendly when approached correctly,” says Næsby.
The key to making friends in Denmark seems to be perseverance. Unpack those bags, dig deep, and persist. If you crack Danes correctly, you might just learn the elusive art of ‘hygge’. Given how many books have been written about it, it must be worth the hype. Right? M