OPINION: Why do Danish leaders seem rude?

Cultural differences that struggle to overcome linguistic transitions can easily affect the way in which Danes are perceived in leadership roles, writes guest columnist Skip Bowman.

OPINION: Why do Danish leaders seem rude?
Photo: Iris/Scanpix

Over the years, I have had to explain Danish leadership and organisational style to many non-Danes. And the typical reaction has been: I wish I had known that 8 years ago. And that’s because lots of things about Danish culture when translated into English come out wrong.

Danish leaders are often described as candid and direct by non-Danish employees and colleagues; rude even. This is not the case in Danish, as Danish culture is relatively conflict-avoidant. So how come?

Firstly, Danes are judged to be expert users of English based on the fact that their grammar and pronunciation are good. They are regarded as the most competent non-native speakers of English.

However, their mastery of social rules like politeness is not as good. Secondly, Danish intonation is very flat in English (especially when compared to Swedish and Norwegian) Flatness in intonation, combined with a preference for sounding competent rather than charismatic, can lead to coming across as direct and perhaps tough.

When you sound like you master the language, native English speakers will tend to attribute everything you say as what you mean. Unfortunately, Danes often don't mean everything they say from a social point of view.

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Thirdly, Danish leaders often translate Danish expressions and phrases directly into English. In Danish, there are lots of small words and sounds that reduce the directness of what is being said, but these are missing in the English version.

So, Danes can sound rude. And this is combined with an egalitarian, “tall-poppy” syndrome where putting down friends, colleagues and employees is a sign of affection. It’s a little like the Australian “mate” phenomena. By making fun of you, and you making fun of me, we are on the same level. However, this does not translate well either especially when it is couched in irony or sarcasm.

Danes are contenders for the world championship in irony and sarcasm. They deploy lots of it daily in almost all work relationships. It’s kind of funny, kind of uncomfortable. A little like being tickled and poked with a pointy finger all day. And sarcasm doesn’t translate well, like when I overheard a Danish boss say to a guy from Estonia that he didn’t like it when he didn’t know what his employees were up to. Now, I think the Danish leader was joking, but the Estonian who had a very different and literal understanding of the comment, was not laughing.

Danish people tend to have fairly stable and limited social networks. Making deep and personal relationships after university is not that common. In fact, social networks in Denmark are notoriously hard to penetrate for foreigners or Danes moving from one side of this little country to the other. Add to that, Danes don’t like flattery, or any other exaggerated forms of social recognition. They really struggle with the positivity, expressiveness and enthusiasm of many American colleagues and business partners. Danes describe it as superficial.

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Don’t expect Danish leaders to say please. Danish language is based on “1000 thank yous”. Foreigners always ask for the equivalent of please, to which there is no easy answer.

Add to this that most Danish children grow up in families where showing respect for parents or older members of the family is not as common or as distinct. In fact, intimacy seems to be expressed by a lack of respect.

Teachers, too, are mostly on first-name basis. It’s got to do with the extremely low hierarchical aspect to Danish culture.

Because they master English, Danes also take leading roles in cross-cultural groups. This is regarded as the “native speaker” phenomenon. That groups are led not by the most technically proficient person, or the most important, but rather by the person who speaks English the best.

Danish children are taught to participate, not to lead. This is quite different to other countries. This means that when they are given leadership roles for non-Danes, they often struggle with a more “leader with a big L” type of leadership.

When they have to set direction, give confronting feedback, create accountability, it doesn’t come out well in English. It sounds even more bossy or patronising than it should. This is because being a leader for anyone other than Danes requires a much stronger sense of role.

‘Show more ambition’ is a common advice I give to all Danish leaders. Non-Danes are, rightly so, more inspired by leaders who have a strong sense of where they are going. Danes fear too much charisma, deeming it equal with manipulation or incompetence.

Unfortunately, too, Danish leaders are brought up to under-promise and over-deliver. So, they tend to show enthusiasm mainly for problems and challenges and things that are going wrong.

READ ALSO: Why you should learn Danish (and how it will benefit you)

To become effective, I have had to train Danish leaders to become comfortable with being someone they “think” they are not. These are my common tips:

1. Show more enthusiasm and recognise success
2. Learn to speak more politely
3. Show more interest in making friends
4. Remove all irony and sarcasm
5. Speak more passionately; use stronger adjectives
6. Respect authority and the people who do
7. Stop looking down on employees that expect more direction than you are comfortable giving.

Danes, like many Scandinavians, are obsessed with authenticity: “I don’t want to be anyone I am not”.

Unfortunately, being who you ARE in a foreign language or across cultural differences requires translation. Acting like a Dane in English will mean that you end up being someone very different than you expect in terms of impact on others.

Skip Bowman is CEO with consulting company Global Mindset. This article was originally published on Global Mindset’s social media channels and is republished with permission. The video version of the article can be seen on the Global Mindset YouTube channel below.  

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OPINION: If you can’t go home for Christmas, Denmark is a good place to be

After missing out on seeing his family for Christmas 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett got to try out Danish Christmas for the first time.

A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve.
A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve. File photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

We’d always planned to spend last Christmas in the UK. My daughter was born in March 2020, coinciding with the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic but, as worrying and uncertain as everything was at the time, we were sure it would have all settled down in nine months’ time. We started planning for her to spend her first Christmas with her grandparents, cousin and the rest of our extended family in England.

As we all know, this was far from how things turned out. The autumn and winter of last year saw spiralling Covid-19 cases across Europe and countries responding by introducing more and more restrictions, including on travel.

I’m not sure exactly when we conceded we’d have to cancel our plans to go to the UK for Christmas in 2020, but I do remember the look of resignation on my parents’ faces when I let them know. The writing had already been on the wall for a while by then.

Visiting my partner’s mother in December, I looked out of the window at the greying skies over Jutland, the dim lights of a distant Føtex store and the limp red and white pendants on flag poles as bare as the trees, and nothing felt familiar.

This was because, despite having lived in Denmark for almost a decade and a half, I’d never spent Christmas in the country. Every year I’d head home by the 22nd or 23rd, usually returning just before New Year to enjoy the rowdy firework displays in Aarhus or Copenhagen after a week of putting my feet up and savouring the familiarity and comfort of Christmas at home.

Denmark famously has its own Christmas traditions, comparable but certainly different to the British ones. I knew about them – I’ve exchanged information about national Christmas customs with many Danes over the years – but never witnessed them first-hand.

The big day came around quickly, not least because it all happens on the 24th, not the 25th.

Festivities did take a while to get going, though. Not until 4pm in fact, when ancient Disney Christmas special From All of Us to All of You, known in Danish as Disneys juleshow began on main TV broadcaster DR. Usually I’d have been watching an early-1980s David Bowie introducing The Snowman around now. A cup of warm gløgg (spiced red wine with raisins and almonds) was thrust into my hand, and I missed Bowie a little bit less.

After a couple more glasses of gløgg and wine, we sat down for Christmas dinner: roast duck, brown potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy and red cabbage. It was of course already dark and a prolific number of candles were lit on the table and around the room, adding to the festive feeling of the star-topped tree, paper hearts and other decorations.

For dessert, we had risalamande, the popular cold rice sweet mixed with whipped cream, vanilla and chopped almonds and served with cherry sauce. By tradition, one whole almond is left in the dessert and whoever finds it wins a present, which is customarily a julegris, a chocolate pig with marzipan filling. This game is often fixed so that a child (or children) wins the prize, but the only child present was a nine-month-old and I ended up finding the almond in my bowl.

Then it was time to dance around the tree and exchange presents. Most of us had too much dessert, so it was a more sedate affair than I expected. After the little one was fast asleep we sat back on the sofas and had a couple more glasses of wine or maybe a few snacks.

It was all over before Santa traditionally lands his sleigh on rooftops and hops down British chimneys in the small hours of Christmas morning.

Danish families with young children often assign someone to dress up as Father Christmas and come round to deliver the presents to excited youngsters before dinner on Christmas Eve.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to audition for the role next year because our Danish-British family will be in Denmark every other Christmas for the foreseeable future – by choice, not restriction. I’m looking forward to it, because my first Danish Christmas gave me a better understanding of why this time of year is loved by so many Danes.

READ ALSO: My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories