OPINION: How to make Denmark global and local

A tailor-made approach to creating a feeling of belonging for all groups in international contexts can strengthen Danish society, writes guest columnist Thomas Mulhern.

OPINION: How to make Denmark global and local
Thomas Mulhern and Globally Local co-founder Anita Mayntzhusen. Photo: supplied

One hears time and time again that Danes live in one of the happiest, if not the happiest countries on Earth. This statement is rooted primarily in surveys like the World Happiness Report, in which Denmark has ranked in the top three out of 155 countries the past five years.

The word “happiest” in this context is defined as the sum result of different factors surveyed. Though it could be argued that “happiness”, in terms of the self-understanding that underpins the Danish mentality, would be better rendered as “contentedness” (tilfredshed in Danish). 

The catch 22 is that the very same individual and societal contentedness that is largely seen as a positive metric of success stands as one of the fundamental barriers to integration and internationalisation efforts and, thus, future economic growth here in Denmark. 

This very same self-satisfaction has too often helped pave the way for black and white approaches within corporate, municipal and school communities; namely providing expats and global Danes a false dichotomy between assimilation or segregation. In addition, the tendencies of both expats and Danes to remain in their comfort zones, whether it be linguistically or culturally, have aided in perpetuating this trend. 

How can an organisation break out of this black and white mold and create hybrid models that maximize integration and internationalisation efforts? How can an organisation reap the potential benefits of having both expats and global Danes help to make Denmark a more dynamic society?

Globally Local, the company I co-launched in December 2017, aims to tear down the barriers that stand in the way of successful integration and internationalisation initiatives. We do this by having a team of experts, over a 6 month to two-year process, provide essential services and “retention packages” that are tailored, holistic and lead to achievable and sustainable integration and internationalisation efforts — chief among them the retention of global talent. 


Why should a company, municipality or school push the boundaries of their comfort zones; think differently, strive to create new systematic approaches within the fields of talent attraction, integration, education and retention?

Companies have the potential to bolster their bottom lines by reducing costs with relation to failed foreign assignments, while simultaneously enhancing the retainment of global talent within their organisations. 

Intercultural communications expert Craig Storti has estimated that it costs the average company roughly US$250,000 a year in salary, benefits, and subsidies to keep an expatriate and his or her family in an overseas assignment. That is one family! In addition, the added organisational value that can be provided by employees that have both an understanding of foreign markets and have cultivated an understanding of the Danish work culture is invaluable. 

Municipalities can implement initiatives and establish the right conditions that lead to successful integration and internationalisation strategies and increase the well-being of domestic and foreign-based Danes and expats living in these communities along the way.

Schools, by having the right tools to successfully integrate these focus groups (expat and foreign-based Danish families), have the potential to increase the well-being of their students, parental group, staff and overall quality of the school.

In terms of adult students, there is a clear benefit for Danish universities in attempting to retaining talented foreign researchers and reaping some of the potential benefits of these researchers if they are properly embedded in Danish universities. Universities invest substantial resources in finding the right person for the job, to help them – and often their partner or family – settle in their new country of residence.

If attracting, integrating and retaining highly qualified expat and global Danish families has the potential to provide the aforementioned benefits to Danish society, why should we not attempt to maximise this effort? There is much to gain economically and societally, but we have only our comfort zones to lose.

Globally Local maintains that by creating shared frameworks predicated upon belonging, for home-based Danes, expats and global Danes, we make possible the conditions necessary for authentic integration and thus, a feeling of home for all these groups. 

This can be done by creating shared experiences that unite these families, promote intercultural exchanges, provide crucial networking opportunities, maintain and develop academic bilingual (Danish and English) communication, and allowing those in the process of learning Danish to have a voice. 

Taken together and tailored to the individual need of the family and organisation, these conditions can be met. Once these conditions are met, the barriers to successful integration and internationalisation initiatives can fall away, and Denmark will be left with a more dynamic and competitive country as a result. 

Thomas Knudsen Mulhern is managing director and co-founder of Globally Local, a private organisation that provides a variety of integration and internationalisation-related services to organisations, individuals and families. Thomas is the former International Department Head at Institut Sankt Joseph, where he created the first fully Danish-English bilingual programme in Denmark. 

READ ALSO: Inclusion in Danish higher education 'a tough task': international students

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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