OPINION: What does it mean to be Danish?

The Local Denmark
The Local Denmark - [email protected]
OPINION: What does it mean to be Danish?
Thomas Knudsen Mulhern shakes hands with John Engelhardt, mayor of Glostrup at the citizenship ceremony. Photo: private

Getting his Danish citizenship earlier this month has got Danish-American Thomas Knudsen Mulhern thinking about what being Danish actually means.


5 June 2020, grundlovsdag, a day celebrating the establishment of the Danish constitution, was a special day for me, as it was the day that I attained my Danish citizenship and officially became a Dane!  This moment has helped me reflect upon my self-understanding and the journey that I have been on since my arrival to this great nation. Denmark, a country where I am now a citizen and that my wife, daughter and I call home.
I was born and raised in the United States, met my future Danish wife in graduate school and moved to Denmark in 2011. This story may sound very familiar for many expatriates who find themselves in the home country of the one they love.
I arrived in Denmark not speaking a word of Danish, with a limited understanding of the culture and almost no network. In addition, I was acutely aware of shifting from a purely expatriate context to moving to the home country of my fiancée. This challenged my self-understanding and made me wonder whether I would segregate into the expat bubble, assimilate or perhaps integrate into the Danish society.


For me the goal was never to assimilate, or as I used to think “become Danish” in the way that I thought about it then. My goal was to authentically integrate into Danish society; to learn and grow, contribute, challenge the status-quo and ultimately make Denmark a more dynamic and inclusive place to live and work. This goal was and still is rooted in my firm belief that Danes and foreigners can inspire each other in order to help Denmark become an even greater society.
For me, authentically integrating meant that I was a global citizen, while still actively engaged in the local community.  I found out quickly that this approach would require that I step outside of my comfort zone and face the fears of exclusion, uncertainty and sounding like a 2-year-old speaking Dane! But I knew that standing in the grey space between the expat bubble and full assimilation required vulnerability. A vulnerability to emerge from the inclusion safety of the expat bubble and dare to learn a new language/culture, contribute as a full member of society and have the courage to challenge the status-quo.
My personal effort would not have been enough to integrate if not for the wonderful Danes I have had the privilege of knowing, working with and calling friends, who themselves have been vulnerable enough to include me, and have given me the social permission to learn, contribute, challenge, fail and succeed.  
On my journey I was given the gift of learning the Danish language and an invitation to understand and contribute to the Danish values that make the culture so great. When foreigners read about Denmark, it is often said that Denmark is the happiest country in the world, but this was a slogan and what Denmark came to embody for me was centered upon trust. 
In my opinion, trust is the capital of Denmark and Denmark is the world capital for trust. A trust between people and a trust for institutions. This incredible asset is more than just the peace of mind felt when leaving a stroller unattended outside, it is the mentality that guides daily interactions. I love the trust level of Denmark; and how it underpins the social welfare model. I love the democratic values, the emphasis on gender equality, freedom, hygge and equal justice for all. This is the Danish canon that I have come to learn, and support.


As a former International Department Head in Copenhagen, I worked to create the first fully Danish/English bilingual school program in Denmark. Danes and foreigners alike were able to move outside their comfort zones and break down the barriers of segregation and assimilation. In its place we were able to succeed in creating a hybrid culture where authentic integration was possible for Expat and Global Danish families and authentic internationalisation was possible for Danes seeking a more global approach. These core principles underpin the purpose of my company Globally Local, and the Global Denmark Podcast, which I host. It always comes back to Danes and foreigners inspiring each other in order to create a more inclusive and innovative society.
I used to think that for one to be Danish, one needed to be native born, have generations of family from Denmark, speak flawless Danish and have an understanding of every cultural practice down to a tee.
My time in this great country has taught me that I was mistaken, as it is truly the values that one fights for that make one Danish.  I believe these values are universal for every human being to learn and to contribute towards promoting, whether one is born in Jutland or Philadelphia.
I know that I will always be Danish-American. This duality, both in terms of citizenship, but also in terms of self-understanding is a by-product of my story.  I believe that being Danish is both communal in terms of shared values, but unique to the individual story.
I hope that my journey can help inspire Danes and foreigners in Denmark to become more vulnerable and dare to inspire each other. I believe that if we do, together we can create a more inclusive, innovative and prosperous nation for generations to come.


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also