Expat stories: How I made my closest Danish friend

Many foreigners living in Denmark struggle to make friends with born-and-bred Danes. We spoke to five who have successfully made the connection.

Expat stories: How I made my closest Danish friend
Fernando Secca (right) and her Danish friend Marie Peschardt (left). Photo: Private

Fernanda Secca from Brazil and her Danish friend Marie Peschardt 

When 32-year-old Fernanda moved to Copenhagen at the start of 2017, one of the first things she did was find a place to do pole-dancing, which had been her hobby back in São Paulo. Marie Peschardt, 29, was her teacher, and before long they soon realised they got on well.

“Coming to class a few times a week made us create a bond that was eventually taken to a personal relationship,” she remembers. “We now do everything together. We hang out several times a week. We go travelling together, we have dinner, we go to bars, we go dancing.” 

The two still train together at the dance studio. 

Fernando Secca (right) and her Danish friend Marie Peschardt (left). Photo: Private 

“I think the friendship was possible because we were both open to meeting new people and building connections,” Fernanda says, adding that she doesn’t think Danes are particularly difficult to become friends with.

“There is no secret. Danes are not aliens. I think finding something in common that you can bond around or relate to helps in the beginning, because people are more likely to respond to that than a random request or small talk.” 

“Also taking a chance, inviting a person you feel could be interesting for a coffee or a drink, can be something spontaneous or quick. Some Danes might even appreciate being spontaneous because no one here really is.” 
On the other hand, it is important for those from more free-wheeling countries to understand that Danes like to plan ahead, she adds. 
“Appreciate that they have their schedules and bookings weeks in advance and you might need to fit into that type of style as well if you want to build a connection.” 
Marcele Rask and her Danish friends Jasmine and Carina
Marcele Rask, 36, a manager at Danske Bank specialising in financial crime and sanctions, met her Danish friends Jasmine and Carina at her previous job because they all worked in the same department. She said the three of them shared a similar appetite for adventure. 
“One thing that connected us three a lot is the fact that we are all very curious and like to try new things. So we programme ‘adventure days’  where we go somewhere new, or that we like or something and spend some hours there or even the day,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be fancy, or crazy or anything, but something nice to know.” 
She said they tend to do this about once or twice a month, either two of them, or all three together.
“Just after Denmark started to open from the lockdown, we went to a Gavnø slot for their tulip festival, and afterwards we went to eat MacDonald’s by the harbour.” 
She says that both Jasmine and Carina are quite internationally-minded, which she feels made them more open to making friends with a foreigner. 
“Jasmin lived some years abroad and was an expat herself. Carina has worked on international companies and is used to the expats’ life, having herself another great expat friend,” she says. 
She said they now spoke a mixture of English and Danish together, but were speaking Danish more and more as her command of the language improved. She said she felt her own openness had helped her make Danish friends. 
“I think one thing that it is very important to be as an expat is open — open for anything and everything — and not just to sit around bitching about the country, the language, the food, and everything else.” 
Ashley Norval and her Danish friend Mia Garner 
Ashley, 31, met Mia, 28 almost as soon as she arrived in Copenhagen a year ago from Australia and the two were paired together for a group session during her university course. They have hung out together ever since. 
“I hear from her two or three times a week usually, and we do all kinds of stuff together,” she says. “We’ve travelled together, we catch up for dinner, we go to the movies, or just go to each other’s place. Sometimes we go walking or running, sometimes we just go and get an ice cream and sit in the park.” 
Ashley Norval (right) and Mia Garner at the Gisselfeld Klosters Forest Tower south of Copenhagen. Photo: Private
Ashley believes that many foreigners think, often mistakenly, that the Danish reluctance to impose themselves on others means they are not open to making new friends. 
“I think Danish people genuinely don’t want to encroach on your personal space and territory and I’m convinced that once you kind of invite them to something and show them that it’s fine, and that you do want to see them outside of your professional space or whatever, then it’s fine.”
She said that foreigners in Denmark needed to realise that they might have to make the move, and suggest going to see a film or get a meal. 
“If you make the effort to get to know any part of Danish culture, that is always well received with Danish people,” she adds, although she concedes that Danes might view Australians more favourably than people from many other countries. 
Camila Witt and her Danish friend Emilie Møllenbach
Camila, 36, met Emilie over the coffee machine when they were both working for a Danish payments company, but bonded over their academic interests. “Emilie and I had a I have a very strong academic background, so we just started to talk about different theories: physics, science and this kind of thing. And we connected over that and I think that the relationship grew from that.” 
They go for walks together, make chocolate together, go for dinner, or a cup of tea at a café. 
“Nothing really fancy, to be fair, just being each in each other’s companies and I think that both her and I share this perspective that we like we were there for each other and not to be on our phones.” 
Camila believes a lot of foreigners wrongly think that when Danes say they’re busy or booked up, that that means they aren’t open to a friendship. 
“Danes require more planning. I think that something we need to understand if we come from countries where you’re used to spontaneously say ‘let’ go out tonight, let’s go out after work and just have a beer’. 
“It’s really important to you know, proactively invite them and not take them saying, ‘I don’t have time this week’ as them shutting you off because in all honesty, many times they are booked. So it’s about finding that slot of time. It can happen in three weeks, but it will happen you know.”

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Why moving to Denmark can cause feelings of loneliness – and what you can do to feel better

Relocating to a new country can present a definable set of emotional challenges, and Danish culture can give rise to its own version of these. But there are plenty of ways newcomers can recognize and cope, writes The Local guest columnist Peter MacFarlane, Ph.D.

Why moving to Denmark can cause feelings of loneliness – and what you can do to feel better
Photo: Ólafur Steinar Gestsson/Ritzau Scanpix

I primarily see expats in our practice in Copenhagen and I’ve noticed some links between clients’ concerns and their expat-related experiences in Denmark.

In addition to the stressors often involved in relocating, such as finding child care or a new job, figuring out banks, traffic, taxes and health services, expats also struggle with a set of challenges related to social and language differences. 

We may laugh at the term “dead-eyed Dane” or an apparent lack of queuing etiquette. However, a problem with these and similar situations is that over time they can become something that – at least for some — is not easily laughed off. They become insults, or “micro-aggressions”, and can eventually be experienced as personal attacks.

Expats may also struggle with social isolation. We often hear that Danes are kind enough, but primarily in their own friend groups, perhaps established in childhood. And that breaking into such groups can be quite difficult. Similarly, our Danish hosts, though quite capable of speaking English, may revert back to Danish when in company with other Danes, even when an expat who does not speak the local language is present.

Such difficulties may lead a person to become more sensitive to the opinions of others. Sensitivity to others’ thoughts about us can lead to further isolation, as we begin to interpret these differing customs as unfriendly or critical.

The experience of exclusion leads to feelings of isolation. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy where we start to behave according to how we anticipate people will think. Rather than integrating into the new culture, we become isolated and start to overthink things.

Very often the isolation and overthinking leads to feelings of loneliness and not belonging. This is when we start to notice our mood going down. Many expats struggle at this time and start to question their move to Denmark. 

The unique set of stressors that expats often are faced with worsen a vicious circle. The expat is around a lot of strangers, and is perhaps seen as even more difficult to communicate with because of language difficulties or culturally bound norms that are misunderstood; the person picks up on these misunderstandings and feels even worse.

These interactions are felt more deeply, exactly because the unspoken expectation is something different. We may expect that others recognize our existence by a nod, a smile, a moment’s eye-contact. You may expect that common courtesy demands that you say “hi”, and give you eye-contact at the check-out counter. When this is missing, it feels off, and we feel off; as if things are not quite right. 

Some react with confusion, some with anger, and others with wondering what they themselves may have done to cause this. For some, these interactions become confirmations that something is wrong. 

The assortment of stressors related to the move, the adjustment to a new language and culture, cause some to think “there must be something wrong with me”. This self-criticism can consist of recriminations around not being able to find a job, not being able to communicate properly, and are often vague ideas of not being good enough.

If you see yourself in any of this, or know someone struggling, please consider doing something about it. 

There are things you can do to begin to change how you feel and think. Try to find other expats to talk to. Seek out the meet-ups and other social opportunities such as volunteering. Consider starting an exercise routine, try meditation or attend yoga classes. But most of all, exercise how you think about what is going on. 

Consider the idea that it is not you, but instead the differing expectations of how people normally behave. Writing a daily diary of the situations that tend to trigger you can be really helpful, and something we often suggest to our clients. Such a diary could include: 1. A short paragraph about what happened; 2. How it made you feel; 3. How it made you think. This last one might have a focus on how it caused you to think negatively about yourself. 

Finally, should none of this work, or you feel things have gotten much more serious, and you can’t handle it on your own, then please do get in contact with a professional such as your medical doctor or a psychologist.

Peter McFarlane is a native of both the US and Denmark and has been an expat for most of his life. After 25 years in the United States, including completing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Ohio University, Peter returned to Copenhagen, where he is a partner at the MacFarlane Psychology Group, a practice offering psychotherapy in English. 


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