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‘Take the first step’: What you should do to make friends in Denmark

Adapting to social etiquette in a foreign country can be extremely disorienting – do all my coworkers secretly hate me, or is this just that Danish chill? Am I being obtuse by inviting my neighbor to dinner multiple times, or is this what it takes to break through in a "coconut" culture?

'Take the first step': What you should do to make friends in Denmark
Many readers said persistence is absolutely the key to forging friendships with Danes. Photo: Robin Skjoldborg/Visit Denmark

As the saying goes, in some cultures the people are like peaches—soft and sweet on the surface, but with a hard and private pit once you reach a certain level of depth in the relationship. In others, the people are coconuts, hard and bristly on the outside but well worth the effort once you manage to crack through their thick shell.  

The Danes are famously a coconut culture, with a reputation as polite but reserved and difficult to get close to. The results of our recent (entirely unscientific) survey on how easy Danes are to befriend weren’t rosy—about a third of our respondents said that they have yet to make a single Danish friend, some after five, 10 or even 30 years of living and working in Denmark. But the 70 percent who have managed to lure at least one Dane into their social orbit offered some words of advice.

READ MORE: ‘They act like you are complete strangers’: Why it’s hard to make friends with Danes

Make the first move, and be persistent

It’s vital to reach out to prospective friends proactively, our readers with Danish friends said.  “You have to invite them, you have to initiate the friendship,” said John Smith from Herning. “Otherwise you’ll always be acquaintances.”

Anne from Copenhagen agreed. “They would never come to you so you have to do the first step, always!”

Danes are generally hyper-scheduled, so don’t be put off if they break out their year calendar when you ask them to go to lunch.

“Invite often and don’t be depressed if it takes a while to find a time that works for you both.  Remember, Danes schedule their cleaning and alone time as seriously as their social outings,” said MC from Nordjylland.  “And holidays often mean although you may be available, they are booked solid between extended family obligations and their own family’s hyggeligt time (which likely won’t involve you!).”

“Expect to book an appointment two months in advance,” said Nour Hemici of Nørrebro.

Readers say: break out the booze and host dinners

Danes can benefit from a little social lubricant, eleven respondents said. “Get them drunk,” said Yasmine Trudslev from Aalborg.

Many readers reported success inviting potential friends to their house for a home-cooked meal, particularly one with food from your home country.


Be a joiner

The most common recommendation was to join sports clubs or other affinity groups, such as garden cooperatives. “Danes may feel more comfortable with talking to an immigrant and forming a friendship when they know that they have a common interest,” said Kevin Marks in Odense.

Recruit a gateway Dane

Several readers said that the first Danish friend is the hardest – once you have one Dane to vouch for you, you gain access to their social network too. “I found that once I made good friends with one Dane they were very eager to introduce me to their friends, who were all very welcoming,” reports Maggie from Copenhagen. “You just need one connection!”

One way to achieve this is to purposefully seek out Danish roommates, said another reader from Copenhagen.

READ MORE: 3 phone apps to help you make friends in Denmark 

Do your homework

Learning the language can be helpful for integrating into existing friend groups, since many Danes who speak fluent English prefer not to speak it in social settings. It’s “understandable” if Danes aren’t as interested in international friends “if we don’t speak language and don’t follow the jokes and slangs,” said Herman T. from Aarhus. “I’d do the same if I were in my own country.”

Beyond that, “immerse yourself in Danish culture,” said Marcus Hardinge from Copenhagen. “Keep up with Danish news, Danish TV shows, music and other pop topics. From my point of view, Danes like it when you show an interest in Danish affairs.”

READ MORE: Danish shows take TV world by storm 

Consider time travel, or procreation

One cheeky reader who’s lived in Denmark for 11 years suggested friend-seekers “travel back in time and go to school with Danes” since it’s very common for people to establish their social circle during kindergarten. Then there’s always the nuclear option, as offered by reader Sune: “Having kids with a Dane is the only way.” If you’re not ready to make a new Dane that has to be your friend, W. M. from Silkeborg Kommune says the next best thing is to date a Dane. “Instant Danish family!”  

 Don’t get discouraged…

Many readers said persistence is absolutely the key.

“[Don’t take] their apparent disinterest too personally,” Justine Beaule from Copenhagen said. “Don’t be afraid to work a little harder to forge a bond (as annoying as it is).”

“Hang around until they tell you to go away,” advised Scott Wilson of Copenhagen.

…or, alternatively, go ahead and give up 

In the interest of full disclosure, a substantial percentage of respondents said the best advice they can offer is to give up trying to make friends with Danes.

“I tried very hard in the beginning,” explained Colin, who lives in Copenhagen. “The more the Danes rejected invitations of friendship the harder I believed I needed to try. Now I am comfortable that all my close friends are foreigners. All my close friends’ friends also tend to be foreigners. I have just accepted that Danes are not hostile (or necessarily xenophobic), but maybe a bit closed and insecure around the issue of letting ‘unknown’ people/culture in. There are also many great things here to compensate for that missing social dimension.”

“The Danes in general see no need to make an effort with foreigners – there is simply no real interest since they already have their set friends and family – so they do not bother,” said Timo Hilton-Jones, who lives in Valby. “All of the expats I know face the same challenge and many like myself have more or less given up and are at peace with this.”

READ MORE: How to make friends with expats in Denmark (and why it’s OK) 

“If you want to befriend Danes, you have to always be the one putting a lot more effort into maintaining that friendship. To be honest, I would rather have just expat friends than feel like I’m forcing a friendship on someone,” said Daniela from the Greater Copenhagen area.

“Overall, I would rate Danes as the most likely people to help when asked to and to talk when talked to,” said a reader from Aarhus who made Danish friends through studies. “Nonetheless, I would say that I still find it challenging to maintain more close, open, and long-term relationships with my Danish counterparts, especially when the relationship relies heavily on mutual initiation, or in other words, the ability to follow-up after an initial positive social experience and the willingness to initiate a second social gathering after an initial good impression has been made.”

A blended approach 

Several readers advised reaching out to the expat community early on to form a support network – for dentist recommendations, lunch buddies, and help when you’re in a bind with childcare. Then, you’ll be able to play the long game and nurture relationships with Danes without such a sense of urgency and isolation nipping at your heels.

Some people said the extra investment in befriending Danes is more than worth it. “You do need to not only meet halfway but actually step over the line,” said Tony from Copenhagen, who’s made most of his Danish friends through his partner, work and neighbours.  “Once you do that, you have friends for life.”

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READERS REVEAL: The lesser-known parts of Denmark that are great to live in

The likes of Copenhagen and Aarhus are popular for a reason – they’re great cities. But other parts of Denmark perhaps don’t get the love they deserve.

Wind turbines peek out above the mist on an autumn morning on Zealand. We asked our readers in Denmark to let us know what's great about their local areas.
We asked our readers in Denmark to let us know about their local areas. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

We asked our readers to let us know what’s great about the parts of the country they call home. Thanks for those who took the time to get in touch.

Most of the people filled in our survey live in Greater Copenhagen or elsewhere on Zealand, though some were located in other parts of the country.

With house prices high and rent in the major cities – particularly Copenhagen – more costly than anywhere else, outlying areas may find themselves gaining popularity.

Hvidovre, only 10 kilometres or so outside of Copenhagen to the southwest, is “central, cheap and close to the airport”, writes Scott Wilson.

“A few years back it was a bit of a backwater, now has its own very good beach, lots of new families moving and prices of houses are climbing,” Scott said.

The area would still benefit from a few more cafes, he added. Another drawback of the area is its high municipal taxes, he also said.

Were he to move, however, Scott wouldn’t swap Hvidovre for another part of Denmark. He’d stay within the same local authority but move closer to the coast, he told us.

If you plan on living within Copenhagen Municipality, you might not have considered Sluseholmen, a former industrial area to the south of the city centre across the harbour from Amager and close to the motorway bridge linking Amager and Zealand.

The area is less well-known than the ‘bridge quarters’ of Nørrebro, Vesterbro and Østerbro, but offers modern architecture and proximity to the harbour not found in the more central areas.

“The canals and location (close to city centre, nature, water and motorways)” are what make Sluseholmen a unique neighbourhood, wrote Edward Horton. The area lacks charging ports for electric cars, he observed.

Were he to move anywhere else in Denmark, Edward wrote that it would be somewhere else on Zealand.

People swimming in the sea near Middelfart. File photo: Michael Drost-Hansen/Ritzau Scanpix

Despite its small size, Denmark’s geography makes it difficult to find a spot with easy access to all other parts of the country. But the town of Middelfart on the west coast of Funen comes close to fitting the bill, wrote Tony, who moved there because it is the hometown of his partner’s family.

“The area is central to everything,” he wrote, but said that the town itself would benefit from more diverse consumer offerings.

There are “too many empty shops in the town centre and too many shops doing the same trades,” Tony wrote, adding that he’d move to Copenhagen if he could pick anywhere else in Denmark.

Herning has on occasions been host to some of Europe’s most famous football clubs due to the recent success of local side FC Midtjylland. Photo: Claus Fisker/Ritzau Scanpix

Another city that can boast an advantageous location is Herning, almost right in the centre of Jutland.

Jennifer wrote to us to praise the area, which she moved to when relocating due to her partner’s work.

“There is such a lot of natural history in the areas all around Central Jutland… it’s a great way to explore the rich Danish history. There are also the beautiful lakes around Silkeborg for fun summer activities like kayaks or paddle boards,” she wrote.

One thing she’d like to see more of in Herning is vegetarian options when eating out.

“Everything is meat,” she noted.

If she could move to another part of Denmark, Jennifer said she would choose nearby Aarhus or perhaps Copenhagen.

Cycling near Holbæk in Spring 2018. Photo Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Holbæk, on the coast of the Isefjord in the northwestern part of Zealand, is remarkable for its “beautiful fjord” and is a “nice friendly town”, wrote Bev Lloyd-Roberts.

Unlike anyone else who wrote in to us, Bev said she wouldn’t swap her adopted home town for any other part of Denmark.

But it could do with “more bins in the street” as well as “more benches to sit on to look at the fjord”, she suggested.

Do you agree with the places mentioned in this article? Do you have any suggestions you think we should add? If so, let us know – if we receive enough suggestions we’ll write a follow-up article.