Denmark explained For Members

When can you talk to a stranger in Denmark without annoying them?

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
When can you talk to a stranger in Denmark without annoying them?
Danish supermarket queues are not famed for their lively conversation. File photo: Signe Goldmann/Ritzau Scanpix

In Denmark, it can be seen as rude and intrusive to start a conversation with a total stranger. Except, it seems, in certain circumstances. Here's our best guess at what they are.


If you’ve moved to Denmark from the United States, Australia or even the relatively reserved United Kingdom, you might have been struck by the noticeable lack of chit-chat forthcoming from strangers.

On buses, in supermarkets or bank queues, it’s not out of the ordinary for a stranger to mention the weather or pass comment on the surroundings.


This is not really how it's done in Denmark.

I recall once asking a supermarket checkout operator to stop the conveyor belt on the checkout from rolling, because it was mixing my items with somebody else’s. She, and the three (all silent) people behind me in the queue, all looked at me like I was a monster, but said nothing.

I later learned that the conveyor belts operate automatically, so the operator might not actually have been able to stop it at all. But nobody bothered to tell me this – dead-eyed silence was considered by all four of my interlocutors to be the better option.

READ ALSO: Five Danish social norms that might be new to newcomers

Danes are generally uncomfortable with small talk. This is not due to unfriendliness though, but is rather a way of being considerate. Most people (I’m generalising based on 15 years of residence) prefer not to initiate a conversation with a stranger because they think it might make the other person uncomfortable.

This sometimes extends to just blanking people out when it might actually be of use to say something – like in the supermarket scenario above.

But just because small talk is unusual does not mean it doesn’t happen. It is just restricted by a set of unspoken rules. 

In general, speaking to strangers is acceptable under one or more of three conditions: that there are external circumstances that limit how long the interaction can take, that you have something in common with them, or that you are both focused on some sort of third element, which dilutes the intensity of face-to-face contact. 

The examples below all meet at least one of those three criteria. If you can think of any others, let me know.


At the playground with their children 

Towards the end of my extended parental leave (all provided by the Danish welfare system), my little girl was old enough to take to the local playground in Copenhagen so I could push her on the swings and lift her up onto the coil spring horses.

I’ve never found it so easy and comfortable chatting to passers-by in all my time in Denmark (or anywhere else).

Parents at playgrounds (legepladser in Danish) can strike up conversations with one another. This fits two, or perhaps three, of the rules: they have something in common (children), and they have an external thing to focus on (children).

The externally set time limit is also there to some extent, as children (in Denmark, as elsewhere) tend to wander off, start crying, or need parental attention, providing the Dane with the required escape route should the conversation become awkward. 

A similar principle is said to apply to dog walkers when they cross paths, although I can’t speak from personal experience on this count.

When they are having a cigarette break outside

This might not continue for very many years into the future, but if a Danish smoker finds themselves having a cigarette break next to another smoker, they can spark up a short conversation.

The situation meets at least two of the three necessary conditions: the cigarette limits the interaction to about five minutes, and the two smokers have their unfortunate habit in common.

If the chat becomes uncomfortable one minute in, they can even pretend to be focusing their attention on an external factor: the joy of their cigarette, savouring every drag.


At a concert, festival or sporting event

In bars, pubs and restaurants, Danes tend to arrive with their friends and limit their conversations to those they already know.

This changes a bit if you’re somewhere where people stand or dance. An ideal example of this is the Roskilde Music Festival, where everyone talks to everyone free of inhibitions.

There is an external factor to focus on (a concert), you are not trapped at the same table, and it’s always possible to drift on to someone else. Everyone is also often drunk, which is probably a bigger factor than the standing if I’m honest. 

I’ve also found sporting events to be a good barrier-breaker, particularly when participating. I’ve exchanged many a fist-bump and mutual congrats with fellow runners at the end of the Copenhagen Marathon or Royal Run and the spectators on the side of the roads will call out your name in encouragement (it’s written on the race bibs).

These situations again fit with having something in common, limited timespan for interaction and other things going on externally.

Outside of Denmark

Danes, like people from most other countries, are more likely to speak to their compatriots when abroad than when at home.

I’ve encountered Danes who are complete strangers quickly establish conversations and even friendships which began on the predicate that they were outside of Denmark when they met.

Simply being Danish, which means nothing at home, qualifies as “something in common” once Danes are abroad. 

As a Danish speaker, I’ve even taken advantage of this myself when abroad and approached others when I hear them uttering the comfortingly familiar sounds of the Danish language.

Just by speaking in Danish you can signal you have something in common (living in Denmark and knowing Danish culture). This is of course not the case with English, because people from many parts of the world speak it.

On the other hand, I’ve also experienced Danes avoid other Danes when far from home. They try not to give away the fact they are from Denmark, or gravitate towards the non-Danes in a group.

I think this might be because sometimes, Danes just prefer to leave Denmark at home while on their far-flung trip.


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].
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Anonymous 2022/07/03 19:44
This story reminds me of the Aesops fable “THE MAN, THE BOY, AND THE DONKEY” which ends with the moral of the story, “Please all, and you will please none.” I think it is better to be yourself and not to tie yourself in knots trying to "fit in". Everybody is different, even no two Danes are alike.
Anonymous 2022/07/01 22:06
It might seem obvious, but this is a very helpful article! Once I got stared down for adding an extra sentence to answer someone who asked me in the first place

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