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

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.

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

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.

Member comments

  1. 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.

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‘Black, black and more black’: Six tips on how to dress like a Dane

Danes have an international reputation for dressing well, with Scandi style a popular trend outside Denmark. The Local asked Danes and foreigners living in Denmark to help us figure out the best tips and tricks for how to dress like a Dane.

'Black, black and more black': Six tips on how to dress like a Dane

Praised for its simple, understated and classic lines, but bemoaned for a lack of colour and individuality, there’s no doubt that Danish fashion style has made a mark on our readers in Denmark.

We asked you to let us know what you thought constituted the classic Danish look and give us your tips for the quintessential items. Thank you to all who took the time to get in touch. 

Black, black and more black

“Black. Black. Black” wrote one reader, Linda, when we asked for a typical feature of Danish fashion. The sentiment is a fair reflection of how most people see Danes’ dress sense – for better or for worse.

“Danes have a wonderfully casual style. As for worst aspects, there are more colours than black and brown!”, wrote Louis.

“Black, black and more black – with a hint of grey,” were the observations of Nicholas in Copenhagen.

A Danish model in black clothing. File photo: Søren Bidstrup/Ritzau Scanpix

Really? Just black?

“Most women prefer black, grey or white. If they ‘want to wear colour’, they’ll wear a small colourful bracelet or scarf or something small,” said Samantha, a project manager who has lived in Copenhagen for over 10 years.  

“Most teenage girls will wear black leather jackets and blue jeans. In the summer is the only time when Danish women will wear some colour, usually in the form of flowery dresses which tend to be very nice,” Samantha said.

Danish fashion is sometimes criticised for lacking individual expression, but Samantha said it is there if you look closely.

“The personality is in the details. Danes like to dress alike on the surface, but like to have small details that give them personality,” she said.

“Jewellery is usually thin and lightweight. Very nice, but never large – thin necklaces, thin bracelets, small stones, very little colour here as well,” she said.

“I am a male – slim fit, tight pants or jeans, open collar button down shirts,” reader Marc Peltier, a defence manager from Copenhagen, said.

“When a tie is worn, it is a dark colour and thin. Colours are dark (black, blue, dark green), no patterns. Striped T-shirts,” he said.

Scarves and raincoats: Mix style with practical needs

Marc’s tip for an essential – or, at least, popular – Danish clothing item is a raincoat from the brand Rains, which describes itself on its website as having a “conceptual-meets-functional design approach”.

Regardless of the brand you choose, having a purpose outer layer for wet weather is certainly a choice that makes sense in Denmark.

“Beautiful long coats in beige, navy and black” were cited by reader Nico as a particularly popular choice for Danes.

Scarves were another item which many picked out as a Danish essential and a hugely popular item that can cross seasonal divides.

Photo by Karen Cantú Q on Unsplash

“A great scarf that goes with everything… everyone needs one,” Glen wrote.

Items like these don’t necessarily mean breaking the bank, although some did say the high price of Danish-made clothes put them off new purchases.

“Wear ‘quality’ items of clothing… even if recycled,” Glen wrote.

Contrasting trainers

I was once told by a Dane that you can get away with wearing almost anything, no matter how scruffy or worn, as long as you have a smart pair of shoes.

However, it may be that trainers – possibly white ones to contrast with the dark prominent in the rest of the outfit – are the key to successfully pulling off Danish style.

“Wearing trainers – no matter what the rest of the outfit is” is a typical choice, Edward Horton, an automation scientist who lives in Copenhagen, said.

“Comfortable shoes trump style choices,” Edward said.

Reader Linda (not the same Linda quoted earlier) said that footwear featured a “rejection of high heels even with evening gowns”.

A “long large dress with running shoes” is a common pick for women, Ana wrote.

Those wanting to take inspiration from this style should “find a long nice long dress, or nice jeans with a nice viscose shirt (but try find it in a non-Danish brand because it’s always too long or too broad)”, she said.

“Also try to go for the sneakers (instead of the running shoes),” she said.

Photo: Ida Guldbæk Arentsen/Ritzau Scanpix

“I am really not a fan of the Danish fashion but I like the fact that people can dress freely without too much pressure,” she added.

If you don’t want to wear trainers, Birkenstock sandals might be a strong summer alternative, having been cited by several of our readers as a typical footwear choice for Danes.

Don’t show off

“Minimal style, monochromatic clothes, oversized t-shirts, straight lines. People don’t usually show off brands,” wrote Andrea from Italy who lives in Copenhagen.

“Go for simple outfits and keep it laid back” if you want to look like a Dane, Andrea said.

“Not too many patterns, no high heels for women. Wear a nice shirt or t-shirt, cozy pants and sneakers. Don’t mix too many colours but match one or two in a pleasant way.”

“The best aspect is that Danish fashion is oriented towards coziness and effectiveness, and the fact that nobody generally shows off how expensive their clothes are contributes to convey a general feeling of equality in society,” Andrea said.

“On the other hand, this means there is little room for creativity and ‘crazy’ outfits if you like them. You can of course still wear them but you would stand out (and not necessarily in a good way).”

Get the fit right

Avoid “overly tight clothes and poorly fitted garments,” reader Nico said.

One of the weaker aspects of Danish fashion in Nico’s view is “sometimes the silhouette of the body can be lost in overly shapeless garments”, he said.

Others, such as Ann, a scientist from Copenhagen, said that using “oversized items” along with neutral colours would be the best way to mimic the Danish style.

While many praised Danish clothing for its well-cut designs, many observed the popularity of baggy items.

“Oversized blazers, muted colour pallet, New Balance sneakers, or Nike AF1 in triple white” were the best tips Vijay, an ICT Officer in Copenhagen, would give to someone who wanted to dress like a Dane.

He questioned the choice of oversized blazers: “why though? Nineties is back?”