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DANISH HABITS

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. 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

  2. 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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FAMILY

Five Danish children’s songs international parents will inevitably have to learn

Some are ear worms, some are repeated endlessly, and some might even help grown-ups to relax after a busy day. Sooner or later, even international parents will learn these Danish children's songs. You may as well start now.

Five Danish children’s songs international parents will inevitably have to learn

Godnatsangen 

Nu er solen gået i seng

Udenfor står natten på spring

Vi skal sove nu

Vil skal hvile vores krop for i morgen skal vi op

“Now the sun has gone to bed, the night is waiting outside, we must sleep now, we must rest ourselves, for tomorrow we’ll get up”.

Popular entertainer Sigurd Barrett (no relation to the author of this article, although many, many Danes have asked me) has a long back catalogue of kids’ songs but this lullaby is probably the most played and definitely the most relaxing.

It has an excellent track record for getting tired toddlers to sleep in cars (based on my sample size of one) and its gentle piano melody even lulls mums and dads after a long day.

Elefantens vuggevise

A lullaby about bedtime for elephants, ostriches and rhinos, this song has been around for decades and has seen several versions since it was written in 1948 by Harald Andreas Hartvig Lund.

There are several popular versions, including by legendary singer Kim Larsen and a more recent one by Sys Bjerre.

Its lyrics paint a vivid and wonderful picture of zebras in pyjamas, flying squirrels and cribs made of green bananas. I wonder how many exciting dreams kids have after being sung to sleep to the adventures of little Jumbo the elephant.

I dag er det Oles fødselsdag

The classic birthday song “Happy Birthday to You” has variations in many languages. In Denmark, however, you’ll find yourself at birthday parties singing a version of I dag er det Oles fødselsdag (“Today it’s Ole’s Birthday”), with the birthday boy or girl’s name replacing “Ole” in the title and lyrics.

The text and melody were written in 1913, so the song has been around for generations and part of its popularity is the fact that you can switch out the original name for that of whoever’s birthday it is.

While you can also personalise the English version of “Happy Birthday”, that’s not the case in all language versions of that song. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why a different birthday song caught on in Denmark.

Now sing after me: hun sikker sig en gave får, som hun har ønsket sig i år
med dejlig chokolade og gaver til

Der sad to katte på et bord

I might as well apologise now for annoying you for the rest of the day and probably tomorrow too, because this is the ultimate in ear worms. I’m sorry.

A sweet tale about to two cats who address each other as “my friend” and can’t decide whether to sit on the table or the floor, it’s the Kritte vitte vitte vit bum bum refrain between lines that will really get into your head. Kids love it.

You can listen to the song below, if you dare. 

Langt ud’ i skoven lå et lille bjerg

Like the previous entry, this song has a repetitive element to it. Its title translates to “Deep in the forest there was a little mountain”.

Each version adds an element to the description in the title: a tree on the mountain, a branch on the tree, a twig on the branch, a leaf on the twig and so forth.

It’s a fun one to sing with kids because they enjoy the play element of trying to remember the new part on each repeat. By the end, it gets very long and can descend into farce.

These five songs do not even begin to form an exhaustive list of Denmark’s wide, wide, wide repertoire of children’s songs. Which ones can you not get out of your head? Which means something special for you or your children? Let us know in the comments below!

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