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DANISH HABITS

Why do Danes insist on using week numbers instead of dates?

It can be frustrating having to regularly check which date is meant by a given week number, but there’s method in the numerical merry-go-round.

Why do Danes insist on using week numbers instead of dates?
A calendar on which week numbers are given higher prominence than actual dates. Photo by Behnam Norouzi on Unsplash

“We are closed due to annual leave and will be back in week 23”.

“The number of Covid-19 cases was far lower in week 27 than in weeks 25 and 26”.

“The marketing department wants the project to be finalised by week 42”.

If you’ve ever read (or heard) a sentence like any of the above in Danish and found yourself cursing in frustration and grasping for your smartphone to google “what date is week 23”, you’re not alone.

The use of week numbers to refer to points in time – either in the past or future, but usually within the current year or beginning of the next one – is common in some European countries, and Denmark has embraced it with particular gusto since its official introduction in the 1970s.

In Anglophone countries including the United Kingdom and United States, the convention is not used and weeks are more likely to be referred to loosely as the “second week in July”. If a specific week needs to be given, it might be written down as a range of dates or something like “the week commencing Monday July 18th”.

As such, the use of week numbers can be exasperating to people not used to them, because they are difficult to connect to an actual date and therefore don’t seem to give any kind of useful reference point. They require the extra step of referring to a calendar to look up a date which could have just been given in the first place.

At the same time, Danes often seem to instinctively be aware of the week number they’re currently in, the exact date of an earlier week number, and how far into the future a given week number might be.

Below, we look at why week numbers are commonly used in Denmark and where the practice comes from.

How does it work?

Denmark’s calendar system designates as “week 1” the first week in the year which includes four or more days of the new year (in other words, four January days with no more than three still in December).

Another way of putting this is: the first week in which Thursday is in January is week 1.

This means that the number of weeks in a year can vary, because 52 multiplied by 7 is 364. As such, week 53 sometimes makes an appearance at the tail end of the Danish calendar.

It follows that week 1 can start in the old year and week 53 can include days in January. It’s probably a good thing that most people are still on their Christmas holidays at this time of the year.

Why does Denmark use this system?

Denmark introduced the numbering system for weeks on January 1st 1973 (a Monday), in accordance with an international standard, ISO 8601. The country began considering Monday, rather than Sunday, as the first day of the week at this point.

Week numbering was used in Denmark prior to 1973, but as documented in a 2018 Kristeligt Dagblad article, it was less widespread and not standardised. This was partly due to the convention of Sunday as the first day of the week.

“Up to now every country, so to say, has used the same rule for distributing the weeks, namely that Sunday was the first day of the week; whereas different rules were used for the numbering of the weeks,” a contemporary Danish calendar from 1973 states.

“With the increasing usage of week numbers, for example for fixing delivery deadlines, these irregular rules give cause to misunderstandings regarding international trade,” it continues.

As such, an increasing need for efficient international trade meant Denmark switched from the custom of weeks beginning on a Sunday – which has its roots in religion – to modernising its calendar and weekly numbering system for the benefit of international trade.

It’s perhaps not surprising that this happened in 1973, the year after Denmark joined the European Community – later the EU. 

Some countries – like the United States – still designate Sunday as the first day of the week in calendars. This is also the case in Israel, where Sunday is a regular weekday.

In conclusion, there doesn’t appear to be anything specific to Danish culture that would make week numbers popular, although you could argue its relatively secular nature made it easier to adopt the change from weeks starting on Sundays and irregular numbers.

The introduction of standardised week numbers to make international trade smoother also seems to have been readily accepted in Denmark, a small country reliant on strong imports and exports.

Because week numbers are important in international logistics, it’s easy to imagine them quickly becoming established at businesses in Denmark – where freight giant Maersk is the biggest company in the country.

With workplaces using them, the people working there need to keep track of them, and this means they’re more likely to be able recall which week number they’re in than someone from a country where these are not used.

The result of nearly 50 years of thinking about dates in this way? It’s easier to answer quickly when the receptionist at your GP asks if you can come for your next follow-up check in “week 13”.

How can I stop being frustrated by it?

I don’t have all the answers to this, but one way of making it easier to look up week numbers (and one Danes sometimes use themselves and have suggested to me) is to change the settings on your phone calendar to display them.

On an iPhone, this can be done in the Settings->Calendar section by switching on “Week Numbers”. On Android devices, you can use the settings within the calendar app to show week numbers.

An iPhone calendar
 

The same calendar but with week numbers displayed.

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READER INSIGHTS

READERS REVEAL: What are the barriers to a successful relationship with a Dane?

We've had more than 100 responses to our survey on the cultural challenges faced by foreigners in long-term relationships with Danes. Here's what you had to say.

READERS REVEAL: What are the barriers to a successful relationship with a Dane?

More than 85 percent of the 110 respondents so far were women, fully three-quarters of whom were either living with or married to a male Dane, which at times can make it hard to know for sure if it is Danishness or maleness that is the problem. 

And as the respondents came from across the world, the cultural clashes they described varied largely depending on where the non-Dane in the relationship came from.

A Dutch respondent, for instance, complained that she was too blunt and direct for their Dane, whereas for almost every other nationality, it was the Dane who was felt to be too curt and abrupt. 

About 16 respondents came from Western Europe, 15 from North America, and Eastern Europe, twelve from each of Latin America and the UK/US, six from Asia, one from South Asia, two from other Nordic countries, two from Africa, and one from Turkey. 

We should note that our survey asked for personal experiences and views and is therefore anecdotal in nature and not based on any kind of scientific approach.

Poor communicators, emotionally reserved, and passive

By far the most common complaint respondents made about their Danish partner — which seemed to come from almost all nationalities — was that they were emotionally reserved, passive and found it hard to communicate their feelings. 

“He runs away from conflict and has a hard time explaining how he feels in different situations,” complained Georgiana, from Romania,

“I find Danes a bit closed off when it comes to expressing feelings,” agreed one Turkish woman with a Danish boyfriend. 

One Slovenian woman felt that the biggest culture clash came from her husband “not making his feelings known enough, which I think comes with the colder Danish exterior.” 

One US woman moaned about her husband’s “passive-aggressive behaviour” and “inability to provide clear answers to direct questions or to communicate or express own opinions in a constructive manner”. 

Several respondents felt that if they raised their voice or expressed emotion in a discussion, their partner would shut them off. 

“Raising your voice and reasonable confrontation is seen as aggression as opposed to just as “normal” different cultural behaviour,” said one Latvian woman. 

A lot of these complaints are obviously ones that women all over the world make about their husbands and partners, making it difficult to judge if Danes really are considerably more emotionally withdrawn. 

One of the few male respondents did, however, make the exact same criticism of their partner. “It takes him much time to be open about his feelings and emotions, which makes me always doubt if we are both together are on the same page,” he wrote.  

One American woman, meanwhile, suggested that the lack of emotional communication extended to her entire half Danish family as well.

“Danish families don’t say ‘I love you’,” she said. “We Italian Americans say it all the time. And yes, we mean it.” 

Where’s the romance?

One Brazilian woman complained of “a lack of romance” in her relationship. “Everything is too straightforward and square.” 

“Don’t expect a lot of wishy-washy romance,” Ann, from Scotland, warned other women coming to Denmark. Cris, a nurse, said her Dane was “not a believer in romantic occasions like Valentine’s Day”.

“He’s so practical that I have to remind myself that he shows me he loves me through little, everyday things as opposed to big romantic gestures,” said Amy, from the US. 

“It took a lot of time for him to say ‘I love you’,” Veronika, from Hungary, agreed. “Even when I said it, he replied with an, ‘I like you’, which he said first, and very frequently.” 

She said she later found out that “jeg elsker dig” is something only rarely said in Denmark and that “jeg kan godt lide dig” would be most common among Danish boyfriend and girlfriends. 

“Now he uses both, and in Danish and English too. But it took a lot of time.”

The complaint about a lack of romance extends to the sort of chivalrous behaviour women in many other countries expect from men. 

“He thinks it is weird that I think it is his duty as a gentleman to pay for dates and to pick me up at home,” claimed one woman, who wanted to be anonymous. 

“He doesn’t help me to carry things, doesn’t ask parents or grandparents when they carry heavy things or strangers when they are in trouble on the street if they need help,” echoed one woman from Vietnam. 

Others complained that on the dating scene, Danish men often expected women to take the initiative. 

“Danish men are extremely passive. They take no initiative and therefore no responsibility,” said Sylvia. “A woman needs to chase him otherwise he will not do anything. Bear in mind that this passiveness and lack of accountability will continue in your relationship.”

Often a lack of chivalry comes together with more equal gender roles, but many respondents complained that, at least in the home, this had not turned out to be the case with their partner. 

Amy protested against her partner’s “conviction that there is no need for feminist/gender equality movements in Denmark” because women receive equal pay. This was, she pointed out, “even though the burden of household chores falls on me”. 

READ ALSO: Danish study concludes women earn less than men for same jobs

A Scottish woman said she had found that Danes had “stricter gender norms when it comes to children” than back home in the UK, particularly when it came to decisions over whether to have or not to have them. 

Oh, the irony!

Danes prize themselves on their dry humour, but it isn’t always appreciated by their partners. “Danish humour is mean sometimes, but they just say it’s irony,” one South African woman pointed out, while a woman from Sweden said she too struggled with “humour that sometimes is hurtful in its sarcasm”. 

“He always blames Danish dark humour to get out of an argument. He says what he says and then says, ‘I’m joking’. But where is the funny part?” complains one woman who described herself as a “global citizen”. “And if I give him a taste of his own medicine, then he is hurt.”

“People in Denmark tend to cross the line when making jokes to people, my partner does the same and it is seen as rude,” said one woman from Mexico, who found her Danish husband’s sense of humour embarrassing. 

One anonymous Frenchwoman managed to get her own back, however.

Danish humour, she suggested, was a bit unsophisticated compared to what she was used to at home. 

“They miss sometimes the second and third degrees of humour, compared to France,” she declared.

No time for spontaneous activities or meeting new people

Another very common complaint was that the Dane in the foreigner’s life had to plan every activity far in advance. 

One South American woman said that her husband’s “rigidity when it comes to routines” had been very difficult to come to terms with. “Laundry day is only Sundays; dinner is at 18.30, planning with months of anticipation.” 

It is “frustrating when your partner plans six months ahead what he is going to do every day”, complained Naika, from Peru. 

Several respondents also said they got frustrated that their Danish partner showed such little interest in meeting new people. 

“Making new friends outside his close-knit childhood friends was unheard of,” said an American woman who was married to a Dane for eight years. “Just because people were friends when they were kids doesn’t mean they should be friends when they become adults or should be closed to new friendships.” 

Joe, a male American, had had much the same experience. “The biggest difference is the inability of many Danes to open up to new friends – many adults still have their childhood friends and those relations don’t welcome in new adults easily.”

“A lot of his family and close friends actively ignore me when we hang out,” said a woman from central Europe. “I’ve known them for a couple of years now and some of them still haven’t talked to me once.”

Several foreigners said they also found it ridiculous that their Danish partner was so unwilling to talk to strangers, even to ask for directions. 

“He will avoid interaction with strangers at all costs,” said one woman from Greece. “He won’t ask for directions. He’d rather look around for more than ten minutes.” 

Obsession with Danish social rituals 

Foreigners in long-term relationships with Danes also struggled with the complex rituals Danes fall back on at social events like family dinners, Christmas and birthdays. 

“The amount of Danish birthdays and birthday songs. Gosh!” exclaimed Maria. 

One Dutchwoman was astonished by “the need to thank for everything….. tak for mad, tak for sidst, tak for…..” 

More generally, foreigners complained that their partner and their families were completely uncomprehending of the idea that there was any other way to do things than ‘the Danish way’. 

When it came to family events, one of the Scottish respondents complained of the “strict traditions” and “expectations from family to participate in specific ways”. 

One US woman complained less about the nature of Danish family events than about how many of them there seemed to be, at all of which attendance appeared to be more or less compulsory. 

The Danish way is the only way

Many foreigners felt frustration at their partner’s apparent inability to question or deviate from the set Danish patterns of behaviour. 

“Blindly following anything Danish is my main source of irritation with my wife,” said a British long-term resident. “But I have learned to live with it, for the sake of peace and quiet.” 

“Only the Danish way to do things is right,” agreed Jeanette, who didn’t say where she came from. “Danes are seldom open to new ways to do stuff. For instance, it is considered bad that my daughter only started at daycare aged two and a half”. 

Related complaints were about Danish partner’s complete faith in Denmark’s government and agencies and about their obsession with Arne Jacobsen chairs, and other Danish design classics. 

An American woman said her husband was “too passive and naive about politics and ‘the system'”. 

Hyggeracisme

Many respondents, particularly those from the US, said they had been horrified by the casual racism expressed by their partner’s family over dinner, a phenomenon which has been given the name hyggeracisme, “hygge racism”, in Denmark.

“Danes are clueless about racism and sometimes they say racist things without even blinking an eye, or if pointed out they do not see it at all,” said one American woman living in Copenhagen. 

“I was raised believing it’s rude to openly discuss politics, religion, sex, or money,” another American woman added. “These are things he and his family argue about over dinner. They use dirtier language and are more openly ablest, ageist, xenophobic and racist.”

How to overcome the cultural divide?

Use humour 

Many respondents argued that having a sense of humour went a long way in smoothing over cultural gaps with Danes. 

“Point out weird things about Danes in a lighthearted manner,” said one woman, who didn’t say where she came from. “They will take it as a joke and like it.”

“Often, I just accept the little quirks or make fun of it, and my partner does the same with my quirks,” says Franziska from Germany. 

“Be open. Laugh. Don’t take them to seriously. Love them for their good parts, forgive the stupid parts,” says Elin from Sweden. “Laugh at their jokes. It doesn’t matter if they are funny or not. They believe they invented irony, so if you don’t find it funny, you are a lost cause.”

One woman from the UK said that sharing “a sarcastic sense of humour” helped her in her relationship with a Dane. “The similarities in our sense of humour are what get us through everything.”

Don’t expect the Dane to pick up on hints 

Amy said that the most important thing she had learned in her relationship was the importance of very clear communication.

“He expects that I will tell him something important. He will not guess and does not often ask,” she said. 

“Sometimes they are just totally unaware, so addressing it head-on helps my partner understand when they have said or done something hurtful or offensive,” agreed a British-American Local reader. 

“Be direct and say it as it is,” said Joy from Ireland. “Understand the context behind everything your partner does, so you can avoid misunderstandings.”

Embrace Danish hygge traditions

As should be well-known to anyone who has not been living in a cave for the past decade, Danes prize hygge, a sense of wellbeing, togetherness and familiarity, together with all the traditions that go with it. 

This means anyone marrying into the society will have to adopt as many of these traditions as they can, or risk destroying the atmosphere at every social or family time. 

A Polish woman said she had come to approach the Danish approach. 

“I love that the family is more important than work or financial status. The feeling of hygge here and now is the best thing that you can do when you have a family or kids,” she said. “My danish partner has told me that every little moment of hygge is important as a family and also in every kind of relationship.”

“Be ready to grow and experience the world together, but never neglect the hygge moments at home,” agreed a woman from a Baltic country. 

Learn adequate Danish 

While one respondent complained that for many Danes, speaking Danish with an accent counts as not speaking Danish, many were agreed that learning the language was important for making your relationship with a Dane a success. 

“It helps to understand/speak Danish so your partner is not your translator, but you don’t have to be perfect,” said one American. 

“Try to speak at least a little Danish. Ask them to speak Danish not English to you. It’s always appreciated,” said Anton, from England. 

Embrace Danish culture 

“Be ready to compromise a lot, especially if your culture is significantly different from theirs,” recommended one woman from Bulgaria. “They probably won’t change their ways so you’ll have to,” 

“Be interested in the culture and traditions. Follow Danish news as well as American and world news,” said one American pensioner. “Explore Denmark (and the world) together. Ask questions about traditions and expected norms and behaviors before going to parties or special events like family Christmas.” 

“Liking black licorice and having an open mind,” said another American, while acknowledging that dancing around the Christmas tree, bonfires, witch burning, and lent, are “weird at first”. 

There is no limit to how far you can go in embracing Danishness, argued Kerstin, from Germany.

“Become as Danish as you can.”  

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