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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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For members


Why are many Danes so comfortable with nudity?

From naked communal showers at the swimming pool, to nude running races and topless sunbathing; Denmark is a country where nudity is commonplace. We take a look at why.

Why are many Danes so comfortable with nudity?

One of the most noticeable cultural features of Denmark is at the swimming pool. If you try and enter the pool while looking dry, you will get called up by a pool attendant and told you must shower. And by the way, that’s without your costume on.

To those not accustomed to communal naked showering, it can feel very odd. But to Danish people, it is merely functional.

“I definitely think we are aware there is a cultural difference in Denmark,” Danish psychotherapist Nina Reventlow told The Local.

“We get it from what the Germans call “freikörperkultur“, which means the free body culture. It comes from a health culture long ago that we adapted from the Germans around the 1940s. Then in the 1970s, it became more free-spirited. We are aware that the Danes and Germans have a special culture around this,” Reventlow said.

Denmark has no laws prohibiting nudity. As well as the naked communal showers before swimming, you will find winter bathers taking a dip in the nude, because a freezing wet costume is uncomfortable. Sunbathers often take their tops off, there are the famous naked runs at Roskilde Festival and Aarhus University and at school, pupils often shower naked after sport, in same-sex changing rooms.

“Nudity is allowed everywhere, as long as you don’t violate anyone,” Reventlow commented. 

“When you winter bathe, no one feels naked because they are not being looked at. You meet up, jump in, get a towel, dry off and go home.

“If you feel someone is looking at you, then you feel naked. So it’s not showing your body, it’s feeling comfortable about being naked,” she said.

READ ALSO: Why the shocking cold of winter bathing is a Nordic favourite

Reventlow is keen to point out that nudity in Denmark is nothing about exhibitionism or sexuality.

“They are nothing to do with each other and that’s what I think a lot of foreigners misinterpret. Nudism simply derives from a health culture. It’s about being comfortable with your body. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your body,” she said.

A survey conducted by the University of Zürich in 2016 showed that Denmark had the lowest number of people who suffered from gelotophobia – a fear of ridicule – in any country surveyed. Just 1.62 percent of Danes suffer from this, according to the study, as opposed to 13 percent of British people.

However there has been a shift recently, with the younger generation in Denmark becoming more self conscious about their bodies.

“You could say the nation is split in two, because most women are not comfortable in their bodies and that’s a huge problem for young girls,” Reventlow told The Local.

Whereas the culture of nudity in the 1970s was all about expressing freedom, today Reventlow says it is about reinforcing normal looking bodies to a generation exposed to a world of filters. 

“Most Danish girls are not comfortable with taking a naked shower with their classmates at school and a lot refuse to. In fact a lot of young people now think nudity should not be allowed.

“I think it’s a major problem that Instagram and other social media platforms that have nothing to do with reality, show these unattainable bodies. Young people also see a lot of porn and normal bodies don’t look like that.

“So I think the Danish culture of nudism is serving a new purpose now, to show natural bodies. It should never be compromising but to see that we are shaped differently and everything is fine,” Reventlow explained.

It’s something Danish broadcaster DR spread awareness of with its programme “Ultra Strips Down”, launched in 2019.

In the series, five adults stood naked in front of an audience of 11-13 year olds, to show them what bodies look like and gave the children an opportunity to ask questions. The series won an award but was also criticised by some, with right-wing Danish politician Peter Skaarup accusing the programme-makers of choosing a “vulgar way” to educate children.

The same controversy surrounded DR’s programme John Dillermand. Aimed at four to eight year olds, the animation is about a man with the world’s longest penis (dillermand literally means “penis-man”) that can do extraordinary things like rescue operations or hoisting a flag.

“We think it’s important to be able to tell stories about bodies,” public broadcaster DR posted on Facebook after the programme’s launch in January 2021.

“In the series, we recognise (young children’s) growing curiosity about their bodies and genitals, as well as embarrassment and pleasure in the body.”

Denmark is certainly a country that has a history of accepting nudity without shame or connotation. But it is also a country that is becoming conflicted in the nature of nakedness.