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Five Danish rules foreign residents should try not to break

It's easier to get along as a foreigner living in Denmark if you keep to some of the Nordic country's most ingrained rules -- whether spoken or unspoken.

Copenhagen metro
You will get a fine unless you have a ticket or have checked in your Rejsekort before getting on public transport in Denmark. Photo: Betina Garcia/Ritzau Scanpix

Enter public transport without a ticket

Unlike the New York subway, the London Tube and the Paris Metro, there are no turnstiles or checkpoints at Danish metro or train stations. It is your responsibility to make sure you’ve bought a ticket (from a machine or app) or checked in with your travel card (Rejsekort).

You can’t buy your ticket once you’ve entered the train and metro and you can’t start downloading your app once on board. If the ticket inspectors find this out, you’ll be fined heftily.

If you buy the ticket in time but your phone battery runs out, you’ll also be fined but you can appeal to have the fine withdrawn.

On buses, you can buy a ticket from the driver but only with cash.

If you don’t have enough money on your Rejsekort, you’ll soon find out by a loud low buzz noise when you try to check-in, alerting everyone to your trespassing status. You will get fined if a ticket inspector boards the bus so you’ll need to find a way to top it up, buy a ticket from an app, or give some cash to the driver.

READ ALSO: READERS REVEAL: Is public transport good value in Denmark?

Offend your neighbours

There’s a lot tied up with being a good neighbour in Denmark: Following the rules (both spoken and unspoken) and helping out with communal cleaning days are both part of this but don’t expect to share life stories on the staircase.

Most apartment buildings have rules about noise in the evenings. This will usually be something like no loud music or DIY after 8pm on weekdays and 10pm on weekends.

Parties are not completely forbidden, but unless you want to be persona non grata in your opgang (building entrance), you should put a note out to warn your neighbours and promise the party will be over (or you’ll have moved on to a bar) by no later than midnight.

Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Scanpix 2017

Don’t say the neighbours are welcome to drop by if they want to. That would be awkward for everyone, especially as Danes are famously private, with neighbours offering no more than a quick hej hej in the hallway. Small talk, known as småsnak is unusual.

But one way to get to know your neighbours is helping out on arbejdsdag. This is a day during a weekend, usually twice a year, where residents of the apartment all come together to do some general tidying and upkeep of the apartment block and courtyard. Food and drink is usually involved and it’s expected you turn up.

One of the areas that everyone shares in apartment buildings is the laundry room (vaskeri) and there is a lot of potential for causing offence here.

You must book out a time slot before using the washing and drying machines, or check the planner that they are free for the next hour or so. 

The slots in after-work hours book up fast, meaning many people working normal hours book their slots days or even weeks in advance. Taking their slot would make you very unpopular.

You’re expected to clean up after yourself, which includes wiping out the detergent slot of the washing machine and removing your fluff from the dryer. Your neighbours can see which apartment booked the laundry room, so they’ll know it was you.

READ ALSO: Five things about life in Denmark you’ll probably never get used to

Cycle without rules

Life in Denmark is synonymous with being on a bike but there are, of course rules. 

You can risk getting a fine between 700 and 1,500 kroner if you:

  • Walk with your bike in the bike lane rather than cycling.
  • Cycle without both lights on during dark hours or during low visibility.
  • Cycle with another person on a one-person bike that isn’t a child in a child seat.
  • Hold onto another vehicle or person in another vehicle while cycling.
  • Hog the bike lane, chatting to your friend cycling next to you, when others need to overtake.
  • Talk on your mobile phone when cycling.
  • Cycle when drunk. The police decide on your level of drunkenness rather than there being a legal limit. But if they think you’re more than a little tipsy, you’ll be getting a 1,500 kroner fine and walking home.

Pedestrians also need to be wary and should never walk in the bike lane, except when getting on and off a bus. Failure to comply with this is likely to seriously irk the nearest approaching cyclist.

Jay walking is also an offence in Denmark. If you are found crossing a red light as a pedestrian, you’ll get a 700 kroner fine.

Copenhagen cycling police
Photo: Sarah Christine Nørgaard/BT/Ritzau Scanpix

Use dates instead of week numbers

People in Denmark use week numbers to refer to points in time, either in the past or future.

This custom was introduced in the 1970s when Denmark began considering Monday, rather than Sunday, as the first day of the week.

It is so widely used that Danes are instinctively aware of the week number they’re currently in and the the week numbers of their holidays and other important dates.

Using terms like “the second week in July” or “the week commencing Monday July 18th” will only be met by a question about what week number that is.

Week one is always the first week in which Thursday is in January. 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.

When you manage to work out the week number of your appointment, make sure you are on time. Danes take punctuality seriously. If you are running late, make sure you send a message of warning and if you’re early, slow down a little so you’re just on time.

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

Question food customs

From open sandwiches, the huge variety of cheese, to a love of liquorice; there are cultural differences when it comes to food in Denmark.

For example, there are unwritten rules when it comes to eating open sandwiches (smørrebrød). Do not add whatever is on the table and stick another piece of bread on top.

Safe combinations include rare roast beef (cold) on rugbrød topped with remoulade, grated fresh horseradish and crispy onions. Or shrimp, eggs and aioli with an optional topping of salmon, cucumber, lemon or cress.

Photo: Sofie Mathiassen/Ritzau Scanpix

Don’t question the Danes’ love of liquorice. You won’t be able to avoid it, as it appears in anything from chocolate, to ice cream to even a cup of tea. It’s better to say nothing, or embrace your salty tastebuds.

Then there’s cheese. Denmark produces over four hundred thousand tonnes of cheese each year, ranging from Danbo to Danablu.

But when it comes to soft cheese, like havarti and the ‘Cheasy’ range from Arla, you must not cut this with a knife. Instead, use an ostehøvl (cheese slicer), the quintessential Danish kitchen utensil.

There are two types of ostehøvl: a wire-based type and a version that looks a bit like a trowel, with a raised edge and a gap in the middle for the sliced cheese to pass through.

Inexperienced wielders of either type of ostehøvl could find themselves causing a Danish kitchen no-no: the “ski slope”. This comes from creating uneven slices and leaving one side of the block thicker than the other.

READ ALSO: Why does Denmark produce so much cheese?

Have we missed any good unwritten Danish rules that it’s best not to break? Let us know in the comments.

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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.