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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If you buy the ticket in time but your phone battery runs out, you’ll also be fined but you can appeal to have the fine withdrawn.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 do Danes eat lunch so early?

If you are new to a Danish workplace, you might think that going for lunch at noon would be beating the lunchtime rush. The opposite is true. Lunchtime in Denmark begins as early as 11:30am and you won't find many eating after 1pm. We investigate this early eating habit.

Why do Danes eat lunch so early?

It is well known that Danes are punctual and when it comes to lunchtime, the same can be said, with most people eating by noon or 12:30pm. But why does lunch start so early?

Professor Karen Klitgaard Povlsen of Aarhus University’s School of Communication and Culture believes the habit goes back hundreds of years. 

“Denmark used to be a farming country. When I was a child, I was raised on a farm and people got up very early in the morning and had their first coffee at around 9am and then lunch, which was warm, at around 11:30am. Then they slept for some hours. I think this pattern was more or less imitated by factories in the late 19th century,” she told The Local.

“But what I find really interesting is that in Denmark, unlike the rest of Europe, most people have their lunch at the same time, which is really rather unusual. Between 12pm and 12:30pm you won’t find anyone in the office,” she said.

Pupils at schools in Denmark tend to eat their lunch at noon and start their day at 8am, which is slightly earlier than other European countries. It appears adults follow the same pattern.

“The tradition to eat lunch early, at 12, might be that lunch in Denmark is not a big meal like other European countries. It’s a cold meal and often a lunch pack from home, often a few sandwiches,” Professor Lotte Holm of the University of Copenhagen told The Local. She has researched the social and cultural aspects of eating in various settings.

“In the workplace in Denmark, lunchtime is often around 30 minutes, with the aim that colleagues sit and eat together. There is of course an exception in certain workplaces, such as customer services and in hospitals where that’s not possible.

“Eating lunch at a desk happens but is not considered good style, or how it should be. I don’t think it happens that often,” Holm said.

In her Nordic study, Holm and a team of researchers followed the eating patterns of people in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finalnd over a fifteen-year period, from 1997 to 2012.

The results showed distinctly different national rhythms to eating, which were fairly persistent.

“Sweden deviates from the other Nordic countries because they have a social institutionalised mid-morning break called Fika, where they meet and have coffee and cinnamon buns. We have breaks at the workplace but they’re not official like in Sweden,” she said.

Denmark is a country of coffee drinkers so taking caffeine breaks definitely features in the workplace but they are not official breaks, Holm notes.

There are also differences between the Nordic countries when it comes to lunch.

“Denmark and Norway differ to Sweden and Finland, in that Denmark and Norway have cold lunches. We have lunch packs, whereas Sweden and Finland have hot lunches served in workplaces and in schools, where children eat for free.

“So there is more flexibility for the family evening meal in Sweden and Finland, because you eat more food at school and at work. In Denmark and Norway, there is more regular eating in the evening”, Holm said.

“Family time is prioritised in Denmark, as it is for all the Nordic countries. A lot happens during family meals, it’s socialising with children and teaching about language and morals and the world. It’s considered very important and they do this in Nordic countries on a regular basis, not everyday but it’s often,” Holm said.

“Our Nordic study showed dinners in Denmark to be around 6:30pm or 7pm. In Norway they are earlier, so Denmark is not particularly early here, but compared to countries like Spain, they are. In Denmark, the evening meal is often a hot meal,” she added.

It’s also worth noting that the times Danish people eat meals are different to the times attributed to certain parts of the day.

For example, eating lunch (frokost) can be anywhere between 11:30am and 1:30pm but when someone says they want to meet at frokosttid (lunchtime), they mean noon-1pm.

This comes after formidddag (9am-noon) and morgen (6am-9am).

The evening meal (aftensmad) is eaten anywhere between 5:30pm and 8:30pm but evening time (aften) is 6pm-midnight, preceded by afternoon (eftermiddag) (noon-6pm). Night (nat) is midnight-6am.