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How to write a polite letter or email in Danish

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The Local ([email protected])
How to write a polite letter or email in Danish
A letter sent by the government to parents in 2020 outlining Covid-19 rules starts with the formal "Kære". Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Writing letters may be a dying art to some extent, but the need to write a polite email or other message is still alive and well. What should you avoid in an email if you don't want to appear rude?

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How to address the person you're writing to

You might be used to a relatively high level of formality in letters and emails when compared to Denmark.

In German, for example, you're often expected to use every title the person you're addressing holds when addressing them in formal written correspondence, such as Sehr geehrte Frau Dr. Mustermann for a woman with the surname Mustermann who holds a doctorate.

In formal English, you're usually expected to use 'dear', followed by the full name of the person you're addressing, with or without the title: Dear (Mr.) Joe Bloggs, for example.

Danish, in comparison, is less formal.

You can choose to use the word kære, followed by the full name (no title) of the person you're writing to if you've never been in contact with them before, like this: Kære Jens Jensen, although this can appear a bit outdated. Slightly less formal is kære with just the first name: Kære Jens.

The other option – usually the safest bet unless you’re confident of the need for formality – is to just go with a simple hej, along with their first name, both in text and speech. 

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Kære at the beginning of a Danish letter or email is equivalent to using the the word 'dear' for the same purposes in English. Like in English, it also means "beloved" or "darling" in other contexts, which is probably why some Danes don’t bother using it in modern correspondence.

If you are writing to someone very close to you – like a family member – kære becomes a more natural option again, because you are now using it in the sense of the word that conveys familiarity. However, hej is also fine for close family and friends.

When addressing someone at the beginning of an email, it’s optional whether you put a comma afterwards (as you would in English). So while all of the following examples will look fine to a Danish reader, most people tend to skip the comma.

Kære Jens Jensen,

Kære Jens Jensen

Hej Jens,

Hej Jens

What if I don't know who I'm addressing?

Sometimes when you send an email, you're not sure who will be opening it at the other end. In English, you'd use 'to whom it may concern', and you can translate this to til rette vedkommende in Danish.

Alternatively, you could just go for a hej without a name following it, or try and be a bit more specific about who it is you're trying to reach. If you have a question for IT support, for example, you could write something like Kære IT-support (or Hej IT-support). An email sent to a group might address the group as an entity: Kære forældre ("Dear parents").

Avoid anything similar to 'dear Sir/Madam' (which would be herr and fru in Danish).

This would, at best, make you sound a bit strange and outdated, and in the worst-case scenario, you could appear a bit patronising, especially if you are a man addressing a woman. 

Although Danish does technically have informal and formal words for you (du/De), the formal version (De) has essentially fallen out of use, unless you are addressing a member of the royal family, in which case practice using it beforehand!

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How should I end my email?

There are a few different ways you can end an email, but the most common one is med venlig hilsen which translates to "(with) kind regards".

There are a number of variations of this, like mange hilsener (“many greetings/regards”), bedste hilsener (“best greetings/regards”) and the less formal hilsen (“(a) greeting”).

You might see med venlig hilsen shortened to Mvh or Vh, (as well as Dbh and Bh if bedste hilsener is used), but write them out in full if you're sending an email, at least the first time you contact someone.

You can also end your email with some kind of time-specific sign off, although these are usually best reserved for the final email in a conversation, for example god weekend (have a nice weekend) if you're writing to someone on a Friday afternoon.

The more affectionate med kærlig hilsen or Kh in abbreviated form should be reserved for family and close friends only.

The most informal way to sign off an email or letter, which you might come across if someone is briefly replying to a query or has a short answer for some other reason, is just to write your name preceded by a forward slash: /Jens.

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