danish habits For Members

Seven taboos you must never break in Denmark

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
Seven taboos you must never break in Denmark
Arriving at a Danish social gathering? Don't forget to shake hands with everyone (and that means everyone). Photo by Erika Fletcher on Unsplash

Blending in with the locals in a new country is never easy, so at least make sure you avoid these Danish social faux-pas.


Don't drink until you've made eye contact with everyone

Cocktails? Wine? Champagne? Doesn't matter. Any time there's a toast you must make eye contact with every single person at the table before you take a sip. It's not enough to look at their eyes; you must have impeccable timing or simply be very persistent until you have had that awkwardly intimate moment with everyone. Only then have you completed the skål (“cheers”) and may proceed with your drink.

Don't jump the queue

Danes are great at queuing, but they have a very different approach to it than the orderly lines seen in places like the UK.

In Denmark, folk love nothing more than grabbing a ticket and waiting their turn, even if the ticket system turns the line into a dispersed crown. From bakeries to pharmacies to rail stations, the ticket system can be found almost anywhere there’s a queue.

Attempting to jump to the front will not be kindly received, and you could receive more than just passive aggressive ‘tsk’: Danes are not shy about being direct and telling you it’s not your turn yet.


Don't leave fluff in the laundry room

Forget having your own car, summer house or private island. Owning your own washing machine is a sign you have really made it in Denmark. Until then you'll have to wash your underwear in the communal vaskekælder (laundry room, often in the basement of apartment buildings) and contend with all manner of notes from irritated neighbours, whom you otherwise never speak to.

Make sure you remove the fluff from the dryer filters and take your wet clothes out of the machines before your allotted time slot is over, or your reputation as a good neighbour will be in tatters.

Don't communicate unneccessarily with a stranger

You can’t never speak to a stranger in Denmark, but there are definitely situations where what might be perfectly normal in other countries is considered stepping over the line.

One such example of this is the classic ‘saying hello to a neighbour on the apartment stairs’: it’s actually okay to nod or say hej (but you might get ignored), but attempting to strike up a conversation here is definitely risking overstepping someone’s boundaries.

Likewise, you’ll almost never see Danes start spur-of-the-moment conversations on buses, in supermarket queues or out and about in parks or on the street.

You can, however, say something to a stranger when they step out of line – for example, by ignoring the infallible queue-ticket system (see above point).

READ ALSO: When can you talk to a stranger in Denmark without annoying them?


Don’t eat lunch at your desk (or after 12pm)

It’s considered a bit uncouth to eat meals or snacks away from tables specifically meant for dining at.

Eating dinner on the sofa in front of the television is not a standard activity in Danish homes, and even walking along the street while consuming a snack might get you a funny look (“street food” like hot dogs should be eaten while standing in the vicinity of the hot dog van).

Likewise, packed lunches and the like should be eaten in the break room or canteen at work, and not at your desk – the two realms of meals and work should be kept separate.

A related practice is that of workplaces to break for lunch at 11am, or noon by the absolute latest. It sounds like a recipe for afternoon fatigue and light-headedness, but is a custom with its roots in Denmark’s agricultural past.

READ ALSO: Why do Danes eat lunch so early?

Don't go on holiday in September

Have you noticed that the entire country grinds to a standstill for most of July? It’s not unheard of for restaurants in some of Copenhagen’s tourist hotspots to close for the holiday season and even some newspapers have been known to take a break and turn off the printers for half the summer (as no news occurs during this time of year of course).

The reason everyone seems to be off work at the same time – and colleagues wish each other a “good summer holiday” as if they were still at school --  is that Danish Holiday Act (Ferieloven) breaks down the year so that there is a “main holiday period” (hovedferie in Danish) when you are entitled to take three weeks’ consecutive vacation out of your statutory five weeks.

This period starts on May 1st and ends on September 30th, so in theory you could actually take it in September, but the school holidays and the Danish weather mean that few do.

READ ALSO: What are the rules for taking annual leave in Denmark?


Say hello to everyone (that means everyone) when you arrive

This point relates to a couple of earlier ones: firstly, the expectation you make eye contact with everyone when toasting, and second, not speaking to strangers unnecessarily.

When you arrive at a large Danish gathering – perhaps a family event with a lot of guests like a confirmation or a wedding, or something less formal like a dinner party – you should greet every single person.

This might mean working your way around the table and shaking hands with everyone there, as well as seeking out people who weren’t in the room at the time of your arrival.

When you shake hands, they will say their first name, and you reply by saying your own first name: nothing more or less.

There are a couple of grey areas: if you’re saying hello to people you’ve met before, you can hug them if you are very familiar with each other (southern European-style cheek kisses are rare), but you must not leave them out of the round of greetings, even if you only saw them yesterday.

Another dubious area is children. Obviously, shaking hands with a toddler would be ridiculous, but the actual age at which youngsters start participating in the handshake frenzy is unclear to me.

I mention the two points above because I like the idea that you should acknowledge everybody and thereby provide an equal footing at big social events, and also find it laudable because it challenges the tendency to shy away from strangers.


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