Welcome to my second blog post! See my first one here. This time I’m going to be discussing how Danish culture is reflected in the Danish language. The following is my personal interpretation, which stems almost exclusively from my personal experiences living in the capital city of Copenhagen.
The Danish language was taught to me with the intention of educating foreigners about the culture. I would learn the vocabulary for different topics, like Danish politics, Danish music and film, etc. while learning grammar and syntax. As I learned the language, I was also being taught the culture. Brilliant method of teaching a language!
You cannot ever attain a complete picture of a culture. Society and culture are fluid and there are a billion interpretations of everything happening all the time. And this is my interpretation. So, let’s get into it, shall we?
The outsider perspective
According to contemporary social science, ideologies are invisible to those who adhere to them. When I say ideology, what I mean is; beliefs, values, ways of thinking, and common-sense (Yes. Also common-sense). In other words, if you live where a social norm exists, you cannot see it.
For example, adulthood is a social construct. But we have naturalized the concept of adulthood so much so, that we cannot see that it is a made-up worldview. Think about it, even within our own society, the concept of adulthood is contested.
Some claim that our brains are not fully developed until we are 23-25. The 18- and 19-year-olds will tell you they are adults, not teenagers, but pretty much everyone else agrees they are still teenagers. We have this idea that adulthood is some sort of final stage of development. But, in reality, our bodies and brains never stop developing and changing. When do you think adulthood is reached?
Coming from a society where maturity and autonomy are measured by something other than age, you would be able to see our ‘adulthood’ as just a made-up concept more clearly.
All this is to say that I had the privilege of an outsider perspective when learning the Danish language and encountering the Danish culture. And this gave me the privilege of clarity, even if my perspective is colored by the American culture.
The power of language
So, after that introduction legitimizing my perspective on Danish culture, let’s talk about the Himba tribe in southern Angola. The Himba tribe is a more or less isolated people. They are surrounded by lush green forest, and thus have many words for the color green.
The color blue does not have a name for itself. Rather, it is lumped in with the green shades. In the below diagram, a member of the Himba tribe takes some time to point out the blue square on the right and has no trouble at all pointing out which square is different on the left.
Can you tell which square is different in the left circle of squares? I certainly can’t. But it would take a member of the Himba tribe no time at all to point it out. (Hint: both circles have the same different square.)
I love the Himba example because it’s so obvious and clear. We literally see differently depending on our language and surroundings.
These things are much easier to see when comparing a Westerner’s culture to the Himba’s. It gets a little more muddled when cultures are more similar, differences are more nuanced, and social norms feel so natural that we call our way of doing things ‘common-sense’.
Let’s get back to the Danes, shall we? Before we go into analyzing a couple of phrases that I think really represent some differences between the US and DK (Denmark), I’d like to talk about the lack of the word ‘please’ in the language and what that means.
There is no word for ‘please’
In my experience, Danes have high standards for each other. They expect their fellow countrywomen and men to be polite, well-mannered, and well-behaved. If anyone dares demand something from a store clerk or speak harshly to their waitress, they are sorely policed back into place with judgmental glances, awkward mannerisms, and sometimes even explicit exclusion.
The fact that there is no word for ‘please’ doesn’t mean that Danes are not polite. There are lots of very polite Danes and I’m sure a fair share of impolite ones. Actually, I’m 100% sure there are impolite Danes. But they are not impolite because there is no word for ‘please’.
Rather than demanding things all the time, Danes have found, in my opinion, creative ways to ask nicely for things. So, where the native English speaker would just add the word please to a sentence, and maybe change their tone of voice, the Dane has a variety of words to add to the sentence.
So how are you polite without please? You simply add ‘good’ and ‘friendlily’ to your request. Or straight out ask someone to be sweet. Here are some examples which are directly translated from Danish to English;
‘May I good go early home from work?’
‘Can you friendily pass me the salt?‘
‘Can you be sweet and wash my clothes with yours?‘
During my 6 years here in Denmark, I have been pleasantly surprised to hear the multitude of ways you can be polite without using the word ‘please’. And I think this goes to show just how non-Viking these people are.
You would think the descendants of Vikings would be a little more extreme. But they are the opposite of what we today think of as plundering Vikings. Check out the TV series Norsemen if you want to see what polite and reasonable Vikings would look like.
Being cut off in traffic in Denmark (yes it happens)
So, let’s talk about the way Danes express annoyance at being cut off in traffic. I’ve also heard the expressions I’ll be exemplifying used for those annoying people who speed down the street in loud cars or motorcycles. You know the ones.
Road rage is not uncommon where I come from. It’s almost therapeutic for some. If you cut someone off in progressive Colorado, you might get yelled at, beeped at, and given the finger. In Wyoming, you might get followed for a little while, or the person you cut off might try to convince you to pull over so they can fight you. Don’t even get me started on Florida driving culture.
True Story, once I was with my mom in Tennessee and we were in a hurry. I told my mom, a chronic traffic rule follower, to drive a little more aggressively. And I swear to you, the conversation went like this;
Me: “You might want to drive a little more aggressively if we are gonna get there in time!”
My Mother: “No! Vehicles are considered domiciles in Tennessee and people are allowed to have guns in their car. I could get shot for cutting someone off.”
Me: “WHY DO YOU LIVE HERE?”
My Mother: “YOU DON’T GET SHOT IF YOU AREN’T AN A** HOLE!”
So, what happens in Denmark if you cut someone off in traffic? Well, you might hear one or more of the following expressions;
‘They must be very busy.’
‘They must be on the way to something very important.’
‘Well, they are certainly in a hurry!’
Which is probably the cutest response I have ever heard. And what’s more, this response is very often meant as an insult. Sarcastic tolerance of rude behavior is not foreign to me. But suggesting that someone is cutting you off in traffic because they must be very busy, even sarcastically, is foreign to me.
I think it is a fantastic example of just how passive and tolerant Danish culture is. I think Danes see their society as more harmonious than Americans. Every person is one part of a whole society. And therefore, everyone ought to behave with respect. This method of handling a rude act is quite telling.
It shows the resistance within the culture to be rude outright. It represents the hard work put in historically to value a peaceful society. It illuminates the subtle policing strategy so often used in this country. Rather than outright correcting, rudeness is met with passive social pressure to be better.
When you want to “be yourself”
“Jeg vil gerne være mig selv I nat” and in English; “I would like to be myself tonight”. In America, this would mean you want to be who you are. It’s about identity and feeling comfortable in yourself. But in Danish, this is how one expresses that they want to be alone.
The first time I heard this, I was Skyping with my then Danish boyfriend from the US. He told me he wanted to spend the rest of the evening ‘just being himself’. Not realizing he was trying to tell me he wanted a night alone, I went, ‘Hell yeah! You go babe! I think you should be yourself all the time!’. And then the poor Dane was forced to be a little more direct.
Putting the miscommunication aside, I find this little funny translation interesting. In Danish you could say,
‘We are Karen and Mike and Kira tonight.’
Or in other words,
‘There are three of us hanging out tonight, and they are Karen, Mike and Kira.’
So, if you are alone, there is only you, hence the phrase “I want to be only me” or “I want to just be myself”. You can see how they got there right?
Even so, I think it’s very representative of the Danish culture. One of the big differences, in my opinion, between being a woman in her 20s in the US vs DK, one of the most important lessons I think I’ve learned here, is how to be happy on my own, in my own space.
I used to need energy from other people and felt like something was missing if I wasn’t being social. Now, I find that I can’t recharge unless I get some me-time.
While America has a very extroverted culture that is also represented in the English spoken in America (something I will get to later), I think it’s very clear that Denmark has a much more introverted culture.
And if we look closer at the miscommunication between my now ex-boyfriend and me, I thought he was trying to tell me that he can’t be himself unless he was alone. And even though that translation is flawed, I think it still has some truth.
The pressure to be extroverted in the US has diminished the power of the introvert to be comfortable. You hear introverts being pressured to be more social, but you don’t really hear extroverts being pressured to be less… I don’t know… extroverted.
I think there is value in both introversion and extroversion. Rather than passing judgment on any specific social behavior, I want to point out how language can be used as a tool to help us understand ourselves and how we are influenced by our environment. Where do you lie on the introvert/extrovert spectrum? How much of your environment influences that?
Naturally, after living here for 6 years, I have adopted some Danish values. Not only is privacy and alone time normal, but it is expected. Even in public. The expectation that you are left alone when in public is probably what started the rumor that Danes are cold and distant.
Danes don’t like to be bothered unless they have scheduled it. And being approached in public leads to awkward escapism and nobody likes it. If you do approach someone in public, people expect you to either be asking for directions, trying to rob them or that there is something wrong with you (you are disabled or on drugs).
If most people feel like they cannot be themselves unless they are alone, what does that say about the culture?
I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but I have become accustomed to privacy in public and I find myself feeling uncomfortable being approached my first week back in the States.
American extroversion and American English
One of the most exciting things when I look back on moving to Denmark, was that I got to analyze and understand my own culture better. I have heard more than one American say that the US has no culture. And that is simply untrue! We are loud and proud and unashamed.
Let’s take a quick look at American English and American culture, shall we? Let’s look at some of the vocabulary used on American soil.
Say you tell someone you saw the latest avenger movie, and they respond with “Dude that’s awesome! I just saw it too and it was amazing!”. But is it really awe-inspiring that they saw the newest avenger movie? And does the latest avenger movie really incite amazement?
We use these grandiose words to express ourselves. And we keep coming up with new words because the old ones lose their meaning. But rather than throwing shade on the American teenager in California calling her nails fabulous, I want to put the spotlight on how this language reflects American culture.
Why do Americans feel the need to overly express how they feel? And why do Danes put more value on hiding their feelings behind politeness and a closed door? Hearing the phrase ‘Americans are so loud’ in Denmark, annoys me just as much as hearing ‘you should get out more and be social!’ In America. Sometimes I feel like expressing myself loudly! My Feelings are allowed to take up space! However, sometimes, I just feel like being home alone for a week and that’s okay too.
What can your language teach you about yourself?
Rather than trying to figure out which culture is better, and which one has it right, I find it more interesting to take a tool like language and try to gain a better understanding of ourselves, those around us, and the environments that shape us. What discourses shape our mindsets? What can our language tell us about ourselves?
I think language is an underused tool in the understanding of a people. I think it really shows the boundaries of expression and shapes a lot more than we realize. I will probably never stop learning about Danish culture under the microscope of language.
Learning a foreign language as an adult has taught me more than I thought it would about the human experience and I challenge you to take a similar approach to understand yourself.