Lap Dansk — an unexpected life in Denmark — Part 1

Growing up in a Danish home was a fantastic primer for embedding myself into a Copenhagen life years later. My parents arrived in Canada from Denmark in 1953 and my childhood was spent surrounded, by and large, by first-generation immigrant kids. Your last name was your identifier and Andersen — labelled me as “Danish” among the kids from Hungarian, Croatian, Lithuanian or Ukrainian parents.

I was very much influenced by my roots and Danish culture and tradition was a huge part of my identity. Feeling all Danishy, with a stomach full of rye bread and herring is one thing. When I moved to Copenhagen in 1994, I soon realised that you miss out on many aspects of that identity and culture if you don’t spend your formative years in a place. I had grown up with a great big pile of metaphorical Lego but no instruction manual.

Welcome to my learning curve. Join me for a lap dansk.

Mikael and Mette and Lars and Lise

This is a country that operates purely on a first name basis, on a scale I’ve never really seen anywhere else. I have literally never called anyone Herre Jensen or Frue Magnussen in 25 years, regardless of their age or social hierarchy. This must really freak out the hierarchical French or Austrians when they come here.

I know it freaks them out. At the opening of an exhibition of my photography in Strasbourg some years ago, there were a whole bunch of fancy people present from various countries, including the Danish EU Commissioner for the Environment and the Danish Minister for Europe.

I was the last to speak at the podium and had listened to a long line of speakers spend a week on their intro: “Monsieur le President, Madame la Commissaire, Monsieur le Ministre, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen…” before getting to the point — which was often shorter than their intro.

When it was my turn, I gave the top dog his due but then went all Dansk on them. “Monsieur le President and, as we say in Denmark — hi, Connie, hi Nikolaj… and ladies and gentlemen”.

Cue a shocked audience turning to look at two Danish politicians laughing their head off and waving back.

I often explain it to people like this: If the Prime Minister of Denmark walks up, my natural default would be to say, “Hej, Mette”, if though I’ve never met the woman. Exceptions to the rule include addressing the Queen and her title-ridden family, although among the people, her nickname is Daisy and her sons are referred to affectionately as Frede and Jokke.

Another exception is using someone’s last name or middle last name as a nickname, usually if they vary from the generic names like Jensen, Larsen, Rasmussen and the like. As Colville-Andersen, I get called Colville because Mikael and Andersen are like Joe and Smith.

When you were growing up you probably called your schoolteachers Ms, Mrs or Mr Lastname. My kids hardly know their teachers’ family names. It never comes up and isn’t important.

I find all this to be so incredibly refreshing. It hammers home the horizontal nature of this society. It’s also understandable considering the fact that 47% of the population has a last name ending with -sen and a whopping 1.5 million Danes are called Nielsen, Jensen, Larsen, Andersen, Sørensen, Rasmussen, Pedersen, Hansen, Christensen or Jørgensen.

Dem De Du

Like other languages, Danish is historically equipped with formal and informal ways to address people of higher stature or advanced age. Starting in the liberal 60's and 70's, however, using the formal De — like the French Vous — started to decline and is now virtually eliminated. Everyone became du.

Except those pesky royals, although when meeting the two princes at separate, work-related events, I informed them that I had never used the formal words and apologised in advance for slipping up. They were both like “no, problem, man”. I am royally screwed if I ever have to meet their mom, though.

Quebec is one of the few other places that phased out this kind of fancy talk and due to have spent a lot of time in Montreal, throwing around tu and toi at everyone, it is now extremely stressing to then go to France and dust off the Vous. Although as an old guy, everyone else has to do the linguistic legwork more than me.

In recent years, I’ve noticed that younger bartenders or cannabis sellers at the anarchist freetown of Christiania often address me as “Herre”, which is akin to “sir” but it’s delivered with a light, playful and ironic tone. To which I respond, “thank you, young man. Most kind.

Brok ‘n roll

This is a nation with a strong “brokkekultur” — a culture of complaining. Bitching about this or that incessantly. While I’ve learned it is pretty universal in every culture, Danes seem to be oddly proud of it.

The modern Denmark is a place where there is little to complain about. One of the world’s best democracies, the least corrupt country in the world, free medical care and schooling — we pay YOU to go to university — so much of the whining ends up being comical. Just yesterday I was coming home from the airport on the Metro and we were delayed — unusually — for ten minutes. Groans sounded up and down the train at the announcement. The older man next to me, mumbled, “jesus christ, how hard can it be to run a Metro”. He cocked his head towards me as though trying to enlist me in a groupwhine. A TEN MINUTE delay.

If you want to mess with a Dane, it’s fun and easy. Don’t take their grumble bait and instead go all positive, like I did. “Luckily, we have one of the most efficient metro systems in the world where trains run every two to three minutes during the day and the trains roll 24/7. So ten minutes once in a rare while ain’t that bad, don’t you think?” He was completely unequipped to respond to such positivity.

The groupwhine is at its best when, for example, a supermarket line suddenly closes and everyone is forced to disperse to other lines. Try saying to the complainers, “well, it’s not like our families were just wiped out by an American drone or our kids just died of ebola…” The faces are priceless.

I’ll give my fellow citizens a longer leash when it comes to complaining about the weather, though. It often sucks. Although it is funny how the arrival of autumn and winter is regarded as a personal affront and you’d think it was the first time people had ever experienced winter. Surprise! It’s cold! — just like every single year in the 12,000 years we’ve inhabited this place.

Regarding summer, I have identified, through a quarter century of very unscientific observation, that a temperature of 25.3°C creates a complaint vacuum. Anything lower than that and it’s “typical crappy summer! Anything higher and the nation gasps theatrically for breath in the “heat”. Portable fans are sold out when the temperature skyrockets to… 28°C. Seriously. At 25.3°C, Danes are forced to reluctantly engage with strangers with phrases like, “um… it’s actually pretty nice out today…” Awkward.


The years we spend at school have a massive influence on us as people. It’s where we learn to navigate the culture of the place we’re in, together with a large group of fellow citizens.

Moving to a country without having gone to school there means you’re dealing with a gaping hole in your understanding of your new home. Luckily, you can just have kids and siphon off experience through them in order to decode the people around you.

It starts early. From Day 1 in daycare, which is often at the age of 6 months to a year, my kids started their deep journey into a life in Danish society. In a nutshell, it’s all about working together. Cooperation, collaboration and sharing. Fidgety, non-verbal humans with as yet poorly developed motor skills are placed in constant circles to learn how to work together — oh, and to hear songs and music and stuff, too. It really is nailed down early on, this “we’re in it together” approach.

The caregivers I’ve known spoke to the kids as adults, something I did with my own when they were small. No ‘choo choo train” — you’ll be calling it a train for the rest of your life, so why not start now. The adults treat the kids as equals and present them with concepts like sharing toys and being nice to each other in level tones and with a calm demeanour. According to one article, Danish schools have been teaching empathy since 1993. I would guess they just started calling it something in the 90's because it has been the standard operating procedure for much longer.

Seeing this early learning makes you understand the Danes. You get why they are happy to engage in arguments about politics or society because the level of discussion is usually intelligent, they listen well and they know that at the end of it all, the worst case will be simply agreeing to disagree.

Parents can be cool and — rumour has it — they can even teach kids stuff. But when you are going to be spending your life in a society of friends and strangers, this early cultural immersion into togetherness is integral. It makes you question leaving a kid at home with a parent and only chucking them headlong into social situations, like school, at the age of six.

Parents can be cool but not always other parents. Once your kids enter the education system, you are, as a parent, sucked into the vortex of forced interaction with the parents of other kids. Often adults you would avoid in your daily life. That’s universal around the world but if you’ve not been trained from a young age in their ways, you have to adapt quickly.

I was never a fan of the many parents meetings arranged to discuss a wide variety of topics related to our kids. I am generally a good listener but I prefer to listen to people I actually find interesting. Strange, I know. The most interesting people in the parent flock usually stayed quiet at these meetings and let others lead the discussions.

There is a unique type of person that you meet in similar situations in Danish life. The self-appointed leaders complete with sanctimonious flair and attitude. They nod extra emphatically when others comment (see how hard I’m listening to you?) and then launch into their next monologue (see why my ideas are the best?). They propose, outsource and dictate. There’s one in every group setting, especially parent groups.

Forty percent of Copenhageners live in a housing cooperative called an Andelsforening and there’s one of your neighbours, every time you have a meeting, with a voice louder than the rest and a head that incessantly nods.

Irritating parents and neighbours aside, this constant and consistent group therapy that starts at a young age serves to maintain the nation’s horizontality. While it sometimes might feel difficult to break out of this tight circle of togetherness — as someone who didn’t grow up with it, it is a bedrock of Danish identity and culture.

Don’t Cry for Me, Copenhagen

When you travel away from Denmark you notice something missing back at home. Kids screaming and throwing tantrums in public. Oh the quiet that has descended on public space and supermarket aisles. You didn’t realise it until you got home after seeing parents engage in epic behaviour battles in foreign countries.

The only situation where a huge increase in verbal decibels is acceptable is when you’re drunk and the mumbling Danish language becomes a throaty earth-shattering roar. A little kid crying and screaming in a supermarket or on a bus is considered socially unacceptable.

Danish parents generally do the prep work in advance. Talking to their kids as equals, teaching them that discussion and compromise yield better results than tantrums. I know from experience that things can easily go ballistic inside the four walls of our homes but when we are out in public, we seem to respect that our private dramas should remain private.

Dividers We Fall

It’s a culturally homogeneous nation, this Denmark thing. That’s the way the dice of history have rolled for millennia. Now, with a modernised view of community, education and an impressive All for One, One for All attitude, it’s tricky to find things about each other that are guaranteed to irritate strangers.

Which makes it easier to identify the greatest faux pas in the land. The most supremely socially unacceptable act you could inflict on your fellow citizens.

Go to a supermarket. Put your groceries on the conveyor belt. Place your basket in the pile. And then DO NOT grab a triangular divider and DO NOT place it behind your wares so that the person behind you can start putting their groceries down.

A tsunami of unease will swell up from the dead, unmarked space behind your skim milk and jar of pickled beets and wash over the person waiting behind you in the line — quite possibly the people behind them, too. Their eyes narrow, their breathing becomes shallow, they slow their movements. It’s a full-body gasp of disbelief that penetrates their soul.

If you forgot — it happens (you’re allowed two episodes of forgetfulness per year) — you’ll quickly grab the divider and put it down, as well as pushing your wares together towards the cashier in a subliminal gesture of deepest regret and apology to the person behind you — and their entire family dating back to the invention of supermarkets. You might be able to mumble something unintelligible like “oops” but that is rare, given the severity of the moment. Denmark is one of the countries in the world with the most supermarkets per capita. The supermarket is a church and you just peed on the altar.

If you’re like me and you enjoy pushing the limits of cultural tolerance, don’t reach for that divider. Just stand there with a serene, innocent look on your face like you’re thinking of summer holidays. Watch the cultural foundations of the person — people, even — behind you crumble into dust until they are forced to grab YOUR divider and set it forcefully down with an audible THWACK behind YOUR groceries. Doing YOUR job for you, you lazy human.

You just know that they’ll be talking about it with their family later. Possibly for decades to come.

Association Denmark

My primary issue with living in Denmark is this: I can’t play tennis. I am simply not afforded the opportunity. There are tennis courts, of course, but they are membership only.

When I grew up in Canada, there were free, municipal tennis courts everywhere. If my friends and I didn’t want to wait, we rode our bikes to another one. In the winter, they were often flooded to create public skating rinks. So moving to Denmark — a welfare state with a focus on public health — and discovering a lack of public sports facilities was a bit of a shock.

Welcome to Association Denmark — Foreningen Danmark. The gist of it is that if you want to participate in an activity — most any activity — you’ll be better off doing it in an association or club with other people. That’s been decided for you. Not much choice in the matter, sunshine. Sure, it’s a knock on effect from the whole sense of togetherness that gets established early on in life. It extends to sports and recreational activities and applies to the strong union culture here. But for me, this tennis example takes it a bit too far. It’s even in the language. “Går du til noget?” or “Do you go to anything?” means are you in some club for square dancing, badminton, knitting, crossfit, etc. It’s super awkward if you don’t go to anything.

Now sure, you and I can rent a court at a neighbourhood sports center and play badminton, squash, indoor football, basketball or what have you (note the lack of tennis) and get some exercise. We can find an outdoor basketball court or some grass in a park to play football and there are a few outdoor skating rinks in the winter. But it’s not the default and sometimes this Association Denmark thing gets comical.

I recall a few years ago that someone proposed building a squash court in some development in my neighbourhood. That is, until the Danish Squash Union got wind of the idea and lobbied against it. “We’re the squash people in this country!” Like there is some holy rite to being able to operate an empty room with hardwood floors.

It gets better. The Danish Gymnastics and Athletics Association (DGI) — really the Mother of all sporty associations in Denmark with over 6300 smaller associations under its wings — wanted to open a sports facility in Copenhagen with gyms, bowling and a swimming pool. They got into hot water regarding the latter because they included an olympic-sized swimming pool in their plans for the new building. This didn’t please the Danish Swimming Union, who apparently reigns supreme over all swimming activities in the Kingdom. The DGI ended up dropping the olympic-sized — and shaped — pool and thumbed their noses at the swimmers by building … a huge oval pool. It’s really weird to swim in circles, trust me.

You can live a life outside of Association Denmark but do so at your own, isolated peril.

Put a Sweater On

There you are. In control of your destiny. Making your own choices as an adult. Living in an impeccably designed apartment. Riding your bike around the city like you own the place.

Then, on an unusually chilly evening near the end of April, you saunter over to your radiator to turn up the heat a bit. Nothing happens. It remains as cold as the hearts of people who don’t put down dividers in supermarkets.

Then you realise… the City has turned off your heat.

In Copenhagen and other cities, district heating is the norm. It flows from power plants to your home in the most efficient and modern way possible — right up until it doesn’t anymore because now it’s spring. You’ll have to wait until October to once again rule your own heating roost.

It’s for environmental reasons, absolutely. Why should we generate heat when we don’t really need it? I get it and, to be honest, I have no problem with it. Except for during cold snaps near the end of April and in mid-October. That’s when I remember my mother’s standard response to complaining about cold: “put a sweater on”.

If you’re feeling chilly, take a hot shower. Turn up the water to full blast. Or rather, the full blast regulated by the authorities. In a country with no real rivers and where all the freshwater comes from aquifers, it’s fair enough that the water pressure is controlled to limit waste. Climate change in Denmark comes in the form of torrential rain and cloudbursts so the government recently loosened up the pressure regulations because there was a surplus of underground water. Like with the heating, I’m fine with it. It makes showering in hotel rooms under a knee-weakening blast of water all the more luxurious.

Jantelov — The Law of Jante

You don’t get around talking about Jantelov when talking about Denmark. Actually, you don’t get around living in Denmark without the discussion of Jantelov popping up. The Law of Jante originates in a novel by Aksel Sandemose in 1933 wherein the people of the fictional town of Jante live their lives by ten “laws”.

Don’t think you are anything special

Don’t think you are as good as we are.

Don’t think you’re smarter that we are

Don’t imagine yourself to be better than we are.

Don’t think you know more than we do.

Don’t think you’re more important than we are.

Don’t think that you’re good at anything.

Don’t laugh at us.

Don’t think anyone cares about you.

Don’t think you can teach us anything.

Sandemose’s humorous fiction didn’t appear out of thin air. It was based on an unspoken, cultural understanding not only in Denmark, but the other Nordic countries as well. And yeah, it doesn’t look particularly inviting, does it? After Sandemose wrote the rules down, 90 years of discussion began about whether it is still relevant.

It’s there. Maybe more below the surface than before, what with increased self-expression and a globalized mentality but you’re still subliminally encouraged to place more emphasis on the collective nature of society than on your individual achievement. Tell us about your recent pay rise or new promotion — just don’t brag too much for too long. Also be aware that the blurred lines of “too much or too long” still vary whether you’re in a cool Copenhagen café or a local pub in the country.

You can, absolutely, just be yourself and ignore all things Jante. Knowing the rules means you can break them. Just being familiar with these ten laws and knowing they might be lingering below the surface of everyone you talk to in Denmark is key to navigating the culture.


Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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