April 11, 2012

CULTURE SHOCK: How the Danes Killed Small Talk

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As I embarked on my journey to the happiest country in the world, I fantasized about the people I would see: smiling, skipping and all that other “I-am-so-satisfied-with-my-life-right-now” kind of stuff.

Naturally, I was quite shocked when I arrived at my Copenhagen abode and saw nothing more than a sea of serious-faced, dark-clothed residents. I might as well have been in New York City with better architecture.

I stepped into the first immersion meeting hoping to find some answers. Two girls walked up to the podium and, having lived in the city for a few years, gave a quick summation of social do’s and don’ts.

They kindly told us to put away our colored clothing, avoid small talk and if, God forbid, you ask local “How are you?” you’re pretty much dead meat (apparently, the Danes find it rude that Americans ask this and don’t expect to hear anything more than “good”).

At this point, I thought to myself, “Hold up! Did I not order sunshine and rainbows?”

As a chatty-Cathy type who frequently tells my life story to baristas – don’t laugh, I know I am not alone here, people – it’s been incredibly hard to order my coffee or sit next to a random guy on the bus and not say anything.

In fact, on buses, most Danes next to you would rather shift around and grunt instead of actually telling you they’re getting off at the next stop. Since I’m not a mind reader, knowing when to move out of the way is a total guessing game.

To the temporary tourist, it may seem that the Danish are a completely cold society, devoid of friendliness and common courtesy, but this is very untrue. While their behavior may not fit into the category of “friendly” as Americans know it, the Danish are some of the nicest and most helpful people I have ever met.

Their reserved nature of course doesn’t mean because they dislike people, it’s just that the Danish have, in some way, completely eliminated awkward small talk from their society. For those who claim they “hate people,” this might be a dream come true!

So you can’t exactly tell a joke to the cashier, but ask someone for a translation at the grocery store or get to know a Dane on a night out and they’ll have a lot to say.

I’ve heard the Danish people more than once equated to a ketchup bottle: initially nothing comes out, but shake up a bit and the flow won’t stop.

And unlike many other places in Europe, most Danes love Americans. For some reason, unbeknownst to me, we’re completely fascinating, and our accents are sexier than British ones (my mouth dropped when I heard that one).

So I came to Denmark expecting to see people act the way I perceive as happy. Instead, I found that there’s no model for happiness.

The American concepts of acquaintances and being overly sociable do not apply to the Danish culture. The way Danes express satisfaction with their lives is not through forming unnecessary connections with every person that crosses their path, but instead enjoying the people and things already in it. And I’ve found, as an American I could learn a few things from this cultural attitude.

Liz Waldorf  is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. She may be reached at lwaldorf@cornellsun.com. Notes from Abroad: Culture Shock appears on Wednesdays.

Original Author: Liz Waldorf