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Worlds apart: The Danish - Swedish culture clash

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Worlds apart: The Danish - Swedish culture clash
Photo: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS and U.S./Japan ASTER Sci
16:36 CEST+02:00
Even if only a 16 kilometre bridge separates Sweden from its ”more Continental” neighbours, the Danes, the distance between the two cultures far surpasses their physical proximity, argues Alannah Eames.

The Danes have always been proud of the fact that they are closer geographically (and in their opinion, also mentally) to Continental Europe than their Scandinavian neighbours. But even if they may be a few kilometres closer, you should still bear in mind that Copenhagen is actually perched on a large island on the far eastern seaboard of the country. In turn this island is connected to another few islands, by yet another few bridges. But for sure, they are further south, meaning less bitter winters and the possibility of travelling by road or rail to Continental Europe.

However, crossing the bridge from my new abode in Malmö is always a cultural change. Not only do I leave behind the Swedish kronor, the complimentary glass of tap water which is easily available in every Swedish restaurant and the “safe” Swedish environment, but I enter a world full of kamikaze cyclists, where a “fika” (coffee and slice of chocolate cake) for two people can sometimes set you back DKK 255 (322 kronor, $53) and where everyone seems to look different. Whereas the Swedes are walking around with their Baby Björn baby holders and three-wheeled off-road style buggies, the Danes are proudly showing off their vintage prams from the pre-war years.

Why are Danes and Swedes so different? Well, if you ask a Dane and a Swede, you are sure to get two very different answers. My Danish friends say: “The Swedes are a bit stuck-up and boring” whereas the Swedes will simply shrug their shoulders and admit that “Danes and Swedes are different. We really don't understand each other so well” and put it down to a language problem. What makes it even more interesting is that neither the Swedes nor Danes can understand each other's language so they prefer to communicate in a neutral language, English. Meanwhile, both (without admitting it) in some way envy their happy-go-lucky neighbours, the Norwegians, who can understand both Danish and Swedish.

But is it really a few degrees latitude which sets the Danes apart from their Swedish neighbours? What is a typical Dane and what is typically Danish? Most non-Swedes can easily rattle off five or six things which are typically Swedish (usually including IKEA, H&M, Björn Borg and Abba). But when I asked a fellow expat the same question about what's Danish, she paused a minute before coming up with Carlsberg, Royal Copenhagen, Maersk Shipping, Danish design and pork.

The Danes were named the happiest people in the world in a recent survey and in one way they come across as more easy-going and content than their Swedish neighbours. Instead of collecting “adult” points for a Volvo, summer-house and perfect ratio of two kids (one boy and one girl) two years apart, they're quite happy with their hippy friends, knocking back a few beers and cycling a beat-up old bike to work. (But there are, of course, exceptions to this rule.)

Most of them are quite patriotic and content with their homeland. They don't try to be perfect which probably also contributes to the happiness factor. They don't hold back feelings and are not afraid to shout at fellow cyclists, to flirt openly if they like someone or to be rude if it suits them. This can be a breath of fresh air, or if you have lived a long time in Sweden and been Sweden-ized, it can take a bit of getting used to.

Fifteen years ago the Swedes headed to Denmark for cheap shopping. Today things have changed and Sweden is cheaper for almost everything, except alcohol. The Danish krone is very strong and you might as well add 20 percent on to anything you buy in Denmark to compare with Swedish prices.

But what I haven't quite figured out is why all the Danes aren't rolling across the bridge to Swedish supermarkets for cheaper groceries, unlike the Swedish Volvos I spot on the ferry back from Germany, laden down to the ground with crates of cheap German beer, wine and meats.

For all their reputation for being the shrewdest operators in the region, the Danes don't seem prepared to head to Sweden to save a few kronor. Is it laziness? Do they want to support their own economy? One reason could be that salaries in Denmark are, generally, much higher than in Sweden. But this is essential to compensate for the country's extortionate taxes, considered to be the world's highest.

However, many Danes have chosen to live in Malmö, lured to modern apartment complexes and old buildings by prices which are significantly lower than the Copenhagen property market and snapping up cars in Sweden which are also much cheaper than in their homeland. Most are commuting across the bridge each day to work. Earning Danish kroner and paying Swedish prices – a win-win situation.

Scandinavia is a paradise for English speakers who can communicate easily with the locals. But here lies another small difference I have noticed between the Swedes and Danes. Swedes often speak perfect English, sometimes so good that you could find yourself asking: “Which part of the UK do you come from?”

In Denmark, they are also pretty good at English but they slip slightly behind the Swedes with their accent. Even if they have lived abroad for a few years, most of them never quite lose a trace of that Danish accent.

On the other hand, mastering, and understanding, the Danish language itself is quite a challenge for foreigners. On paper, it looks quite harmless and you'll be quite chuffed when you recognize some words on the menu. But when you hear the same word spoken, rest assured that you won't understand anything of it. Danish almost sounds like they have something stuck in the throat while Swedish can sound like you are exercising your lungs and holding your breath.

One thing is for sure, the Danes are not afraid of social interaction, and even embrace it warmly. At a birthday party or at a house party, they will welcome you and introduce themselves without the need to first down several drinks. Likewise, on the street, if you ask for directions, they will not look the other way and try to escape.

If you strike up a conversation with someone on a train, the chances are that they will not think “Oh my God, I have a serial stalker sitting next to me” and pretend to fall asleep, or worse still move seats.

The Danes have a sense of humour and a relaxed approach to life. Even if on the surface they may seem quite stand-offish, underneath this armour they can be actually quite friendly once you get to know them.

My German boyfriend is an area manager for Scandinavia and he finds the Danes the easiest Scandinavians to relate to. He also swears that Copenhagen is by far the liveliest Scandinavian city, even though it's not as beautiful or clean as Stockholm.

Me, well I lived in Stockholm for four years before moving to Malmö and even though the Danes are often a welcome breath of fresh air and energy, I have to admit that I'm still getting used to them. Maybe I'm almost becoming Swedish at this stage. Or maybe I just miss my free glasses of water at lunchtime, the efficient public transport system, hills, rocks and forests, and fikas that don't cost a small fortune.

Adapting to the Danes

• Be direct. Directness and frankness in communication is seen as a sign of sincerity and honesty. When you gain their respect, they'll start liking you for it.

• Be yourself. Personality and individuality is welcomed in Denmark.

• Compliment them on their country and culture. They're a small country and like to feel that people appreciate them, or at least acknowledge their impact on the world.

• Hop on a bike and you'll immediately feel part of the cycling community. Just don't do anything stupid, they will not love you for blocking cycle paths or riding in the wrong direction.

• Make a joke or two about Swedish culture but don't take sides.

• Learn a few Danish words. Your efforts to pronounce their language can help to break the ice and are sure to cause a few laughs.

• Don't be intimidated by them. Their bark is worse than their bite.

• If doing business, get it in writing. According to fellow Scandinavians, the Danes are known as the best traders and the toughest business negotiators in the region.

Alannah Eames

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