Denmark 101 – Are Danes Rude? – Episode 5

A common complaint from tourists and recently arrived expats is Danish rudeness when it comes to navigating city streets. More specifically, that Danes will bump into you in passing but fail to apologize or comment.

While this obviously depends on the severity of the accidental bump, it is something I’ve heard commented on repeatedly. But, is it actually due to rudeness or a cultural difference? In this video I explore the Danish approach to efficiency and how that shapes the need to (or not to) apologize after a mild street collision.

Denmark and its’ residents are a fascinating group. In this video series I leverage my observations and research to share with you insights into how to get the most of your interactions with the Danes and your time in Denmark regardless of the duration of your visit. One day or ten years – my goal is to share observations I’ve made from my 5 years of living, studying, and working among the Danes.

If you’re Danish, hopefully you’ll find this series interesting, a bit informative, and not too outlandishly inaccurate. So far the feedback and input has been great and I look forward to continuing to further exploring Danish culture with you.

If you’re a foreigner coming to Denmark, I hope this helps you build upon observations and insights the rest of us had to find out the hard way.

Topics that will be covered include the Danish approach to nudity, how to make Danish friends, how to meet Danes, Danish manners, studying in Denmark, working here, traditions, key behaviors, taxes, dating and even a look at Janteloven.

Stay tuned for future updates – this is just the beginning!  Can’t wait?  Jump to YouTube and view all of the latest episodes and while there make sure to Subscribe!

 

Dining Manners and Etiquette – How To Use Your Knife and Fork Abroad

Table in Copenhagen

I just spent the evening ruining a perfectly good hamburger while trying to re-learn how to use my knife and fork. In an effort to immerse myself more completely during my time in Europe and Scandinavia I’m starting to try and eat like a European.  Unfortunately, that means awkwardly using my knife and fork, throwing a chunk of my traditional American table manners out the window, and desecrating – yes I said desecrating – hamburgers.

If you’re planning a trip to Europe and are from the US one key (but subtle) difference to prepare for is how you cut and eat your food.  For those of you raised to eat in the European/Continental style this won’t be an issue for you.  If, like me, you were raised using the American style you’re in for a bit of an adventure and this post is for you.

First, let’s get back to basics.  Just what are the American and Euro/Continental styles that I’m talking about?  They’re two different approaches for using your knife and fork during a meal.  While you’ll encounter other cultural differences in the way a table is set and what is considered polite the use of your knife and fork is one of the most blatant cultural faux paus Americans make while dining abroad. Let’s take a look at the styles via wikipedia:

The American style

In the American style, also called the zig-zag method, the knife is initially held in the right hand and the fork in the left. Holding food to the plate with the fork tines-down, a single bite-sized piece is cut with the knife. The knife is then set down on the plate, the fork transferred from the left hand to the right hand, and the food is brought to the mouth for consumption. The fork is then transferred back to the left hand and the knife is picked up with the right.  In contrast to the European hidden handle grip, in the American style the fork is held much like a spoon or pen once it is transferred to the right hand to convey food to the mouth.

The European style

The European style, also called the continental style, is to hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right. Once a bite-sized piece of food has been cut, it is conducted straight to the mouth by the left hand. The tines remain pointing down. The knife and fork are both held with the handle running along the palm and extending out to be held by thumb and forefinger. This style is sometimes called “hidden handle” because the palm conceals the handle.

While seemingly a fairly subtle difference, it’s amazing how challenging it is to use one’s fork in a different hand and fashion than you’re accustomed to.  Perhaps it’s just indicative of my complete lack of ambidexterity, but I’m better at writing my name with my left hand than I am at using it to pilot my fork.  I fear that at times I look less like a well mannered diner, and more like a bumbling fool trying far too hard not to dump a fork full of food into my lap.

Is it something the average traveller should worry about?  Not in most situations, however, if you’re studying or working abroad sound table manners can be the difference between getting a job or a follow up invitation to future events.  It’s something to be aware of, and if you’re feeling adventurous to try and adopt.  It’s a small thing, but it is something that people notice.  Good luck and bon appétit!

Have a story to share about table manners or a tip to add?  Please share it in a comment below.  

A Quick Metro Rant – Basic Information Everyone Seems to Have Forgotten

Photo by Stignygaard

Life is full of unspoken rules.  These rules can be hard to figure out if you’re an outsider. Yet, when followed they tend to drastically improve the flow and efficiency of group activities.  When violated, you not only risk drastically reducing the system’s efficiency, but also pissing off a large number of people in the process.  Here are a few general tips for improving your public transportation experience.

General Traffic Flow

Foot traffic typically follows the same basic rules (flow wise) as vehicle traffic.  While this isn’t particularly important in wide open spaces, when confined to stairways, on escalators and in other like-kind situations this becomes extremely important.  While left vs right varies from country to country you can typically figure out the appropriate place to walk by pausing briefly to observe locals.  A good rule of thumb tends to be that pedestrian traffic will mimic automotive traffic.  This is particularly important on stairways where one side is used for traffic heading up and the other is used for traffic heading down.

Escalators

These are perhaps one of the most rule centric areas of public transportation.  The cardinal rule of escalator traffic is that slow/stopped traffic should always stand to the right.  Yes, this holds true even if you’re in the middle of a conversation with a friend.  If you’re stationary or moving slowly on a moving walkway or escalator stand to the right, single file, while leaving space for people in a hurry to pass on your left. It’s just like the highway – the left lane is the passing late.  If you’re in it and not passing you’re a road hazard and can expect to get tailgater…or worse.  If your conversation can’t wait, then turn sidewise and have a discussion with the person in-front/behind you.  The only exception to this rule is when there’s a significant traffic backlog in which cases space use efficiency becomes more important.

Many metros, like those here in Copenhagen, have double escalators to handle the heavy flow.  In these instances both escalators may be transporting people in the same direction (up/down).  Keep in mind that both escalators are not the same.  The same traffic flow rules apply here.  If you’re not in a hurry then stick to the escalator to the right side. If you’re in a hurry or will be walking part of the time, then aim for the one on the left.

Boarding Trains/Subway Cars

For some inexplicable reason most of us can’t help but rush to board public transportation when it arrives.  I know I’m guilty of this as well.  Unfortunately, this usually results in a traffic jam as people end up so focused on boarding that they fail to let the people trying to get off of the train/tram/etc. disembark.

When the train/subway arrives people waiting to board should wait to either side of the door(s) leaving a path for departing passengers. It is especially important that you do not stand/line up directly in-front of the door.  Only when the final passengers disembark is it acceptable to start making your way on board.  Just because there’s an open space immediately in front of the doors doesn’t mean you “lucked out” and get to be first in line.

Mothers, the Elderly, Injured and Disabled

While people seem to remember that eating with their mouths full is impolite, it appears that proper etiquette on public transportation is a whole different matter.  We all love to find that coveted seat on the bus or subway.  It sucks to give it up, but let’s keep things in context.  When you see a mother carrying a young child, an older person, someone on crutches or similarly injured, or the disabled don’t wait for them to ask, don’t ignore them, and definitely don’t shrug it off as their tough luck.  Do your best to give them your seat, or at the very least offer it.  There’s a spectrum here. The younger you are and the better shape you’re in, the more important it is that you’re the first one to offer up your seat.  Think of it as a competition.  Besides, it’ll feel good knowing you’ve made someone’s day a bit easier and that you’ve done a good deed.

These rules vary slightly from culture to culture and are more prevalent in most western countries. It’s worth noting that most of these rules don’t apply in a lot of major Asian cities where it tends to be far more cutthroat and physical. Be mindful of your destination and take an extra minute or two to figure out how the system works.  While there’s no one to force you to follow the rules discussed in this post, don’t be surprised at the stray elbows and brusque treatment you may find if you don’t.

Are there rules I missed or do you have stories about where a rule violation went wrong?  Please tell us a bit about them!

Etiquette Be Damned. Stop Asking, “Do you speak X language?” It’s Rude and Pointless.

Copenhagen Cafe Dogs

In a previous post Learning Danish – Surprising Realizations I discussed my evolving relationship with Danish.  One of the things I didn’t discuss was the surprising advice I received from Danish friends regarding one of the cornerstones of a traveler’s phrase book; the oft used opening inquiry, “Do you speak X language?”.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably perfected the art of opening every conversation with a friendly hello, and then the language intro.  Sometimes it is delivered in English and other times in whatever the local language is. While necessary in some areas, I view it as an essential common courtesy as well. After all, it’s bad enough that I don’t speak the native language in whatever country I’m in, to then assume that they should speak my language without asking smacks of arrogance and inter-cultural intolerance. Unless, that is, you are in Denmark.

While well intentioned, Danish proficiency in English is so high and their use of it so common, that to ask a Dane – especially those under 40 – if they speak English when voicing an inquiry, is to insult them.  Don’t get me wrong, they appreciate the sentiment and I doubt you’d ever find a Dane that would respond to the question harshly.  However, the inquiry is generally received here in Denmark much the same way it might be if you asked the same question, “Do you speak English?” on the streets of New York. Which is to say, you’d get a strange look, followed by a patronizing smile or a quizzical eyebrow and a hearty “Of course!”.

Weigh in, what is your experience? Have you found other regions or countries that are similar to Denmark?  If so, which?  Please share your experiences in a comment below.

Of further interest for me is the question it raises.  Who is the language inquiry really for? Is it an identifier which benefits the asker by helping compensate for their embarrassment about not knowing the language while notifying the individual being asked of their preferred language?  Is it a form of social contract where the asker is requesting permissions to proceed in a set language?  Or, is something else going on?

I have begun to suspect that in reality the inquiry, while well intentioned, is actually an obstacle to effective communication.  For the sake of this discussion let’s use English as the default language. If I ask an individual if they speak English, I’m really asking a procedural question which is actually very poorly constructed.  If they speak minimal to decent English, they’re inclined to be shy and respond with a modest “no” or “a little”. If they speak good to above average English, they may respond with a yes or still hedge their bets and understate their ability. If they speak above average to excellent English then the question mirrors the insensitivity highlighted with the Danes.  Of course, if they don’t speak any English at all, they’ll offer a completely blank look, understand the sentiment of your question and respond in their native language.

Ultimately, my hunch is that skipping the question all together will give you access to the same information without putting the individual you’re asking on the spot.  If they understand, then they can try and respond to the level of their competency.  If not, then they won’t be able to at which point it will be immediately clear allowing you to graciously thank them for their time and apologize for not speaking their language.  I don’t believe this is indicative of cultural insensitivity, as long as you’re not assuming they should speak English.  Only that it is a possibility, and they might be willing to do so.   Rather, I’ve begun to think that it is in fact more a matter of effective communication.

It is time to cross the question, “Do you speak English” from our travel books, advice columns and procedural etiquette.  Weigh in – where do you stand on the issue?