A couple of years back, I began some generalization or other by saying, “The difference between America and Canada is…” And the American I was imparting this insight to interrupted me with: “The difference between America and Canada is that Americans don’t care what the difference between America and Canada is.
Every time I hear about the difference between Denmark and Sweden it makes me think of the above quote from Mark Steyn.
Unfortunately, Mr. Steyn’s bon mot doesn’t really fit the distinction between the Danes and the Swedes.
Sweden is much bigger than Denmark and has almost twice the population. Not only that, the Swedes kicked Danish butt a while back, and got to keep Skåne as a prize.
However, Danes are feisty little buggers who punch above their weight, so we’ll call it a draw. When the Swedes and the Danes glare at each other across the Øresund (Öresund), they do so as equals.
For the Swedish point of view on this perennial topic, here’s an excerpt from an article in The Local. It’s not new, but this is the first time I’ve seen it:
Worlds Apart: the Danish — Swedish Culture Clash
by 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.
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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.
Go over to The Local and read the rest of Ms. Eames’ account of the difference between
apples and oranges Danes and Swedes. If you’re Swedish, pay particular attention to her bulleted list of advice under the heading “Adapting to the Danes”.
In my personal experience, Swedes are more difficult to understand than Danes. I don’t mean their languages — both of which are incomprehensible to me when spoken — but their respective characters.
It may be that Danes are more like Americans, and are therefore easier for me to make sense of. When I was in Denmark, sometimes I felt very much at home, even though it sounded like everyone was barking at each other with their mouths full of cake batter.
The Danes share a lot of traits with Americans. They have a vulgar and raucous sense of humor. They are gregarious and generally forthright in their dealings with one another. They are self-deprecating and irreverent about their own culture. And they love to borrow foreign words indiscriminately and incorporate them into Danish.
The big difference I notice is that unlike Americans, Danes rarely seem to be braggarts. They are outgoing and assertive when required, but one rarely hears them brag. It’s just not a bragging culture.
Given the Danes’ courageous anti-EU and Islam-resistant behavior — and the beer — I recommend Denmark as a tourist destination. Try the snaps, but watch out for the sild!
Sweden is a different matter. After a couple of years of regular dealings with Swedish people, I’ve learned to appreciate them, but they’re not as easy to get to know as the Danes. Maybe it’s the lack of directness, or maybe it has a more insular culture, but Sweden is harder for a foreigner to get his mind around.
It took a while for me to appreciate the Swedish sense of humor — for a long time I thought they didn’t have one — and I still have to have most of their jokes explained to me. But Lars Vilks and the Modoggies helped break the ice — once I started to get the hang of rondellhundarna, I began to understand Sweden.
Hat tip: Steen.