Apples and Oranges

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.

Mark Steyn

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!

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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.

15 thoughts on “Apples and Oranges

  1. One misconception in this essay: Swedes and Danes understand one another quite perfectly – it’s 95% the same language – but we pretend not to. Politically, it’s another matter entirely – no mutual understanding whatsoever.

  2. My father in law likes to listen to Danish radio stations. I think he wishes he was a dane, deep down.

    Swedish humour… I don’t know, maybe I was primed to it somehow but I got it really easily. It’s dark, and abstract, and very dry, a bit like the subtle secondary cynicism that shows up in english humour, which most people don’t even notice.

  3. Just my few cents here. There are some differences between danes and swedes, that much is true.

    BUT. Here we go 🙂

    Mostly, having lived and worked together with danes for almost my entire life I just have difficulties seeing the differences as big as they are claimed to be. We have, in most cases, just about the same sense of humor, the same values of right and wrong and so on.

    I´d rather prefer to say that the difference is bigger among the political and cultural/medial elites than they are between Mr Jensen and Mr Svensson.

    That also reflects on the behaviour of how a person meets new people. Swedes, careful as they have to be not to get in trouble, tend to be a little more quiet about his/her opinions on sensitive matters. Also, we tend to appear less open until the new acquaintances has proved themselves “safe”.

    As to the authors claim that swedes, as opposed to the danes, in general tries to collect “adult points”, I´d like to call it b*ll…

    Swedes in general are just as laid back as danes and are just as likely to knock down a few beers and then go home on a rusty old bicycle.

    We are oftentimes said to be a lot stiffer and more formal. My experience is the exact opposite in regards to the behaviour at work. When it comes to business the danes are the stiff and formal ones.

    And last, but not least. There are just as many danes having trouble understanding swedish as there are swedes having trouble understanding danish. In regards to my own understanding I read danish without trouble, understand it perfectly well and speak it nearly fluent. And apart from speaking I have no trouble with norwegian either,

    Well. All that said, don´t misunderstand me. I like and appreciate the danes(and norwegians). We are fellow people living just about next door to each other and as good neighbours we sometimes have more or less friendly argues and some mean jokes that are not as badly meant as they may sound to an outsider.

  4. It’s a native English speaker who wrote that. Obviously you can’t expect him to really get the linguistic nuances right – for the record, a Dane and a Swede have to work at it in order not to understand each other. It’s possible, but it requires some effort. In a setting when both parts are willing speaking the respective native tongue works lots better and easier than resorting to a foreign language like English. And while Danes and Swedes alike will have no trouble comprehending the sort of Norwegian they speak in Oslo, an upcountry Norwegian dialect is incomprehensible – well, it can be that even to some Norwegians, Norway being the country where they have two official spelling systems for what’s essentially the same language…

    As for cultural differences, they exist, but they are nowhere as easily spotted as the author of this piece would have you think. There are some fault lines in between the two national characteristics, as it were, but you need to live in the other country for a while to see them. In this, they are really not any more pronounced than the average differences in outlook on life and approach to things that you’d expect to see between a crowd from NYC and a crowd from Arizona. And less so than if I had taken Texas or Tennessee as an example instead of Arizona.

    Which leaves me somewhat at a loss to explain what increasingly obviously deserves the term The Danish Exception. Except to remind you that it is an exception that exists not only across the Oresund, but also between the Danes and pretty much everyone in the rest of Western Europe. I don’t claim to understand the mechanisms behind it, but I certainly hope it eventually spreads to other Europeans… before it’s too late.

  5. I have a book, the Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes, which I picked up in Copenhagen airport. Heelarious… I noticed a lot of the danish traits were also Swedish traits. Everyone drives the same cars, the same bikes, takes the same pride in their job titles…

    The difference, as far as I can see, is attitudes to the flag pole. In Sweden everyone’s pole is precisely the same length. Competing on poles is a bit… gauche. Better to compete on how neat and tidy the garden of your summerhouse is. In Denmark, every pole is different (and preferably taller than every other pole) though actually pointing out that your pole is taller is considered impolite.

    At least that’s how it seems to me, from my limited understanding of the two countries.

    Which leaves me somewhat at a loss to explain what increasingly obviously deserves the term The Danish Exception.

    Could it date back to when Denmark refused to join Bismark’s german unification? Or is that just an example of a more long-term behavioural pattern?

  6. Could it date back to when Denmark refused to join Bismark’s german unification?

    I don’t thing we were, ehm, invited…

    The war in 1864 was our fault, as our 1863 constitution revision tried to make the German Land of Holstein part of Denmark, which we in 1850 had promised not to do. Bismark took advantage of that and took the Land, as well as part of Schleswig, into Germany. Drats…

    OTOH, it just might be that having two wars right at the birth of our democracy inspired a pride in independence and self-determination that still thrives.

  7. One deep cultural difference between the Swedes and the Danes, is that in th 1800s the puritan and teetotaler movement in Sweden had quite a success in making restrictions on people’s behavior and morals, which is one of the reasons for the restrictive alcohol policy in Sweden compared to Denmark. And probably also the reason why Swedes on average are more loyal to authorites than Danes. Having been ruled for most the 20th century by Social-Democrats who have continued the role of a father-figure telling the Swedes what good behavior is, hasn’t helped the Swedes to become less authoritarian. The Danes however, haven’t gone through the same experience and is much less loyal to the authorities and thus also a bit more rebellious when it comes to speaking out against those in power.

    Which incidently is probably the reason, why we’re having the very open debates and fewer violent extremists than Sweden.

  8. Having worked all over Sweden, Noway and Denmark I agree with the Scandinavians here: we’re all alike, the differences are stochastic and individual variables. The best discription of the general diffence between as Swede and a Dane is this: They’re both tomato ketchup. If you want the Swedish flavor you’ll have to shake the bottle violently several times, then it all comes out at once. If you want the Danish flavor, just squeeze the bottle gently, and you’ll get the desired amount.

    I hope that goes for civil disobedience as well…

  9. Swedes are a little shyer than the average Aussie yobbo..but get them alone and they are funny and not much different. My Swedish mother-in-law has a great self-deprecating sense of humour and really loves a good laugh.

    I was lucky enough to live with two Swedish girls for four years and they had/have a great sense of humour. We pretty much laughed at the same things. The language barrier can make the cultural barrier seem bigger than it is in reality.

  10. Kepiblanc,

    I agree about below mentioned misconception in the essay. However,

    One misconception in this essay: Swedes and Danes understand one another quite perfectly – it’s 95% the same language

    So thinks the Danes 🙂

    While the languages are 95% similar to a Dane, they are merely 65% similar to a Swede. Many Danes learn to adapt to Swedish though.

  11. ‘Such seems to be the position of man, that whatever makes a distinction produces a rivalry.’
    Dr. Johnson

    Perhaps that is less of a problem and more of a solution.

  12. I think, if there is one factor that puts danes and swedes apart is the fact that the danes had a reneassance combined with the start of the democracy.

    The Højskolemovemnet, which was a movement of enlightenment and cultural revival really created a very sound basis for democracy.

    It was by coincidence, but Denmark was lucky to create an extremely deeprooted democracy.

    Very difficult to fight down now, and even more disgracefully when it is done by a party leader based on a party (Venstre) that originally carried the thoughts of the Højskole.

    If he has just two ounces of conscience left in Anders Fogh, he will eventually turn his back on EU.

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