Open letter to my fellow expats in Denmark
Dear fellow expats in Denmark,
I don’t know where you are from, I don’t know what brought you here and I don’t know how long you will stay, but like me, you live in Denmark. I don’t know how moving to this country has been for you, but for me, moving to Denmark has been an adventure, a hard process and I have been through every phase of the culture shock process. My journey in this country started with the typical short lived honeymoon and it was quickly followed by a long phase of frustration before the adjustment process started and I could reach the acceptance stage. Today, 15 years later, I find myself married to a Dane and my wife and I are the mothers of two Danish-Canadian children, both born here.
Denmark is a great country to live in. The work culture is accommodating, the system works well and the work-life balance leaves many other countries envious. When that is said, I admit that the weather could be better, but we all love the long summer nights and there is nothing better than a warm Danish day in March or April after a long dark winter. When this is said, integrating Denmark was hard for me and I am sure it has been or maybe it is still for many of you. Being an expat in Denmark isn’t as easy as Danes would like to think and it takes great efforts to integrate. Not because Danes aren’t nice, but simply because it’s really hard to get to know the Danes. Most Danes have tight groups of friends whom they have known since elementary school and although colleagues will be nice, helpful and courteous, making Danish friends isn’t easy for foreigners. Of course, one could simply just be friends with other expats, but to integrate a country, making friends with the local is kind of a must.
If any of you reading this article are expats and are struggling with integrating, I urge you to not give up just yet. Denmark is a great country and it’s worth the hardship. That being said, over the years I learned some tricks to get to know the Danes and I wanted to share some of them in case it can help one or many of you:
Joining a sports club or an organised activity. A long time ago, when I was seeking Danish friends, I joined different clubs and groups. Danes socialize through organised arrangements and are quite welcoming to foreigners when common interest is at play. Whether it is playing football or singing in a choir, it doesn’t matter. Joining a club can help meet Danes. Meeting Danes with common interest is a good first step, but usually not enough. That’s where advice #2 comes in...
Be direct and ask Danes to be your friend… Literally! Danes respect boundaries and therefore don’t spontaneously ask strangers to hang out. That being said, it doesn’t mean strangers should not ask Danes to socialize. From my personal experience, this is a great way to make Danish friends as Danes don’t easily say no to direct surprising questions. Every Danish colleague or Danish acquaintance I have met and liked, I have asked to hang out with. And believe it or not, no one ever said no. To my surprise, all Danes I directly asked to grab a coffee with or go out to dinner happily said yes and friendships were formed quickly. In my case, as long as I break the ice, the rest takes care of itself. So just be direct and ask Danes “shouldn’t we hang out?” or “wanna be friends?”
Ask for help. I know that being direct can be uncomfortable and it might not be for everyone. If being direct isn’t your thing, ask for help. Whenever I have struggled with a bill I didn’t understand or some complicated letter in my e-boks, I have asked Danish colleagues or acquaintances. All Danes I have asked have been extremely helpful and kind in helping me translate and understand what google couldn’t help me with. Through these small chats friendships can form, common interests can be uncovered and other conversations leading to friendships can follow suit.
Learn danish humor. Danish humor is dark, ironic and sarcastic. I have come to conclude that I think the long winters have led the Danes to this sense of humor as after months of darkness, only irony and sarcasms can really make one laugh. Learning Danish humor has been life changing for me. Being able to make Danes laugh breaks down barriers and helps create friendship, at least one joke at the time.
Asking other expats. Over the years, I have asked a lot of expats how they were doing in Denmark, what made them happy to be here, what they didn’t like. I have learned a lot from these conversations and also learned how others like me tackle integrating to this country. Everyone has tips and tricks so don’t be shy and ask around.
(Sarcasm alert!) Dating. As a last resort and if you are single, I strongly recommend dating and potentially marrying a Dane as this really speeds up the integration process. When dating a Dane, you suddenly find yourself surrounded by a Danish family in-law and you get invited to all Danish traditional celebrations such as baptisms, confirmations and weddings. I will admit that not all of these events are always fun, some are longer than others, but attending danish traditional activities really helps understanding Denmark, the culture and improve language skills.
Today, 15 years after moving to Denmark for a 6 months student exchange program, I still live here. It wasn’t an easy ride and it took me years to get to know the Danes. Now I find myself realizing that most of my closest friends are Danes and that all these friendships were built upon my direct approach and telling them “I think we should be friends, wanna hang out?”. Breaking the ice by surprising these Danes with spontaneous friendship requests is what has worked best for me and what has helped me integrate this country best. What about you? Do you have Danish friends and if so, how did you build these friendships?