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A lot has changed in the labour market over the past 50 years, but in one area, not a bit.

Although the labour market has been streamlined and subjected to regulation over the past 50 years, booze still runs deep in Denmark’s workplace culture. And the consequences especially affect our foreign colleagues, says Professor Torsten Kolind.

6. Jun 2023
7 min
English / Dansk

It’s hot. The sun is shining from a blue sky, the rosé wine is chilled, the pints are cold, distant music is playing, and the atmosphere is building up positively. The holidays are coming up; what better time to wish everyone a good summer than by having a major party or Friday afternoon bar at the workplace?

Colleagues stand in groups, talking. They are loud. And as the night wears on, they become louder.

This is a quite familiar scene to most Danes. But our foreign colleagues are by no means used it. Quite the contrary. And cultures might clash as a result.

“Alcohol is part of everything we do, so you are culturally checkmated, because you don’t know what is happening.”
- Torsten Kolind, Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research

“Alcohol is part of everything we do, so you are culturally checkmated, because you don’t know what is happening. Even though we don’t drink as much at work as we used to, employees expect the Christmas or summer staff parties to deliver this certain atmosphere: That you are there to get drunk”, explains Torsten Kolind, Anthropologist, Professor and Director of the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at Aarhus University.

Dry Danes and wet Southern Europeans

Torsten Kolind explains that a distinction is made between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ drinking cultures. In the dry drinking culture, people don’t drink often, but when they do they have more than enough. In the wet drinking culture, people have a little alcohol every day, but not for the purpose of getting drunk. It is still in a social context – in the same way as they enjoy good food with friends – but alcohol is more like a supplement and not the central element of getting together.

Torsten Kolind

Torsten Kolind, Anthropologist, Professor and Director of the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at Aarhus University.

The Danish drinking culture is ‘dry’ and according to Professor Kolind very “intoxication oriented”. Simply put: The Danes drink to get drunk.

“The dry drinking culture is very dominant in our country and other Nordic countries, Great Britain, Czechia and the Baltic countries. Employees from these regions will be familiar with some of the Danish culture. But if you are from Southern Europe, the Middle East or Asia, recognising the culture is difficult”, he says.

How to spot a drunken Dane

Torsten Kolind points to the very equal society we have in Denmark with its low power distance, in which alcohol also plays a role at parties as an extra distinguishing characteristic that our foreign colleagues have noticed.

A classic example: After a certain number of drinks, you feel it's time to say a few words to your manager. It is not customary for managers to show up at parties in other countries, but when moulded by the Danish culture, they tend to participate.

“Our society is very egalitarian, and we consider everyone as equals. At the same time, we have a drinking culture in which people test their boundaries right until the age of 25-30.”

“It may seem strange to people from the outside that stories like these are funny and something you would want to share.”
- Torsten Kolind, Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research

Apart from speaking your mind to your manager, telling stories from staff parties on the following Monday is familiar to many. While these stories are important in everyday socialising, the risk is that they might exclude people, explains Professor Kolind and continues:

“It may seem strange to people from the outside that stories like these are funny and something you would want to share. But if you are not part of these stories, you may feel excluded, because the stories are important for the social life at work after the party”.

Change is on the distant horizon

The culture is predominantly shaped in upper secondary education and in the teenage years, when getting drunk is linked to your social life. This continues on a somewhat smaller scale in tertiary education and even less at the workplaces. But the mechanisms are the same and have taken root in the Danes.

“You could say: ‘Listen, we are having a party, alcohol will be served, and we need to talk about how others experience it’”
- Torsten Kolind, Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research

Although many workplaces have a policy on alcohol, the culture has not changed at all. And therefore, Torsten Kolind does not believe ”for a second” that it will change.

“A lot has happened at the workplaces. Over the past decades, we’ve seen the labour market become extremely streamlined and regulated, and HR is involved in many aspects. But when it comes to the way we booze, not much has happened in the past 50 years, and I don’t think management dares to change anything about the annual parties, because they are important,” he says, adding that there are other ways for workplaces to make parties a good experience for foreign colleagues.

“We know from upper secondary education that talking about it works. You could say: ‘Listen, we are having a party, alcohol will be served, and we need to talk about how others experience it’. Being judgemental is not the way forward, but things start to develop once we start talking about it, because it stimulates reflection and makes you aware of other perspectives. Don’t make it a problem but ask “how can we make it a great party for everyone?”. Most often, we talk it over and agree to some rules, from the bottom of the organisation and up, in line with Danish tradition, instead of the manager saying ‘this is how it is going to be’,” says Torsten Kolind. 

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