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Foreign writer struggled to get to know her Danish colleagues – but one thing helped her

As a foreign national, getting to know your Danish colleagues at work is not easy. But if you are to succeed, you need to master one thing specifically, says French Haitian writer Stephanie Madsen.

8. Apr 2024
4 min
English / Dansk

Denmark and the Danes are on to something. We have ‘hygge’, a high level of education, a low power distance with a flat hierarchy, and we have found our way to the good life through

But there is also something else; something that is kind of askew, finds   Stephanie Madsen.

“Being a foreigner in Denmark is often very lonely. As a foreigner, you are ‘different’. Danes are reserved and want to get to know people before they open up to them. While this is probably a natural human trait, it makes it difficult for many foreigners to settle in,” she explains.

She was born in France, but grew up in France, Haiti and the USA with her Haitian father and French mother. Some generations back, you will find a Danish grandfather who went to Haiti to seek his fortune. She has practically lived an equal amount of time in these three countries and then Denmark, with the New Year marking the start of her 17th year here.

(Artiklen fortsætter efter boksen)
Stephanie Madsen has written several books about Denmark

After many years in Denmark, Stephanie Madsen feels at home and integrated and has many Danish friends, but it was not easy in the beginning.

“I found it difficult because I didn’t know the culture and language. My colleagues were friendly, but there was also ‘The Law of Jante’, she remembers, looking back at her first encounter with the Danish labour market.

Difficult to small talk

The Danes are not known for making small talk compared to the rest of the world. We avoid sitting next to someone on the bus, and unlike shop assistants in the USA , who immediately greet you with a “hi, how are you doing?” – though they are not really interested in the answer – setting your foot in a Danish store is a silent experience.

Many of the foreigners who come to Denmark perhaps without a large network will instead rely on the workplace as the place for meeting other people. But although we share a professional interest from nine to five, interest in who we are often stops when the working day ends.

It is not in our culture to go out together after work.

“I worked in a large Danish company where the colleagues were sweet, asking me at lunch or at the Friday breakfast gathering if they should speak English. I insisted that they speak Danish so I could learn the language, but even though we actually got to know each other pretty well, I only met in private with one colleague; a woman who spoke French and also wanted to improve her French,” says Stephanie Madsen, drawing a parallel to her life in the USA:

“I've lived in California, where everyone is a foreign national. You had to be open, which makes you approach people in a different way. It’s different in Denmark,” says Stephanie Madsen.

Learn the language to get to know the Danes 

The lack of openness often makes foreigners gather in groups of their own – places where they might perhaps lend support to and nurture the idea that settling in is difficult.

Many of those who plan to stay only two, three or four years simply find it easier to hook up with others in the same situation, and perhaps this gives the Danes a reason not to engage with their foreign colleagues: They will not be here for long anyway.

“I've lived in California, where everyone is a foreign national. You had to be open, which makes you approach people in a different way. It’s different in Denmark.”
- Stephanie Madsen

In this way, an ‘expat bubble’ is formed, maintaining the distance to the Danes, says Stephanie Madsen, who managed to work it out herself:

“Although Danes are really good at English, it is important to learn the language, even if it’s difficult, because then you can follow the news and join the Danes’ conversations at work. I was very lonely in the beginning, but I learned the language, and that helped me a lot. I've practically only met Danes because I spoke the language, and most of my friends today are Danish,” she says.

Wondering about the Danes turned into books

Especially one other thing has kept Stephanie Madsen wondering:
“How on earth can the Danes be the happiest people in the world? What’s the secret?”

“I've practically only met Danes because I spoke the language, and most of my friends today are Danish.”
- Stephanie Madsen

This wondering about the Danes first filled Stephanie Madsen’s diary and later gave her fuel to write the books ‘What’s So Special About the Danes’ in 2017 and ‘SWEET LEGOLAND®’, published in the autumn of 2023.

The books are based on interviews with politicians, opinion leaders, writers and other foreigners whose insights combined paint an image of our Danish traits to help foreigners understand us better.

And our secret to happiness is... a good mix of it all, she explains. It is the security we have, our trust in one another and the important certainty that our tax-financed healthcare sector will take care of us if something goes wrong.

Whatever you may think about the healthcare sector, not everyone is fortunate to have one, Stephanie Madsen points out. 

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