Home > Culture clashes, Scandinavia > Neighbors … but miles apart!

Neighbors … but miles apart!


Even if only a 16 kilometre bridge separates Sweden from its ”more Continental” neighbours, the Danes, the distance between the two cultures far surpasses their physical proximity, argues 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.

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.

But what I haven’t quite figured out is why all the Danes aren’t rolling across the bridge to Swedish supermarkets for cheaper groceries, unlike the Swedish Volvos I spot on the ferry back from Germany, laden down to the ground with crates of cheap German beer, wine and meats.

For all their reputation for being the shrewdest operators in the region, the Danes don’t seem prepared to head to Sweden to save a few kronor. Is it laziness? Do they want to support their own economy? One reason could be that salaries in Denmark are, generally, much higher than in Sweden. But this is essential to compensate for the country’s extortionate taxes, considered to be the world’s highest. (Note: In Q1 2009, the Danish kronor has risen sharply against the Swedish kronor – approx DKK 1 = SEK 1.5 so Danes are now finally crossing the bridge for bargains!)

However, many Danes have chosen to live in Malmö, lured to modern apartment complexes and old buildings by prices which are significantly lower than the Copenhagen property market and snapping up cars in Sweden which are also much cheaper than in their homeland. Most are commuting across the bridge each day to work. Earning Danish kroner and paying Swedish prices – a win-win situation.

Scandinavia is a paradise for English speakers who can communicate easily with the locals. But here lies another small difference I have noticed between the Swedes and Danes. Swedes often speak perfect English, sometimes so good that you could find yourself asking: “Which part of the UK do you come from?”

In Denmark, they are also pretty good at English but they slip slightly behind the Swedes with their accent. Even if they have lived abroad for a few years, most of them never quite lose a trace of that Danish accent.

On the other hand, mastering, and understanding, the Danish language itself is quite a challenge for foreigners. On paper, it looks quite harmless and you’ll be quite chuffed when you recognize some words on the menu. But when you hear the same word spoken, rest assured that you won’t understand anything of it. Danish almost sounds like they have something stuck in the throat while Swedish can sound like you are exercising your lungs and holding your breath.

One thing is for sure, the Danes are not afraid of social interaction, and even embrace it warmly. At a birthday party or at a house party, they will welcome you and introduce themselves without the need to first down several drinks. Likewise, on the street, if you ask for directions, they will not look the other way and try to escape.

If you strike up a conversation with someone on a train, the chances are that they will not think “Oh my God, I have a serial stalker sitting next to me” and pretend to fall asleep, or worse still move seats.

The Danes have a sense of humour and a relaxed approach to life. Even if on the surface they may seem quite stand-offish, underneath this armour they can be actually quite friendly once you get to know them.

My German boyfriend is an area manager for Scandinavia and he finds the Danes the easiest Scandinavians to relate to. He also swears that Copenhagen is by far the liveliest Scandinavian city, even though it’s not as beautiful or clean as Stockholm.

Me, well I lived in Stockholm for four years before moving to Malmö and even though the Danes are often a welcome breath of fresh air and energy, I have to admit that I’m still getting used to them. Maybe I’m almost becoming Swedish at this stage. Or maybe I just miss my free glasses of water at lunchtime, the efficient public transport system, hills, rocks and forests, and fikas that don’t cost a small fortune.




Adapting to the Danes
• Be direct. Directness and frankness in communication is seen as a sign of sincerity and honesty. When you gain their respect, they’ll start liking you for it.
• Be yourself. Personality and individuality is welcomed in Denmark.
• Compliment them on their country and culture. They’re a small country and like to feel that people appreciate them, or at least acknowledge their impact on the world.
• Hop on a bike and you’ll immediately feel part of the cycling community. Just don’t do anything stupid, they will not love you for blocking cycle paths or riding in the wrong direction.
• Make a joke or two about Swedish culture but don’t take sides.
• Learn a few Danish words. Your efforts to pronounce their language can help to break the ice and are sure to cause a few laughs.
• Don’t be intimidated by them. Their bark is worse than their bite.
• If doing business, get it in writing. According to fellow Scandinavians, the Danes are known as the best traders and the toughest business negotiators in the region.

Alannah Eames. Published on www.thelocal.se

  1. April 4, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

    • April 18, 2009 at 10:52 pm

      Glad you like it, thanks! 🙂

  2. babsindk
    August 31, 2009 at 7:24 am

    What I find endearing is how the Swedes and Norwegians are still very loyal to the Danish in conversations where the Danes are not present.

    The Danes seem to be getting ruder and ruder about their ‘scandinavian cousins’ and I blanch to hear them describe the Swedes as brutish and uncivilised.

    Could I be imagining that ten-fifteen years ago, Denmark was more relaxed and perhaps preferable to Sweden or Norway? And that now things have changed and that Denmark has become the most hostile to foreigners?

    Either way, Norway and Sweden is looking increasingly attractive!

    You tips for surviving life in Denmark are very helpful, and will undoubtedly ease the path for many, especially those in business.

    I would argue with the ‘be yourself’ bit though, as if one chips the surface of the Danish culture one finds that being oneself is not supported. ‘Appear to do what everybody else does’ will get a person further 😉

  3. March 7, 2010 at 1:08 am

    Hey, sweet post! This is exactly what I was searching for

  4. John
    April 1, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    “One thing is for sure, the Danes are not afraid of social interaction, and even embrace it warmly.”

    Maybe I’ve just met the wrong Danes, but I could swear that they are terrified of social interaction if it means socialising with people beyond their family and close friends.

  5. alex
    January 15, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    There are reasons for not everyone going to Sweden to buy groceries. First, they are not really that cheap. Actually, the only points where Swedish is cheaper is meat. Most of all other stuff is the same price, and if not more expensive. I was amazed by how much the shopping bag cost over there (on average 240) for things that cost me 180 in Denmark. Så unless you buy in LIDL all the time, or CityGross, where the prices are on par, it is more expensive in crowns in Sweden. You would really have to buy a lot of Swedish food, specially meat and candy, say like 1200 kroner in food for it to make sense. Then you would save around 300 kroner but would still have to pay 295 for the bridge, whopping 40 euro.

    Second reason is not only economical, but geographical. If you live outside of Copenhagen, like 40-70 km you would have to pay like 80-100 Danish Crowns on gasoline, which add to the already 200 from the bridge. The savings would be much less, and you would have to set a day aside it, like saturday, to spend 4 hours just for the purpose.

    Thirs is expire date. Take into consideration that meat goes bad rather quickly, so you would have to eat a lot of meat the following days. Which is not good for your health or the environment.

    And fourth, is that a lot of quality Danish product are very hard to find in Sweden, many things they simply do not import or if imported have added taxes, even though Denmark is just 20 km away. Swedish bread and milk, taste too sweet and funny, and actually most Danish food tastes better than their swedish equivalents, because we are more of a food and drinks people and have always valued good food.

    Fifth is the convenience. Only like one third or one fourth has a car, and for those who don’t, it is not convenient or easy to drag 5 heavy bags of 1200 kr food all the way back to Denmark, then take the train (because you can’t have it in the bus) and all the way up to the apartment.

    And last is the “offer mentality”. Most danes scan 4-5 different magazines for special offers available at each shop-chains. And plan the weekly shopping accordingly. This makes the shopping as cheap as going to one superstore in Sweden and setting aside 4 hours for that.

    • January 15, 2012 at 8:48 pm

      Thanks for your input Alex … very interesting!

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