In New Book, Author Kay Xander Mellish Deciphers American Workplace Nuances for Danish Audience.
American-born journalist, author and keynote speaker Kay Xander Mellish has crafted an entire career around smoothing over cultural differences. And, after nearly two decades in Denmark, Ms. Mellish’s role as an interpreter of Danish cultural idiosyncrasies is fully cemented and established. Her celebrated podcast and blog How to Live in Denmark alone functions as a go-to guide for non-Danes struggling to comprehend the peculiarities of living in Denmark and has been so successful that it is regularly referenced by companies and can be found in published form at Denmark’s National Museum.
Now, the Wisconsin native Mellish is turning the tables and providing insight into the American mind for all those Danes working in the United States or within American companies. Her new book Tips for Danes: Working with Americans is a veritable “what’s what” to Danish-American interactions and provides answers to all they key questions: What can Danes expect in meetings and negotiations with their American counterparts? How can they best make small talk with US colleagues and what are the topics they should avoid? And what’s up with all that American enthusiasm?
Denmark In New York caught up with Ms. Mellish ahead of the release of Tips for Danes to gain a better understanding as to why Danes might need an introductory manual to the American way of being.
Denmark In New York: As an author and speaker, you’ve had a great deal of success breaking down cultural barriers between Danes and non-Danes. How did you first identify a need for translating Danish quirks into easily digestible morsels for foreigners?
Kay Xander Mellish: Actually, I didn’t come to Denmark as an anthropologist — my background is in journalism! I moved to Denmark by choice. I’d been living in Manhattan for many years, working in the media industry, and I loved the way that Copenhagen was sophisticated but not as intense as New York.
While working various corporate jobs in Copenhagen, I wrote a few quick blog posts about my transition process and basically forgot about them. Yet I kept getting emails from strangers who had found them online and wanted to tell me how much the blog had helped them fit into Danish society.
Eventually I left the corporate world and started my own business, and at that point I turned the blog posts into a podcast, which turned into a book, which turned into people asking me to make speeches — and speeches are largely how I earn my living these days! Funny career process, I know.
Having done a lot of different things as a foreigner in Denmark — looked for a job, worked at a job, lost a job, looked for friends, looked for a boyfriend, bought a house, became a parent — I’ve lived through the experiences that many other internationals are going through, so hopefully I can help them out and make things a bit easier for them.
Danes are excellent Anglophones and are largely seen in a positive light by their American counterparts. So, why is there a need for Danes to acclimate to the American work- and life-style?
Kay Xander Mellish: When Danes head to China or India or Africa for work, they realize they’re going to have to acclimate to the local lifestyle and values. But many think that the US is just a “bigger Denmark” and they won’t have to make any adjustments. This can get very frustrating when they discover that Americans don’t always act like Danes.
Denmark is a culture that prizes harmony, solidarity, and safety. The US, by contrast, prizes diversity, disruption, and competition. Children are brought up to compete and win. It’s a much more individualistic culture than Denmark.
The US also lacks Denmark’s tradition of trust, which is why lawyers, lawsuits, and law enforcement play a much bigger role in daily life in the US than they do in Denmark. A Danish businessperson who assumes that everything in the US can be done with full transparency and handshake agreements — just like back home! — will be in for some nasty surprises.
What are some of the more glaring American workplace idiosyncrasies that stand out when comparing Denmark and the United States?
Kay Xander Mellish: For me, the biggest difference is the role of the boss. Danish bosses don’t really act like authority figures; they’re more like coaches or team leaders. This is in part because of the Danish cultural emphasis on equality, and in part because Danish employees don’t really have to fear their bosses because of the Danish social welfare safety net. Fire me? OK, but I’ll still have my health insurance and two years’ unemployment compensation.
In the US, employees have much less of a safety net, so the boss has more power — people don’t want to lose their jobs unless they have something else lined up. This means they’re less likely to tell the boss something she doesn’t want to hear.
Americans also tend to want a bit more of an authority figure as a boss. A hands-off Danish manager might assign a task and then leave the employee alone until it’s finished, and that’s just the way Danes like it.
But it will strike many Americans as if the boss doesn’t care about them or their work. They want more instruction, more involvement, more inspiration. Ambitious Americans also like the idea of working for a talented boss who can “take them to the next level.” By contrast, Danes find charismatic, high-energy “celebrity bosses” a bit creepy. But Americans love them.
In your experience, what are the biggest challenges that you’ve seen Danes experience when working in an American setting?
Kay Xander Mellish: I think the biggest challenge is that Danes don’t understand Americans’ need for constant positive feedback. I’ve had many Americans who work with Danes say to me, “We only hear from them when something is wrong.”
For Danes, that makes perfect sense: we hired you to do a job, you’re doing it, we’ll let you know if there is a problem. But the Americans also want to hear when they’ve done something right. When something’s done particularly well or delivered early, they expect excitement and enthusiasm. It’s no coincidence that “Awesome!” and “Amazing!” are some of the most overused words in US English. When they don’t get that positive feedback for a job done well, Americans often feel deflated and demoralized.
Delivering criticism is also something the Danes are not particularly good at, at least from the American point of view. Danes are extremely direct about it, sometimes to the point of being rude. Americans expect a little more sugar-coating, and some acknowledgement of the effort that was put into a task, even if it didn’t turn out the way the Danish business partner expected.
Your book is framed as “an entertaining guide to business co-operation.” What are some of the major takeaways that you would like your audiences to reflect on after reading it?
Kay Xander Mellish: The book is mostly directed at Danes, although I think Americans will find it fun to read as well.
I hope that it will make life easier for the Danes doing business with Americans and answer questions I hear again and again from Danes:
Why do Americans work such long hours? Why do they take so little vacation? Why do they care so much about their job titles? Why won’t they go outside their job descriptions? How do I make small talk with Americans? Why can’t I use Danish sarcasm and irony? And why do Americans have such weird words for the toilet? Restroom, Powder Room, Little Boy’s room — what’s that about?
As for the American side — I have a companion book, Working with Danes: Tips for Americans, coming out next year.
Working with Americans: Tips for Danes is available on Amazon, Saxo.com, iTunes, Google Play, or Kay’s own webshop at books.howtoliveindenmark.com.