Learn How to Live and Work in Denmark with Kay, author of “The Privileged Immigrant”
After living and working in Denmark for 18 years, the self-proclaimed “privileged immigrant” Kay Xander Mellish can safely say she knows her way around the Danes and their culture. The American-born journalist, author and keynote speaker now shares her Danish knowledge in two published books and a podcast, dispensing work, life and dating advice to foreigners struggling to comprehend the peculiarities of living in Denmark.
#DenmarkInNY recently had a chat with Ms. Mellish about her passion for Denmark, why she thinks Denmark is such an attractive destination and what obstacles foreigners face.
DKNY: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and how you came to develop a passion for Denmark.
KXM: Well, I’m originally from Wisconsin, a U.S. state with a population of 5.7 million…just like Denmark. It’s a largely agricultural state, with two big cities — one commercial, one mostly academic…just like Copenhagen and Aarhus.
And Wisconsin has a lot of people with a Scandinavian ethnic background, descended from the immigrants of 150 years ago, when Scandinavia was so poor that it was creating economic migrants instead of taking them in. So when I visited Copenhagen as a tourist, it immediately felt comfortable. Ironically, I don’t have any Danes in my own family tree.
At the time, I’d been living in New York City for more than a decade — in the West Village in downtown Manhattan — and working in the finance and media fields, both of which are generally very competitive and exhausting. I was ready for a change. Copenhagen, to me, feels sophisticated without being too intense. There aren’t as many sharp elbows or demands on your time, which is particularly nice when you’re trying to raise a family.
People were very surprised I was moving to Denmark. My therapist at the time said, “You’re running away from your problems!” My boyfriend at the time said, “You’ll be back within a year!” That hasn’t happened, at least not yet.
With your humorous podcast How To Live In Denmark you give cultural advice to foreigners and their Danish friends. What prompted your idea to address this topic?
One of the things that makes Denmark wonderful is that people have very long friendships. In addition to their families, who they’re generally quite close to, Danes often have the same friends for decades, people they met in school or even in kindergarten.
That’s great, but the flip side is that if you arrive in Denmark when you’re 25 or 35 years old or whenever and hope to make Danish friends, it can be rough. Some Danes will flatly tell you that “they already have enough friends,” and they mean it. It doesn’t help that the Danes are not naturally outgoing or chatty with people they don’t already know, so a lot of foreigners can feel they’re stuck on the outside of Danish society.
I’d written a few blog posts about my own experiences when I first came to Denmark and then forgotten all about them. A few years later I stumbled across them and found they had been read thousands of times and had comments like, “Thank you! Thank you! You’ve helped me so much!” Clearly, there was a need out there, so those posts became the basis for my podcast, and then for a new blog and my books on Denmark, and ultimately for the keynote speeches I give around Denmark and around Europe.
Everything I do also addresses itself to Danes, who are mostly good-hearted people who want to help out where they can. It’s just hard for them to see Danish culture from the outside — there are so many unwritten rules that are simply understood by the people who grow up there. Danes often don’t realize that newcomers can feel confused or shut out.
I did one speech at a large Danish company about the unwritten laws of Danish workplace culture, and at the end one of the Danish employees put up his hand and said, “This is a waste of time! Everybody knows this stuff.” The foreign employees in the room cried out, almost in unison, “We didn’t know any of this stuff!”
The foreigners don’t always know the accepted rules, and the Danes don’t know that the foreigners don’t know the rules. That can lead to some misunderstandings that are totally avoidable if you just have an open discussion.
Which episodes of your podcast have resonated the most with your listeners? And why do you think those episodes were so popular?
The podcasts about dating are always very popular. Many of my listeners are in their 20s and 30s and have come to Denmark for university or work, and they would like to share their evenings with a partner.
Romantic (heterosexual) life is different in Denmark than it is in many other places in the world: for example, the man rarely takes the initiative, and there is very little of the flowers and sweet words and gifts that women from some cultures expect.
On the flip side, Danes are very sexually open and think nothing of going home with someone they met just a few minutes ago.
That can be incredibly confusing to someone who comes from a more traditional culture. I get a lot of questions from non-Danish men and women who would like to meet a partner and don’t know how, or non-Danes who have a Danish partner and don’t understand why they act a certain way.
On the other hand, I also get some great feedback. I was doing a keynote speech about Danish culture at a university recently, a repeat engagement, and a Polish woman came up to me and said, “Do you remember me from when you were here a couple of years ago?” I was embarrassed to say that I didn’t.
No worries, she said. “You told us that in Denmark, women shouldn’t wait for a man to take the initiative — that if we were interested in a Danish man, we should go ahead and take the initiative ourselves,” she said. “That’s what I did….and now we’re engaged.”
Why do you think Denmark is such an attractive destination for working and living? And how difficult is it really for a foreigner to establish themselves and build a new life in the country?
I think Denmark is a great place to work and live — for people of a certain personality type, or certain place in life. Family time and free time is considered more important in Denmark than work or ambition, so if you’re trying to be the next tycoon, Denmark is probably not the spot for you — in part because the world-famous Danish taxes will take a big part of whatever you generate! Most of the Danes I know who are highly ambitious have left the country: it’s no coincidence that there’s a daily direct flight from Copenhagen to Silicon Valley.
But if you’re the sort of person who is interested in doing extremely high-quality work (the Danes will not accept less) for 37.5 hours a week and then going home to your family or your hobbies, Denmark is a great place to live. I also really like the 5 or 6 weeks of paid vacation per year, which allows us to travel the world and visit family in the USA.
Two more caveats: You need to be an outgoing person in order to build a social circle here, and you have to be comfortable with lots of grey, rainy, chilly weather.
Being good at languages is helpful as well, although I meet more and more highly-educated foreigners living here who simply don’t bother to learn Danish.
Until recently, Danish-language classes were tax-financed and free for the user, but now foreigners have to pay for their Danish classes themselves — which I think is an own-goal by the Danish government.
You write extensively about the cultural peculiarities that distinguish the Danish workplace from other Western countries. What are some of the Danish workplace rituals that have confounded you the most?
Danes are very proud of what they call a “flat hierarchy” in the workplace, which generally means fewer managers and that the managers who are in place are very humble. When you walk into a business meeting in Denmark, it is difficult to tell who is the boss. On a theoretical level, that’s great, but people often take it to a silly degree.
For example, in my TEDx talk, I tell the story of a company where I was hired to make a speech. When I arrived, I met few people who worked there, and they introduced themselves in the Danish way — handshake and first name only, no title or explanation of their role in the company.
Before the speech, I needed a glass of water, so I asked one of the people I’d met to bring me one — Nikolaj was his name. Nikolaj very kindly brought me a cold glass of water.
It was only later that I found out that Nikolaj was Senior Vice President for Europe with 600 people working for him and a salary of probably more than a million dollars a year. But I didn’t know he was a big dog at the company because he’d never told me. If he had, I might have asked someone else to bring me a glass of water.
The role of the boss is very different in Denmark than it is in many countries, including the USA. In the USA the boss is a bit of a star — books about charismatic bosses are bestsellers — and in practice people are hesitant to contradict the person who signs the paychecks.
But in Denmark, your boss expects you to disagree with her if she’s wrong. In fact, she’ll be more annoyed if you don’t disagree with her and she ends up making a stupid business mistake because of it. She hired you for your knowledge and expects to make full use of it. Contradicting the boss can be very difficult for some foreigners in Denmark, particularly those from honor-based cultures.
Everyone knows that Danes, like most Nordics, have a great command of the English-language. If language isn’t necessarily a primary obstacle, what are the main challenges a foreigner will likely encounter when moving to the country?
English has become the de-facto second language in Scandinavia, although to really integrate in the culture it’s still important to learn Danish. This is particularly true of you have children and want to be able to communicate with their playmates!
That said, Danish is not an easy language to learn. Reading it is not too difficult if you speak English or another Germanic language, but the pronunciation is tricky and understanding what people are saying is tough. Even the Swedes and Norwegians have trouble understanding spoken Danish!
The main challenges foreigners have when moving to Denmark are legal. The visa and permanent residency constantly changing with the political winds. Right now marrying a Dane, having a Danish child, or even being born in Denmark are no guarantee of a residence permit. Many foreigners find that they arrive to one set of rules which suddenly change to a different set of rules, and that can be exasperating.
Another challenge can be finding a reasonably-priced place to live in the big cities, particularly Copenhagen: most landlords will demand 3 months’ rent in advance plus a 3-month security deposit, so come with lots of cash! For people on a tight budget, my tip is to consider living on the outskirts near a bus or train line, since Danish mass transit is usually efficient and reliable.
Finally, as I mentioned, it can be difficult to make friends and establish a social circle in Denmark. I always suggest that newcomers join groups that match their interests, like running clubs, knitting or crafting clubs, basketball teams, political groups, building association boards. Groups with a common interest and a common goal is how adult Danes meet each other.
And when it comes to making Danish friends, I always suggest to foreigners that they look for Danes who didn’t grow up in the town where you are currently located. Their family and childhood network aren’t right at hand, so they’re more open to making new contacts.