Communication and first impressions in Danish business life
Danes don’t beat about the bush and get to the point quickly. Communication is goal-oriented and direct, the language style clear and distinct. People in Denmark tend to use low-context communication: you don’t have to read between the lines, things are spelled out.
Well-structured statements with figures and data to support what has been said is appreciated as being professional. When doing business in Denmark, it is important to be credible and authentic. Honesty and integrity are highly valued. Danish communication is therefore more fact than relationship driven. However, interpersonal relationships and with them a degree of “emotionalism” play a role.
Make a good impression
It is advisable to behave modestly when communicating with Danes. In Denmark the Law of Jante applies. Much like the Ten Commandments of Moses, the Laws, which are based on a novel by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, contain ten rules. These rules can be boiled down to one basic idea: “Do not believe that you are something special”.
This is why people who come across as overconfident or even as show offs are not appreciated at all. Showing that you have a sense of humor or, even better, being witty will score you brownie points as Germans have a reputation for being humorless. If you can convince your Danish counterparts that you can combine virtues such as reliability with humor, you will have already won them over.
You should also show interest in your Danish counterpart as a person. Questions such as how long your partner has been working for the company and from which region in Denmark they come from or what their personal relationship to your country of origin is can be part of the conversation. However, you should not overdo it with this small talk, as your Danish conversation partner probably doesn’t have a lot of time for chit-chat.
The formal “you” is not an option
In Danish, there is a distinction between the informal and formal “you”. However, the formal “you” has become less used over the last few decades and is almost abolished. Nowadays, it is used only in a few industries, in official complaint letters or as a marketing measure. Members of the royal family are also addressed formally.
In fact, the formal you form is not used in commercial communications. Using this form would suggest inequality and distance, thus contradicting Denmark’s basic values. Accordingly, addressing people by their first name is the only way of addressing Danes.
Here’s a little anecdote to illustrate the point: Once, when I was waiting with the climate minister, an important man in Denmark, to be called for make-up on Danish television, an employee came in and said that she was to pick up Martin (Minister Martin Lidegaard).
Foreign contacts are treated in the same way and using first names is the norm. Be sure to respond to accordingly!
Clothing creates unwanted distance
Danes usually seem very casual and easygoing. This is partly due to their dress code which is much more informal than in many other European countries. Then there are differences within Denmark as well: In Jutland, the dress code is even more relaxed than in the capital city.
Keep in mind that clothing can also create distance. If your Danish counterpart in Jutland is wearing jeans and you show up wearing a tailor-made suit and silver cufflinks, it will be sheer impossible to create a sense of togetherness. However, you should always remain authentic. If you’re not, it will be noticed. For instance, if wearing a tie is part of your work outfit, feel free to wear it during your visit to Denmark!
Consider criticism as a suggestion for improvement
Even if Danes don’t tend to beat around the bush and prefer to speak factually and directly, you should still refrain from direct criticism.
Also, Denmark is a collaborative rather than a competitive society. Conversations should therefore be as pleasant as possible and emphasize common ground. In Danish communication, criticism is turned into a positive suggestion for improvement and is always attached to processes, never to individual persons.
Also note that Danes are great improvisers. If things don’t go as planned, then you simply do it differently from then on. They will not understand if you harshly criticize such adjustments in procedure. As a result, Danes apologize far less often than people from many other countries would do. Things going wrong doesn’t usually mean that an apology is necessary.
Always say thank you!
Expressing gratitude is an important part of Danish communication. Saying thank you for the meeting, for the fact that the other person showed up, for their response to an email, etc. is common practice. It is better to thank once too often than once too little.
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