Living in Denmark

“No, he is not mad at you; he’s just Danish” – Danish and Swedish cultures differ

For Swedish Paula Guillet de Monthoux, her move to Copenhagen from Geneva was supposed to be like coming home. However, she was in for a surprise. The Danish and Swedish values might be the same, but their cultures are quite different.

By Bente D. Knudsen Pictures: SOS Børnebyerne

The decision to move was a common one; both Paula and her husband felt a need for change in their professional lives, and with five-year-old twins, a move had to be part of a bigger plan and more long-term as well. After living in Switzerland for 10 years, the family wanted to be closer to the Scandinavian mind-set, and as a Swede with a French/Swedish husband, Denmark was an obvious choice.

“As we had done many times before, we sat down looking at our world map, talking about which cities we would like to live in; both of us had New York and Copenhagen in mind, and we finally settled on Copenhagen,” Paula recalls.

I am meeting Paula at her office at SOS Børnebyerne, where she has been director of the Danish part of the international NGO for the past two years. She doesn’t look that Swedish to me with her long dark hair and brown eyes. Why the attraction for Copenhagen, I wonder, instead of moving back to Stockholm, where she comes from? Paula laughs as she answers the question; probably I am not the first one to ask.

“My grandfather emigrated from Germany to Sweden during World War II, so for my father, travelling and living outside Sweden was quite natural. As a child we often took the train from Stockholm to other European cities, with Copenhagen as the first stop. Arriving in Copenhagen was the beginning of Europe; it also looked and felt more European than Stockholm. We always went to Tivoli.  I loved Tivoli then and I still do. My husband has the same recollection, as he also comes from a travelling family, an amazing mutual experience.

Combined with our romanticised idea of Copenhagen from our childhood memories and the fact that during our last years in Geneva both of us had been working with Denmark and Danish institutions professionally, well, Copenhagen just felt like the right choice.”

Looking for the common values

With the Scandinavian roots strong in both parents, their children’s welfare was also a top priority in the decision. Both wanted their girls to be brought up in the more liberal mind-set of children’s education and upbringing predominant in all Scandinavian countries.

“For us it was important; children are respected as individuals and encouraged to be independent. They are allowed to do many things on their own and are not so overprotected. So we went to Copenhagen for a couple of days to check out the French school, and after strolling down Værnedamsvej, we thought: ‘this is going to be great’,” Paula laughs as she remembers the trip.

Værnedamsvej in Frederiksberg is renowned for its French atmosphere, with French shops, cafés, and restaurants, strongly influenced by the close proximity to the French school just off the street.

Paula’s husband got a job at Copenhagen Business School; and Paula, after working for different UN agencies, wanting to take some time to reflect about her career, was able to do a PhD in fundraising there as well, so they made the move.

This time though, the choice of a French school in a Danish environment somehow led to the expat identity Paula had tried to avoid in Geneva. This came as a great surprise to her. When they moved to Switzerland, she explains, she had been very conscious about trying to avoid living an “isolated” expat life. Wanting to settle in and get integrated with Swiss society, they chose to live in a less expat-dominated neighbourhood. “And when we had our children, we chose a local (French-speaking) school instead of the international one.”

Swedish in Switzerland – but French in Denmark?

So when she moved to Denmark, feeling that she was moving home, back to Scandinavia, she never imagined getting an expat identity here.

“Without realising it, I ended up feeling a little bit like a French expat in Denmark, mingling with this really great group of French expats, which is kind of funny really. Of course we also have Danish and Swedish friends, but the image of being a French expat sort of sticks to me and has become part of my identity, even though I never lived in France and, to be honest, my French is not that good,” Paula chuckles as she explains.

So what is it like to be a Swede in Copenhagen, which despite the add-on French expat identity, Paula still is?

 “It’s been easy.  The formalities took no time at all and I am able to communicate with everyone. Speaking slowly and clearly and adapting some of my words, I manage perfectly. It’s made me a bit lazy, I admit, about learning proper Danish, and by now I speak a strange mixture of Swedish and Danish, whereas my 10-year-olds speak it fluently, having had to learn it from the base at school.”

It’s been more the difference in culture between Denmark and Sweden that took her unawares and makes Denmark seem less like home compared to Sweden.  As a Scandinavian she finds the values are the same, certainly regarding women’s rights, equality, equal opportunities, and the strong family focus. What came as a surprise was the difference in tone, where she finds that Danes can be very direct in the way they speak to each other.

 “I must admit, I am still sometimes surprised when I listen to the tone of voice used in public places, so no, I don’t feel Denmark and Sweden are the same in this respect.” Paula believes that Swedes probably resemble the British more, and tend to be more polite, or less direct, which does sometimes create confusion about what they really mean, whereas Danes are very direct, sometimes even in such a way that can come across as impolite to people who don’t know the Danish style. She quotes a former Danish colleague explaining how to interpret the very to-the-point style: “No, he is not mad at you; he’s just Danish.

Surprisingly, despite its lack of mountains, Paula cannot help compare Denmark with Switzerland. Maybe it’s because both nations “lie in the middle”, surrounded by larger countries, and find an inner satisfaction with their own lives? “In that way, I find Danes very different to Swedes who sometimes focus more on the outside world than they do on domestic issues. Maybe something to do with Sweden being at the periphery of Europe and wanting to be heard and seen,” she says while reflecting on cultural and geographical differences.

So what about this friendship thing many expats ponder about?  Paula wonders if making new friends, be it in Stockholm or here in Copenhagen, isn’t equally difficult. My question has triggered a more contemplative look back in time, and Paula admits that, somehow, many of their friends tend to be people with an international perspective, either because they lived abroad themselves, or they are married to foreigners, compelling them to adapt and be more open-minded about looking for new friends and networks.

Danes don’t work less – just differently

Having covered expat lifestyles and cultural differences, I wonder how Paula experienced shifting to the Danish work culture as well. “It was such a revelation for me. The first time I experienced the four o’clock rush hour, I had to text the experience to some friends. The difference to Geneva was just so big; there, I usually sat in a traffic queue around seven-thirty in the evening.”

So Danes do work less? “No,” says Paula, and she is quite adamant about it. She thinks people tend to forget that office hours usually start earlier here, whereas in Geneva, arriving at 9:30 was normal. And then, of course, she is quite amazed at the effectiveness of the short lunch break.

“Everyone takes their lunch together, spending maximum 20 minutes, and they mingle while eating, discussing business issues as well. From an employer point of view, that’s really efficient. In many other countries, taking one and a half hours or more for lunch, with wine and dessert, isn’t unusual, and most often, it’s done with two to three of your closest colleagues.”

The shorter Danish days, she finds, are often compensated for, as people pick up work at home in the evening once the kids are asleep, in that way spreading out their hours differently.

My time is running out, but I cannot help inquiring about Paula’s girls. How do they perceive themselves? Paula explains that they are two happy girls, content about living in Copenhagen. But they don’t feel Danish, and when asked where they come from, they will answer Switzerland, as that is where they were born. However, they identify themselves as Swedish and French. On my way out, Paula can’t help recount a wonderful anecdote from when they first arrived in Denmark.

Picking up one of her then six-year-old daughters from school, she found her in tears, frightfully upset. Upon being questioned, her daughter answered that her best friend was telling lies about her. “She said I am half Swedish and half French,” her daughter explained. Paula suppressed a laugh and asked her daughter, “So what do you think you are?”  Whereupon her reply of course said it all: “I am completely Swedish and completely French!”

SOS Børnebyerne

  • SOS Børnebyerne is part of an international NGO working in 134 countries.
  • They have more than 60 years’ experience with family-based caring for children without parental care. You can sponsor a child at DKK 5 a day.
  •