Once upon a time, we came from Denmark to Sweden to settle down
It felt bad in the beginning and it just got worse (so much worse)
And they were making fun of me and my Danish pronunciation
So I started st-st-st-stuttering
I tripped over my tongue
And I dreamed about Denmark
Yeah I dreamed about Denmark
The beautiful streets of Copenhagen and
The home of H.C. Andersen
This morning, as I was listening to this beautiful song by Billie the Vision and the Dancers, Stuttering Duckling, I became aware of how little I know about Scandinavian countries and the cultural differences between them. What does Lars mean by his “Danish pronunciation”? Is he saying Swedish and Danish are not mutually intelligible? And who the heck is H.C. Andersen?*
Filled with questions, I decided to contact our Danish teacher Ander, who happens to have lived in Sweden for a few years. He told me so many interesting things about the cultural differences between these two countries that I had to take notes and, after reading all the curious things he had shared with me, I decided to write an article with everything he told me.
Ander became aware of the first big “Danish vs Swedish culture” difference when he got his first job in Stockholm. As it happens, the Danish are much more inquisitive and communicative than the Swedish. From an early age, Danish children are encouraged to ask questions, challenge the status quo, and share their thoughts about the world.
Though this cultural trait might seem like a lovely thing for many of our readers, it turns out Swedish managers can find it a bit annoying when a junior employee starts to interrupt a business meeting with all sorts of queries and suggestions!
It’s not that Swedes don’t have inquisitive minds, it’s just that they have been born and raised in a culture of self-censorship that teaches people to keep their ideas to themselves.
“Danish people just say what comes to mind”, says Ander, while Swedes tend to get more anxious about how their words will be received, especially in formal contexts. For this reason, a conversation in Swedish can be all made up of impersonal comments that will allow people to feel safe. “I had to learn this the hard way.”
Danish vs. Swedish culture, then, is a very real thing. If you’re traveling to Denmark, you should know that questions, ideas, even direct negative feedback are welcome. In Sweden, on the other hand, it’s better to keep potentially intrusive remarks to yourself until you have developed a closer relationship with the people in question.
Collective vs. Individual Perspective
Swedes might be quieter and more reserved than Danes, but they are also more team-oriented and inclusive. If you want to get a job in Sweden, the best thing you can do (apart from checking their wonderful artists) is say that you are a team player and that you have a collective approach to work.
In Denmark, things are completely different. Danes are generally more individualistic, and they prefer hierarchical dynamics in which managers show strong leadership and give clear instructions, knowing that employees will be able to follow them without much supervision.
So, if you get a job in a Danish company, don’t assume that asking for suggestions and constantly looking for opportunities to do collaborative work is a good idea. On the contrary, you might give the impression that you are insecure and co-dependent!
If you didn’t like someone’s behavior at work, would you solve it the Danish way or would you act like a Swede?
In Denmark, people are not afraid of conflict. If they sense that there is tension at the workplace, they just bite the bullet, come straight to you and ask you what is going on. Don’t get me (or Ander) wrong, it’s not that Danes enjoy conflict; it’s just that they believe confrontation is the only way to solve the problems that are bound to happen when there are too many stressed people working together in the same office or department!
This is probably the biggest Danish vs Swedish culture point according to Ander. In Sweden, confrontation is just not an option. If you have a disagreement with someone, the most common thing to do is take a deep breath, go home, talk about it with your partner over a glass of wine, and be ready to show your best face the next morning!
Let me save you years of therapy. If you ever set up a business in Denmark, don’t be surprised if all your employees leave every couple of years. There’s nothing wrong with you. According to Ander, changing jobs is just much more common for Danes than for Swedes.
Sure, Sweden boasts a few big corporate names that are known all around the world – IKEA, Volvo, H&M, Electrolux. However, in recent years, Swedes have been relocating to Denmark because unemployment is lower in Denmark, competition is less fierce, and salaries are higher.
“If you compare Danish vs Swedish business culture, the Danish market is just more flexible than the Swedish one”, says Ander. Indeed, in a 2018 survey from the Lithuanian Free Market Insitute, Denmark came in #1 and Sweden #29 in terms of employment flexibility, which explains Danes change jobs more frequently than Swedes do. So, next time an employee leaves your Denmark-based project, don’t assume you’re doing things the wrong way. Changing jobs is just what Danes do!
You may think that sarcasm and mocking humor are a good way to break the ice when you are getting to know your co-workers. If you were in Denmark (or in England!), you would be totally right.
Swedes, on the other hand, don’t appreciate irony the same way. It’s not that they don’t know how to have fun. There are many things Swedes find funny, such as childish jokes, over-acted gestures, accents, even sex humor! They just don’t believe that being made fun of is particularly amusing. Plus, being some of the most politically correct people in the world, they would never consider mocking you either! So, unless you want this “Danish vs Swedish culture” thing to get too personal, avoid making jokes about your coworker’s Swedish pronunciation.
Do Danes and Swedes Speak the Same Language?
No. The Swedes speak Swedish and the Danes speak Danish. Although these two are relatively intelligible to one another, they are definitely two distinct languages. Also, it is fairly common to hear both Swedes and Danes switch to English when they speak to people from other countries.
Do the Danes and Swedes Get Along?
Yes. All the Danish vs. Swedish culture talk goes back to times when both countries were at constant war. Today, you might notice that there is a bit of banter between Danes and Swedes, but that’s just part of the unique Nordic humor. In general, Swedish and Danish people have huge respect for one another.
Can Danes Understand Swedish?
The basic answer is yes. Danes can understand Swedish to a certain degree because the two languages are very closely related to each other. They would just have to rely on context to guess the meaning of unknown words and look up a few old terms that Swedish has borrowed from French at different times throughout history.
As you can see, though “Danish vs Swedish culture” can be a misleading title, opposing these two fascinating cultures is a fun way to learn more about Sweden and Denmark and their beautiful people.
If you agree with us that learning about languages is a great way to discover new cultures, give us a shout. At Listen & Learn, we work with native teachers of both languages who simply love sharing curious facts about their countries with their students. Send us a message now, tell us which language you would like to explore, and we’ll pair you up with one of our tutors for a free trial class! Ander will be happy that our morning conversation encouraged people to learn a new skill!
Ps: Hans Christian Andersen is the legendary Danish author who wrote The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, and The Ugly Duckling, among other classic children’s stories. Yes, I know. I should be ashamed not to know that.