5 Things I’ve Learned about Scandinavia from Working with Danes

Note: I am writing about my experience working with a Danish company that has just opened an office space in the U.S.—I fully realize that my experiences may not necessarily reflect everyone’s opinion, but I have written this article with coworker-approval.

As an American in my home country, I have been working mostly with American companies and getting accustomed to our own work culture. Now that I’m working for Pine Tribe, a Danish company, I am being immersed in a new culture which is rather exciting to explore. Beyond just the work culture, I feel like I’m getting a crash course in Danish culture as a whole—without ever leaving my own backyard just from working with Danes.

I’ve talked a bit about my personal culture clash before, and in the last month or so of chatting, laughing, and working with my new Danish coworkers, I’ve learned a few new things about Scandinavia that I have been told are pretty standard habits abroad.

1. Scandinavia/Denmark is a safe country

Although most New York offices often have a security staff on hand and sophisticated locking systems, workers are still expected to keep track of their belongings at all times. It is common practice to keep personal items close at hand, or tucked safely away at one’s desk; especially with items of great value or expensive electronics.

In sharp contrast, my coworkers are much more relaxed with their personal belongings—just last week, someone left behind a collection of things ranging from an iPod, a laptop, and a scarf in the main lobby. It’s not so much of a surprise when one considers how relatively safe Denmark is.; It seems that “Safe” has become the default mindset in Denmark. Violent crimes occur less frequently than in the US and overall, Denmark regularly ranks among the least corrupt nations in the world, according to multiple surveys. Few scenarios will cause a person to feel “Unsafe” when walking through the streets of Denmark.

copenhagen streets safety scandinavia

The “Safe” mindset is natural in Scandinavia. Walking the streets of Copenhagen, there are only a few times and places when someone may put their guard up. This doesn’t mean it’s easier to commit crimes in Denmark, it just shows that criminality is not as common.

2. An “Okay” is okay

In America, the humble “Okay” can mean a variety of things. When said in a certain tone and body language, it can be an affirmative, it can be sarcastic, it can even be sad if said with the right inflection and offer subtle clues to how a person is actually feeling. Thus, this seemingly “simple” little phrase can hold plenty of meaning that can be positive or negative—especially when used to reflect on someone’s work.

But for my Danish coworkers, an “Okay” does not carry the same subtle weight of emotion. “Okay” seems to actually be used as a neutral placeholder in sentences that follows in the natural back-and-forth flow of conversation. It directly encourages conversation and confirms that the listener is attending to the speaker —there is never any worry that a chorus of “Okays” as anything dismissive or negative.

ok scandinavian meaning

In Scandinavia, “Okay” seems to have no emotional complexity. It is used as a neutral filler word, much like a nod would be used in America.

3. Speaking Directly

In the same way that my Danish coworkers use “Okay” as a direct way to confirm that they are listening, they also favor conversations that are straight to the point. Free from many of the filler words that Americans like to use—“Like”, “You know”, etc.—my coworkers are pretty confident about saying what they want clearly and concisely.

For instance, I may begin a conversation with what is considered a polite inquiry such as: “If you’re not too busy, could you do me a small favor?”

As for my coworkers, this circular conversation pattern is simply unproductive; one must speak directly with confidence, not deference, as we are all part of the same team. Thus, you’re more likely to be asked: “Can you do me a favor?”—without the extra fluff.

scandinavian lifestyle culture

In Scandinavia, speech is very direct. Although in America this may come off as blatant, or even rude, it’s very common in Scandinavia. It is also more efficient. (This photo has nothing to do with direct conversation, it’s just a pretty picture of our Copenhagen Office)

4. Teamwork and Team-building

While I believe all companies value a good work-ethic—there is something to be said about the Danish value for “teamwork”. Whereas Americans may expect time in the office spent at the desk with moments of interaction either at lunch or after work hours, Danish Companies enforce team-building exercises to promote socialization. Companies encourage events like “Fredag’s Bar” (Friday Bars), frequent office parties, and Julefrokost (A Christmas feast of epic proportions).

While these may not seem too different from moments where my American officemates get together, Danes are actually considered to be “reserved” thus these moments of enforced socializing can do wonders to boost company cohesion. The key to this is the high frequency of opportunities available to help break open peoples’ shells. With HR constantly providing social activities and events, employees will be able to keep up their team morale and interaction.

My co-workers embrace communal activities, and while Fredag’s Bar may not be a common occurrence at our office space, we genuinely work at setting aside time to talk to one another and really bond with our team.

co-operation workplace scandinavian working culture

Socializing with co-workers is the key to Scandinavian business morale. Thanks to the social schedule at work, employees establish personal relationships, and will often socialize outside work hours, even without office planned events.

5. Equality

As we have discussed before, Janteloven, the idea that no one should think they are better than anyone else in any way, is a pretty defining aspect of Scandinavian culture. Within the office, we do our best to treat each other as equals; there is no reason to be afraid to voice one’s opinion or make suggestions, even if they are not as “important” on a hierarchical level. Interns are freely able to lead discussion and are just as valued as senior workers; which is a refreshing change from what I’ve experienced in stricter, ranked work settings. When I asked Pine Tribe’s co-founder Martin Bjergegaard about his efforts to maintain equality in the workplace, he almost seemed confused about the question. It turns out, for him there was no effort, it was just natural for him to work in this manner.

scandinavian working culture

This is one of Pine Tribe’s work tables at the Copenhagen Office. At this table there are both interns and senior staff members. The open setting naturally helps provide equality in the work place.

Overall, I feel like I have learned plenty of interesting details about Danish culture from the ways that my co-workers interact with us here at the NYC office. For more insights into the differences between Scandinavian office spaces and American ones—you can check out our previous article here.

Like Pine Tribe on Facebook for more insights on life in Scandinavia

Image from: here

Angeli Rafer
13 Mar 2014

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