Our Cross-Cultural Communication class recently had a guest speaker who is a fairly well-known anthropologist here in Denmark. He is a Dane that studies other Danes. He published a book recently aimed at discussing cultural communication in the business world and personal world. Originally directed towards Danes on interacting with different cultures, a version has since come out in English that is directed towards different cultures that may interact with Danes in the professional world or even while abroad.
A fairly large portion of the book talks about Danish values and other cultures in the context of Geert Hofsteede's dimensions of culture.
The tribal context is a dangerous one, I feel, because Danes are quick to apply certain values that clearly do not apply to anyone outside of the tribe. They can be incredibly open and yet incredibly closed, depending on the situation.
Here are two important points that stood out to me:
1. Don't ask why, but rather...
-What will happen if I do this? What will happen if I don't do this?
-Have you noticed me doing anything you find strange?
-What are you doing? When do you do it?
2. Don't approach another culture with your own culture's frames.
Generally, Danes don't talk in public unless very much promoted to. The levels of small talk and general 'neighbor-ness' are quite low. I've observed even in situations of trouble (someone dropping a grocery bag, or falling off of a bike) Danes are a lot less likely to sustain prolonged, engaged contact with others.
The first four months I spent in Denmark I observed these cultural values through the lens of my own culture, and my conclusions were thus: Danes are rude, they are cold, they don't care about others, they are only concerned with themselves and their direct acquaintances.
However, as I began living here for longer, I learned about the Danish cultural values that inspire these behaviors.
Mainly: whereas Americans think it respectful and friendly to engage with others in public, Danes find it respectful and friendly to leave people alone in public. Therefore, they are happy to talk if engaged with ('I need help!' 'I have a question!' 'I love your dog!') but they will not go out of their way to engage, unsolicited. It's just...not as respectful. People want to be left alone! They need their personal space and time! A Dane even described to me the feeling of public embarrassment when they drop a grocery bag or fall off a bike, saying, 'I'd really rather no one make a big deal out of it and rush to help me with other people. Unless I'm extremely injured, it's more embarrassing to draw attention to what I've done - I can manage on my own, thanks.'
So there you go. The 'why' should always come early on in contemplating behavior and cultural norms.
A final note on cultural values - through language
When I studied abroad in Denmark, I began to notice an interesting little shift in language, especially as it was used in print ads. Two of my favorite things in Denmark – beer and cake -had something in common: they were each touted as “probably the best” of their kind. There was a huge Carlsberg billboard located in the middle of Copenhagen that was dark green and said simply, “Probably the best beer in the world.” My favorite up-scale Danish bakery, La Glace, notes on its rather formal website that it is the “oldest and probably best confectionary in Denmark”.
Probably the best? Huh?
I found the International Advertising class that I took in Denmark fascinating, because it was as much about anthropology, humor, and culture as it was about business proposals and international brand mergers. I thought I might be an Anthropology major in college. I loved learning about communication, values, and difference.
In IA we learned about Geert Hofstede, a Dutch researcher renowned in his studies of cultural organization, management, and economics. In the 60′s and ’70′s he conducted a global survey that resulted in his famous cultural dimensions theory. There are five dimensions that make up the theory, and they are: power distance, masculine/feminine, uncertainty avoidance, individualism, and long term orientation. Each country is ranked according to the five dimensions, and the resulting data has become very important for cross-cultural communication and business. It’s also very interesting when used to study ads. Granted, these models are cultural generalizations, so take them as such.
An example of how a country might do on some rankings is as follows:
Nordic countries score low for masculinity: A culture that scores low on masculinity places more emphasis on relationships & quality of life and less on competition. Gender roles are more fluid.
Nordic countries score low on power distance: A culture that scores low feels more “equal” with those in power and does not shy away from engaging or critiquing those in power
Nordic countries score low on power distance: They are okay with ambiguous situations, more open to change, do not depend on excessive rules and laws for stability
Danish interaction as a whole is known for being very humble and low-key. Definitely not overly competitive. I remember my Danish professor telling me that there is a joke that most famous Danes have had to leave Denmark to become famous elsewhere before they can become popular at home, because the culture de-emphasizes the singling out of individual successes.
Therefore, the Carlsberg & bakery language made sense. To this American it was funny, quirky, and sounded a bit valley girl “Oh yeah, that’s like probably the best thing I’ve ever had,” or even a product that second-guesses itself, but I realized that it was a humorous yet culturally appropriate take on asserting one’s product is good while not claiming best.