Written in collaboration with VEN – Vejle Expat Network
Being an expat is the experience of a lifetime with all its ups and downs that go along with it. The first couple of months are the same as the first months in a new relationship, or in a marriage: the honeymoon period. This is when the food is interesting, the cultural life is exciting, the locals are generous, the sky is somehow bluer than you are used to, and the grass smells a little bit greener. You are in love with your new home away from home, in love with your new life.
You are so deep into those feelings that you somehow forget to make this feeling last, just like in a new, fragile relationship. You forget to attend your Danish classes, you forget to enlist to those job search workshops, and you forget everything you were told by the Newcomer Guide upon arrival. You are alone in your house all day long; your spouse is at work, and your children are at school, where they are trying their best to make friends in a new language and a new culture. Suddenly, the food is a little bland and to be honest, leverpostej is not really your thing. Danish turns out to be more difficult than you expected, and the motivation to do your homework is not that great anymore. You have already been to all the museums, and you realise that those Vikings were not really the best role models for your kids. The summer is over and it is raining all the time, and you get cold and wet the minute you step outside your house. The grass has turned brown and quite frankly smells a little mouldy. You start feeling a growing sense of loneliness, and you really miss home. You do not really recognize yourself anymore. My friend, you have hit the wall.
I call it THE wall, and not A wall because everyone hits that wall at one point or another. Most people hit it within the first year of living abroad. The wall can be enormous and impossible to cross or break down because the bricks of the wall are that well made. But, if the wall is smaller, the bricks made by mice, not men, we can bulldoze that wall. The wall differs in size and magnitude depending on what you, your family, your municipality, and your employer have done in the first months of your stay. This is where integration and friendships are key and where preparing for the darker times is vital.
Preparing for the darker times might include hoarding indoor activities, preparing soups for the freezer, researching that Danish word HYGGE, finding those books you never got a chance to read, stocking up on LEGO for the kids (and yourself). In order to integrate, you need to try various things i.e. learn about Danish culture, participate in our traditions, cook our food, attend our festival or concerts, learn Danish, and most importantly: be curious!
The challenges of befriending a Dane
Friendships are a bit trickier. In November 2019 the Danish newspaper Politiken published an article called ‘Denmark is the worst place in the world to get friends’ (it has since been edited to ‘When was the last time you invited a foreigner to your house’). The article is written after a study on the best place to be an expat was published. It showed that Denmark was among the countries ranking the lowest. This ranking is mainly due to the difficulties expats experience when making friends in Denmark. I must say, as a Dane I am really disappointed by this fact, a little embarrassed, but also not at all surprised. Danes make friends from when they are kids, and they keep those friendships. This means that when they are in their mid-30s, they have had the same friends for more than 20 years. New friends have come and gone, but typically you will see that we all have lifelong friendships. This could be one of the explanations as to why we are so bad at inviting internationals in.
Another explanation could be the language barrier: You might think that Danes love to speak English, since they typically switch to English when you are trying to practice your Danish skills. This is not the case; it is merely a failed attempt to be polite. The fact is that most Danes do not use their English skills except when they are on their yearly vacations abroad. It does not mean that they do not know how to speak English, it just means that their confidence might be a little too low to hold hour-long conversations in English with people they have invited to their house, the house that is supposed to be a safe-space, with no expectations, no pressure, no performance.
The last obstacle I would like to mention is the term ‘expat’. When saying the word ‘expat’, you also think ‘repat’. Expat implies that at some point you will leave Denmark, and return to your home country, or go on new adventures. So before even starting the friendship, you see that expiration date, and as mentioned before, Danes make friends for life. So is it even worth it?
I believe these to be some of the reasons why Danes do not invite internationals to their homes. However, I definitely think that we can change this! We need to see friendships for what they are: positive, inspirational, motivating relationships. We need to leave the fear behind and open up for that cultural curiosity that is within us all. We need to open the doors to our homes, cook for each other, talk about traditions, customs, and past experiences, and we need to let our children play together. This is how we grow as people, and this is where we expand our horizons to develop new communities, imagined or real.
Where do we go from here?
So what can we actually do? I would recommend all internationals to start the conversation. When you meet a Dane, and you feel there is some kind of chemistry, some kind of connection, grab that opportunity and start a conversation, and finish the conversation with an invite to your home. Invite us in, and if all goes well, we will reciprocate. If you are a little bit uncomfortable with inviting in a stranger, then invite your colleague, invite the parents to your children’s friends at school or day care, or invite your Danish teacher. It really does not matter who you invite in, as long as you do it.
We really need to do whatever we can to get these Danish/international friendships going. I am sure that these are the solutions to the loneliness and demotivation that you inevitably will feel when hitting that aforementioned wall. I realise that it is easier said than done, and we all need to make an effort, Danes not-the least! I do also think that both employers and the municipalities could do more to help this along, but it would take time, money, and creativity, and then it might be a little too late for you.
So my suggestion to you is grab the chance, learn Danish, meet a Dane, invite him/her in, and make friendships. Friendships truly are the key to happiness. If we do not make an effort to make friends, the consequences are expensive: personally and economically – for you personally, for the company you or your spouse is working for, for the state of Denmark. It is crucial for all of us to make sure that internationals in Denmark thrive, and hence ensure retainment.
Take it from me, a Dane moving around Denmark on numerous occasions: It is difficult to make new friends in a new city, even for a Dane. It takes a lot of courage, hard work, and confidence. But when you do make those friendships, they are for life.
Please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section, and let’s begin the incredibly important conversation on how we create cross-cultural friendships in Denmark.
Link to article in Politiken