The JGM BitBlog: Breaking out of the expatriate bubble in Denmark

Journal of Global Mobility

Marian van Bakel, Syddansk Universitet, Slagelse, Denmark

Charles M. Vance, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, USA


Expatriates find Denmark one of the most difficult countries to make local friends, as is shown in the annual survey of InterNations, the global network for expatriates. But why do expatriates find Denmark particularly difficult for making local friends? Through a meta-ethnography of literature on Danish culture, as well as semi-structured interviews with a total of 16 expatriates in Denmark, we identified three main cultural elements as crucial for explaining the difficulty expatriates face in connecting with Danes, namely homogeneity, the value placed on equality, and the public-private divide.

Denmark as a tribe
The key thing to know about Denmark is that it is a very homogeneous nation with little past experience of immigration. The historic losses of territory in the 19th century have led to the Danes turning in on themselves, focusing on their own ‘tribe’ where they find community and unshakeable trust, as the British ambassador to Denmark Sir James Mellon observed in the 1980s. Historian Jespersen describes Danish mentality as a circle of people sitting around a campfire “shoulder to shoulder around it, with their backs to the darkness outside the circle of light from the fire”. This homogeneity and inward-looking mentality make it more difficult for outsiders to be part of the social circle. Danes often have an established social circle that dates back to their time in ‘folkeskolen’, since they spend the years from age 6-16 in the same class with the same classmates. It is no wonder that many expatriates observe that Danes all seem to have friends that go back to childhood.

The value of equality
Closely connected to homogeneity is the value that Danes place on equality – the famous Law of Jante that states, among others, that nobody is better than others. When everyone is the same, it is easier to create the trust that is the backbone of Danish society. Anthropologist Anne Knudsen adds: “The important part is the inclusiveness: we want to include you, but that is only possible if you are equal. It’s what peasants do”. This value of equality can make things difficult for newcomers because one can’t ‘get a seat at the table’, where everyone is equal, unless one is invited in. Another complication is the norm that Danes mainly talk to those they know and that introductions are usually not made, because this would only highlight the outsider status, and make someone lose face. 

Public-private divide
The divide between public and private life is a third important aspect to understand why it can be difficult to make friends with Danes. Their private zone only covers family and friends, which can be interpreted as cold and difficult to access by those who come from a culture where there is less of a divide between work and private life and more spontaneity. Danes spend their time outside of work with family and friends, so expatriates should not expect their Danish colleague to become their friend outside of work. Danes also value privacy, which is why they do not appreciate unannounced visits to their home. The unfortunate thing for expatriates is that Danes also value their privacy, which means that they will not easily strike up conversations with them, since they are a stranger. 

Speaking Danish
Language is another complicating factor. Even though Danes are very proficient in English, they do not necessarily feel comfortable speaking it in front of other Danes. Together with the fact that the language is an important part of ‘being Danish’, Danes often switch to their native language, especially outside the large cities. Social life, naturally, takes place in Danish, and Danes often are reluctant to include those who do not speak Danish. The added difficulty for expatriates is that many Danes are not used to hearing their language spoken with an accent. Expatriates seem to have an easier time in large cities such as Copenhagen, but there an often-heard complaint is that Danes too easily switch to English which then prevents the expatriate from learning Danish.

Originality and practical value
Our study focuses on the context of expatriate social network formation, and shows that cultural differences in socializing affect the ease with which expatriates can make connections with HCNs, who can have a positive impact on expatriate adjustment and performance success. In light of the challenges that many expatriates face in creating a new social network abroad, organizations can support them in several ways. We discuss context-specific strategies for making new social connections in Denmark, and which may be usefully applied in other countries.


To read the full article, please see the Journal of Global Mobility publication:

van Bakel, M. and Vance, C.M. (2023), "Breaking out of the expatriate bubble in Denmark: insights from the challenge of making connections with local Danes", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 21-42.