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Relaxed, as a rule

Before I came to Denmark, I thought of Danes as being laid-back. And indeed they are – as long as you don’t break any rules.

Danes’ reverence for traffic laws is unyielding. Chances are you will never see a Dane jaywalk

Denmark is a land of contradictions.
Contradictions aren’t unique to Denmark. After all, the United States – Land of the Free, where “all men are created equal” – allowed slavery for nearly 100 years after its founding. And while the People’s Republic of China does indeed have a lot of people, its 1.3 billion citizens don’t have much of a say on a national level, complicating the notion that it is really the People’s Republic.
Denmark has some quirks too. This does not make it a bad place. Indeed, as a foreigner myself, I would say that you’ve made a wise choice coming to school here. I came here last August to get a master’s degree, and now that it’s time to go I’m feeling the pangs of separation. So no doubt, Denmark’s great. I’ll miss it.
But if you’ve come here expecting to find a nation of calm, relaxed people, you’re just as wrong as you are right.

Seriously laid-back

Danes have a reputation for being laid-back people, and that reputation is not undeserved. For example, by 14:00 each Friday afternoon, a section of nearly every university faculty will have been shut down and turned into a bar, the notorious (here at least) “Friday Bars”. And don’t be the least bit surprised to see professors drinking right alongside their students.
When it’s nice outside people will be playing music, lounging by the lake and kicking around footballs. And when it’s not nice candles will be glowing everywhere to help you forget about the cold and rain. (Should the candles not be enough, there will be more than enough booze to make things even brighter.)
You’ll hear it more times than you care to – maybe you already have – but Danes are hygge. This is their word, largely untranslatable, that essentially means cozy and calm and relaxed. Danes take it seriously – that is, they take the art of not being too serious very seriously.
When Denmark’s Crown Prince, Frederik, came to Aarhus University to christen the new International Centre last February, he couldn’t help but sense the good vibes permeating throughout the building.
“I think I can already feel the special word that Danes are proud of and famous for,” he said. “It’s called hygge.”
By all accounts, Frederik himself is a hygge dude. Indeed, Denmark’s hygge nature comes from the top.

Ruled by rules

But hygge as they may be, Danes aren’t always happy-go-lucky. The only thing they might value as much as hygge are rules, which are respected around here like Catholicism in the Vatican.
Look no further than the streets: Danes’ reverence for traffic laws is unyielding.
Chances are you will never see a Dane jaywalk (cross the street out of turn). Even if there is no traffic, even if it’s pouring rain, even if the person is late (which they probably wouldn’t be, but that’s another story). Even if there is no reason whatsoever: Danes. Don’t. Jaywalk. And if they get tempted, the 500 kroner fine for doing so might persuade them to reconsider.
This militancy about traffic etiquette extends to the bike paths as well. The day I got my bike, I headed downtown to cruise the streets and get a feel for the place. (I studied abroad in Holland a few years back, so it’s not as though I was a biking virgin.)
I came to a green light and decided to make a right turn. There were some people preparing to cross the street where I wanted to turn, but I could easily bike past them without causing any harm.
So I did just that – I made a big, wide turn to avoid the walkers. As I did this, an old man reached out and punched me in the arm. He hit me! For making a right turn on a green light!
He proceeded to yell at me in Danish, and I proceeded to get away as fast as I could. Or at least as fast as I could without upsetting any more pedestrians.

Don’t get me wrong

For my job with the newspaper, I once asked a professor of cultural studies if I could interview him about some of Denmark’s personality quirks. He replied in a huff.
“I have found that such observations are usually false,” he said with arrogance. “That sort of stereotyping only serves to perpetuate misconceptions and encourage prejudice.”
I couldn’t tell you why a professor of cultural studies refused to acknowledge cultural differences. That’s like a physicist refusing to acknowledge gravity. But his point (apparently) was that discussing these stereotypes will separate Danes and non-Danes, turning mundane observations into divisive reality.
I disagree. I think it’s foolish to pretend that every culture is the same, or that talking about cultural quirks somehow fosters discrimination.
Indeed, Danes’ quirks abound. They are a people who will lounge by candlelight for hours basking in the warm glow of hygge, or spend an entire day by the lake with nothing but friends and a 12-pack. But break one of their sacred traffic laws, and you might get hit for it.
There are more quirks, of course. I could have written this column about Danes’ obsession with punctuality, or their stunning drinking habits, or their proudly progressive politics that, for some reason, don’t apply to immigration.
Don’t listen to Mr. Snooty Professor; don’t interpret these as gripes about Denmark. By and large, Danes are great. They are nice and kind and easy to get along with (and, importantly, easy to look at).
But that doesn’t mean they are without contradictions. That doesn’t mean they can’t be a little uptight while also being relaxed.

David Vranicar, the former International Reporter for UNIvers, compiled an online welcome guide full of things he wish they had told him during welcome week.
Check out au.dk/en/univers for videos, facts and links about everything from the goofiness of the language to the Danes’ exceptional alcohol consumption.