For the uninitiated American, danish people just might be some of the rudest on the planet. God love ’em.
But here’s the rub – and it’s a big one – they are only kidding. Danish conversations are rife with irony, always detectable to the native speaker by the stressing of certain vowel-rich sounds infusing the greater sentence with a blunt sarcastic edge. What I’m starting to realize is that danes, 90% of the time, might mean the opposite of what they say.
Especially when leveling insults or rather, compliments. Often, forms of flattery are cloaked in wicked garb. During my first lecture at Roskilde nearly 11 months ago, the Head of Studies Carsten took a swipe at the Department Counselor he was encouraging students to consult, by dead-panning “Peter doesn’t know much about anything! He’s been at this university waaaay too long.” Peter stood at the back of the room, cracking a dim smile.
Confused, I later inquired with Anne Louise if it was normal for professors to insult colleagues in their midst. She explained that, evident by the fact that Carsten mentioned Peter at all, he was actually complimenting him. Nevermind the rude context, it was intended ironically.
Denmark is a society uncomfortable with flattery. Compliments are deliberate, thoughtful and harder to spot than real boobs in Hollywood.
It’s a huge departure from the trademark embellishments Americans tend to make. We exaggerate and make extremist statements, we consider everyone our “friends,” we send Christmas cards to our therapist. Statements such as “Target is my most favorite place on Earth!” would earn you a funny look in Denmark. (Not that I’ve ever said that, but I have). The consequence of all this is that a received compliment can be taken all the way to the bank, provided you convert the insult into a flattering currency you understand.
In a fleeting moment of insecurity I once let slip to a male friend that I would love to drop a few kilos. He politely nodded and called me the word “flodhest”… which means hippopotamus. American men could take some pointers from the danes in sure-fire ways to end maddening conversations about weight. By calling me a river-cow, he was actually calling me skinny, or at least, not too fat. It was ironical.
Yesterday, following an afternoon jog around the city-lakes, I found myself in a popular American eatery ordering take-out as a reward for the vigorous workout. I was clad in loose-fitting spandex and a running cap that I received at the finish line of Ironman Idaho.
The blonde gentleman behind me in line gestured to my hat and asked me if I had raced the Ironman triathlon. Ever the shy, proud girl, I responded with a smile that I had completed the race last June. So had he, it turned out. As often happens with two competitive people -- tri-geeks nonetheless -- we sized each other up from our respective corners in the restaurant.
“So, you’re still showing off?” he said with a straight face, once again referencing my hat.
One point Denmark.
“Yes, I’m an American, so I can get away with it,” I countered.
One point USA.
“I try to be as un-danish as possible.”
Two points USA.
He managed a smile as I grabbed my food.
“Well, enjoy your M-c-D-o-n-a-l-d’-s,” he enunciated.
Two points Denmark.
“Tak. They make a mean c-h-i-c-k-e-n s-a-l-a-d.”
One point USA.
I breezed out of the restaurant with my iPod blaring, looking back at the handsome, 40-something stranger who had just called me a show-off. Somehow I managed to be the ruder one in that conversation.
You can find sparring partners in the oddest places, in the most remote corners of the globe, I’m learning.
The fact that this stranger even spoke to me, in this shy, impassive country, is a huge compliment. I will call him my mean friend from Copenhagen’s McDonalds.