The Duality of Copenhagen

In collaboration with the Globe-programme from CBS, FINANS is monitoring the experiences of elite students from three continents, as they explore the world by studying abroad. At present students from the USA and Hong Kong are processing their first meeting with Danish culture and society.

Talenternes uddannelsesrejse
Anna Xu, GLOBE-student. Foto: Privat

Since coming to Copenhagen, I’ve experienced a dichotomy of cultural differences which resonate with my own identity. As a Gemini, a horoscope known for being two-faced in nature, I’m someone who has always been outgoing and effusive in social interactions while needing alone time to recharge.

More so, my closest friends find my “social self” overly expressive in contrast to the more relaxed manner in which I act around those I’m most comfortable with.

I perceive Copenhagen to be a Gemini of its own, in a way that’s opposite to my dual nature: Outwardly less friendly and more cold-natured than America as a whole, yet more close-knit and devoted to community on the small-scale.

Obviously, these perceived cultural differences are limited and biased to my personal experiences in America and Copenhagen, and I hope they will be taken as such.

In America, almost all interactions with strangers are complemented by constant smiles, laughs, and small talk pleasantries. When I first came to Copenhagen, I clearly remember it being a cold shock at the grocery store when I wasn’t greeted with small talk, much less even a smile, by the cashier. This sense of coldness, compared to the enthusiastic grins and greetings I was accustomed to in American grocery stores, was a relevant marker for the rest of my observations of Danish behavior amongst strangers.

In class, people sat in groups of pre-existing friend groups, and it wasn’t common to chat with students you didn’t know. Waiters didn’t make small talk or crack jokes in restaurants trying desperately for a high tip. Strolling on the sidewalk, passerbys didn’t express the typical soft smiles exchanged in America upon making eye contact, and getting brushed past by strangers wasn’t accompanied by an “excuse me”, “sorry” or similar acknowledgement.

These many repeated experiences shaped my perception of Danish inter-stranger norms to be colder and less friendly than those in the states.

  • Globe er et trikontinentalt udvekslingsprogram for elitestuderende på CBS i samarbejde med Chinese University of Hong Kong og University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
  • Årligt bliver 18 studerende fra linjen B.Sc. in International Business og et tilsvarende antal fra hvert af de to partneruniversiteter udvalgt til som samlet gruppe at tilbringe et semester i Hong Kong, et i USA og et i Danmark.

But, like I mentioned before, I perceive Copenhagen to be a two-faced Gemini like myself. In contrast to the coldness of large-scale stranger dynamics, I noticed that Danes typically are more close-knit and devoted within small groups than Americans.

For one, I’ve felt a stronger sense of family bonds, constantly observing whole families biking together, playing in parks, dining, walking, and more. In America, I rarely witness entire families spending quality time together in public other than the occasional restaurant sighting.

Also, I’ve noticed more adult-aged friends spending time together, whether it be moms on a walk with their strollers, friends chatting at a cafe, or catching up on a park bench. While it’s typical to see young people hanging out in the US, it’s rare to see adult friend groups spending time together regularly.

Another example of this inter-group closeness was observed firsthand by my American friend and I within our international Globe cohort. The Danish batch got together as a group much more often, and more easily, than the American batch.

Within the American batch, group events would take weeks of planning, coordination, and incentivizing everyone to come, only to usually result in a limited turnout and thus rare number of events.

In contrast, the Danish batch hosted multiple group events in which everyone attended not out of incentive, but expectation. All of these experiences reinforced my perception of Danes being more closely bonded on a smaller, established group basis than Americans.

When reflecting on these perceived differences, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why is it that in America -- a society with arguably more heterogeneity, polarization, and political divide than Denmark -- we are more outwardly friendly among strangers? Is it a means of compensating for the inherent gaps caused by our differences, an attempt to unify the diversity of people living there?

On the other hand, does America’s diminished small-scale closeness compared to Denmark reveal the divides still prevalent in our society, non-soothed by everyday gestures of warmth? I don’t know the answer to these big questions, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on them and their implications for America in light of experiencing Danish culture.

I will bring this enhanced multicultural perspective and worldview into my incoming role as a Production Engineer at Met to design human-centric products. To create the digital space of tomorrow, it is essential to consider the cultural diversity of users. In my personal life, I will seek to gain cultural understanding and awareness from all relationships, and use that knowledge to establish a foundation of mutual trust and goodwill.

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