8 Quirks of Living in Denmark

So how is life in Denmark continuing? Over the last two months, I’ve had a crash course in Danish daily life, people and language. But not just that… also weather and traffic, and those are very important parts of being an expat in Denmark!

Of course, every country is different, and it will take a long time to get immersed in the Danish lifestyle. But for now I’ve benefited from excellent resources like Work in Denmark, How to Live in Denmark by famous expat Kay Xander Mellish (see below), FYI in Denmark, and The Local. I recommend them to anyone thinking of moving to the land of Odin and smørrebrød!

These 8 quirks, however, are all my observations. Let’s get started, shall we?

8. Three-Name System

In emails and on LinkedIn, I started to notice something. Danes having three names seemed a lot more common than having two, and sometimes I even saw four. This stuck out to me specifically because I myself have four legal names. Although three names are certainly not uncommon in the States, people do not often use their middle name in day-to-day communication, and I’ve always gotten surprised comments about the fact that I have not just three but four names.


The story of tripartite names is really fascinating. Here’s how it works, according to Science Blogs:

The middle name tracks a matrilineage and the last name a patrilineage. When a child is born it inherits its mother’s middle name and its father’s last name. When a woman marries, she keeps her middle name and takes her hubby’s last name. So if the aforementioned Ulla and Anders married, she would change to Ulla Lund Rasmussen, and any children would be named likewise. Yes, Danish children will ideally share both middle and last name with mom and only their last name with dad. His middle name comes down to him from his maternal grandmothers.

My names don’t have quite as much strategy.

7. Ready yourself for the traffic lights

When you start biking in Denmark (and you will be biking in Denmark), you’ll notice an interesting phenomenon: The red light you’re stopped at will be joined by a yellow one for a moment in combination before the light turns green. I don’t know the philosophy behind it, but I appreciate it. It’s like a warning: get ready because you’re gonna have to go in a second!

And it makes a lot of sense if you think about what causes traffic jams (YouTube- Scientific American) – I know, this sounds like the most boring topic ever. But it’s actually got a lot of logic behind it and learning about it can help you avoid it on the roads.

I wonder if it helps with accidents when drivers are ready before the light turns green.


6. Where are the Plastic Recycling Bins?

At the moment, I have a massive plastic mountain growing in my apartment. The collection bins are right by the window, and soon they’re going to block out the light. (Okay not really. That’d take at least another two months.)

But it is true that, unlike in Czech Republic, Germany, and other European countries I’ve visited, you can’t find plastic recycling here anywhere. There is paper recycling and often glass, but never plastic. I was shocked at how the University of Southern Denmark eliminated takeaway coffee tops out of environmental concern, but I saw plastic water bottles in the trash everywhere because there were no plastic bins.

That’s not because plastic recycling doesn’t exist. It’s because you have to go to the recycling plant yourself (as I’ve just recently learned).

Plastic recycling is restricted in Denmark, although this will change soon. For one thing, you can’t recycle plastic that’s come into contact with food because of contamination risk. I wish I’d known that two months ago before we started our collection of soy milk cartons, cold cut packages, and yogurt containers.

5. People’s Abruptness

I’ve written before about my social anxiety, here and here. Thankfully over the years I’ve developed many strategies to help me cope with it, but as anyone dealing long-term with this problem knows, it can come up anytime, anywhere, in the most random of situations.

In the beginning, we needed some repairmen to come fix some naughty machines in our apartment. Perhaps because they’re older, the repairmen don’t speak or aren’t fond of speaking English. (I should say that one of our repairmen spoke good English and was very happy to help us. I do not want to over-generalize.) If this is not the case though, it can lead to a situation like this:

*knock on the door*

“Hi, are you–”



“Washing machine.”

“Oh, yes, that. We’ve actually been able to resolve the issue, but maybe you could–”

“It’s fixed?”

“Well, yes, but–.”


*walks away without another word*

He looked a little like this, except without the smile. Credit: iStock

This really set off my anxiety. I was left dumbfaced, jaw dropped halfway to my toes. As a newcomer to any country, you always have to wonder: Is this the custom here? Is this just how they operate and do I have to get used to it? Is that guy having a bad day? Does that guy have very little time to deal with us, and much less patience if he knows he has to strain his limited English?

So I was frozen, not realizing I should go after him and ask him just to take a look at it until he was already down the steps and out of the building. How could someone act like that? It felt offensive to me, but maybe culturally it’s not. I really didn’t know.

We’ve experienced this more than once in our first month here, but this time sticks out the most. Speaking of other common things you’ll face as a foreigner in Denmark…

4. The Language Switcheroo

I am the last person to complain about people not speaking English. I believe that if you live abroad, you not only should but must make an effort to learn the local language. It’s polite and respectful.

However, it can really throw you off when you make clear to someone that you don’t understand Danish and need to communicate in English (at least for the time being), and they have made clear that they can accommodate you with English, but after speaking to them a while (whether by phone, by email, or in person), they – out of nowhere – switch to Danish, as if you have magically learned it in the span of your exchange.


Danes are really proud of their (phonetically rebellious) language, and I think perhaps in response to the knowledge that “everyone speaks English here,” they have started to push back and subtly – or not so subtly – insinuate that non-Danes living here should learn it.

Problem is, outside of Copenhagen, they don’t really discriminate between tourists and residents. I suppose they assume that English speakers outside of the Odense city center are here to study or work, as they probably don’t get nearly as many tourists as the capital.

I’ve only been here a couple months! Have mercy on me! 🙂

3. Co-ed Bathrooms

Not only does Syddansk Universitet have a strong anti-racism policy, it’s very liberal with the identity politics in general. One way in which the university accommodates gender-fluid people is to offer co-ed bathrooms.

Credit: Brown Daily Herald

To be clear, all stalls are private – it’s just that every person enters the same bathroom area to find somewhere to do their business. Then you can wash your hands and check if your hair is just right in the same space.

Even for someone like me, it was surprising. But it’s normal here. Nothing to be worried about. Just something to get used to 🙂

2. A Different Definition of Good Cycling Weather, or Good Weather in General

When you look out your window in the morning and see the sky is just gray, you thank your lucky stars.

When it starts to rain, you say – Oh no, better get on my rain pants and get going before this gets worse.

And when the wind kicks in – okay, who am I kidding, THERE’S ALWAYS WIND! 🙂 – your cause is truly lost.

You still have to get where you need to go. But now you’ll just do it with rain blowing in your face sideways and sidewards, and you have to fight the wind from blowing you off course. Better leave early if you have to go somewhere important so you can have a few minutes in the bathroom when you get there fixing your hair and watery eyes.

How do the elegant Danes bike in such strong everyday winds (bad even without the rain) and get to their destinations still looking so perfect?

See the reeds blowing sideways and the large clouds in the left picture? Yes. This exact moment is the calm before the storm.

Because this is such a common situation, Danes seem to have a completely different idea of what good weather is. When the sky threatens rain, I’ve seen even grannies out cycling and people out doing sports until the last minute when the clouds break and the water pours down from heaven.

1. Everyone Smiles at You

Are Danes the happiest people in the world?

The jury’s out. But one thing I can say for sure is that this ain’t Czech Republic no more.

In Czech Republic, I had to be aware of my American Smile (patent pending). This is because people do not take kindly to strangers smiling at them. In my first year I was met with enough cold stares to be turned nearly to stone.

But here… I noticed it immediately. Strangers were smiling at me. Kindly. Small grins, large grins, middle-sized grins. Welcoming and amused sideways cracking of the lips. People I didn’t know and had no plans to talk to. Both when I was looking great and looking windblown. When I walked through a door, when I was sitting in a waiting room. Everywhere.

This is why, despite the claims that Denmark is the hardest place in the world to make friends, I do not give up hope! The occasional stony looks or rude person does not discourage me – come on, I’ve lived in Czech Republic 😉 I know there is something behind those Danish smiles, and I plan to continue discovering the warmth hiding there.

If anyone can do it, it’s this girl fitting perfectly into children’s furniture in IKEA.


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