When I originally moved abroad to Denmark to study abroad for one year at Aarhus University, it was genuinely the first time I began thinking about how I was perceived culturally. Of course my American accent and the fact that I was speaking English, immediately gave me away as being a foreigner. But sometimes, before people really got to know me, people would say “I could immediately tell that you were American!”
This got me wondering.. wait, how?
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I notoriously have a loud laugh. I own it. While I have become painfully aware of my loudness my entire life, it wasn’t until I moved to Denmark that I realized just how loud I was.
One time I was out with a Danish girlfriend during the first few months of my stay in Denmark. We were at a very cozy small café and I noticed that everyone kept looking at me. I finally asked my friend, seriously why is everyone staring at me?
My friend bluntly turned to me and said, “sweetie, do you not have any idea how loud you talk? I’m right next to you. Is it really necessary for you to speak so loudly that the entire café hears you?”
At first, I was quite embarrassed, but I am so glad my friend directly told me. I therefore became painfully aware of my volume and it wasn’t until I had my American family visit that I realized Americans are generally quite loud.
I of course wanted to assimilate into Danish society, so I quickly got ahold of my volume!
I used to do this all the time. If I got too close to someone on the bus, my knee jerk reaction was always to say “oh, I’m sorry!” However, I began noticing that once I would say sorry, people always looked back at me uncomfortably and would not acknowledge my apology.
In Denmark and I’m sure in many other parts of the world, you generally only say “I’m sorry” if it’s about something sincere. It’s reserved for particular situations, such as having an argument with you friend.
Therefore, by reserving this word for special circumstances there is more gravity to the phrase.
While I admire the sentiment behind this mannerism, it took me quite a long time to end the habit of mindlessly saying “I’m sorry” to people I didn’t even know.
One of the prime ways to spot an American abroad is very simple: they’re smiling.
Growing up in the States, it would actually be considered rude if you passed a stranger on the street and did not acknowledge their presence by making eye contact of giving a small smile in return. Even if people are not particularly happy on a given day, they will always graciously put on a smile when they’re ordering their coffee.
Before I realized this behavior, I was constantly confused as to why people would not look at me or ever smile. I kept thinking, why don’t they acknowledge me or smile in my direction? Why don’t they like me?
I finally learned in the case of Denmark: it comes down to the simple concept of privacy in public. What the hell is that, you make ask? It’s having the right to privacy, even in public. People therefore have the right to not have to speak to others or being interrupted while in public. Now, I love this concept. I can grocery shop in complete privacy and have utterly privacy in public.
Shying Away From ‘Touchy’ Subjects
Danes are extremely blunt and direct people, with seemingly no topics as off limits. Seriously.
I was quite shocked when I was at my first Danish dinner party in Denmark, when I was very casually asked what my thoughts on abortion and religion were.
Americans are much more guarded with certain subjects, especially with religion and politics. You will often hear in an American household, “we don’t talk religion and politics here.”
Now, I wouldn’t think twice about talking about these subjects. Being in Denmark has really influenced me to shed this American conservativism and never be afraid of speaking my mind, because because no opinion is right or wrong. I admire this quality of Danes.
Also, I currently study political science and am quite desensitized about talking politics at this point, so I am certain I can be outspoken on the touchier subjects than I use to be. For Danes, no subject is too personal nor touchy.
Oh, the small talk.
I didn’t have any idea how much Americans used small talk until I got out of the United States. Thinking about it now, especially being from a small town in Montana, people are extremely kind.
The unconscious phrase uttered in all situation is always, “hi, how are you?” However, people rarely are interested in your response. Often after asking “how are you?” people reply on autopilot “good, how are you?”
In Denmark, there is absolutely zero small talk. And I mean zero. The cab driver, kiosk worker, acquaintance, waitress, etc. will rarely engage in small talk.
I of course wasn’t even aware that I was doing loads of American small talk, until I finally noticed I was the only one doing it and people would literally not reply to me.
Americans are extremely polite and are very much aware of personal space. However, I wasn’t aware of this until I moved to Denmark.
I began noticing that when I was on a crowded bus or attempting to move around someone in the market in DK, I would constantly say “oh, excuse me!” For the most part, Danes look at me bewildered each time I would say this.
The only time this is appropriate is if you actually knock someone over. What I thought was something kind, ended up being read as a bit intrusive. When I am out and about in the city, I can immediately spot a fellow American by this mannerism.