Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part VII: Random Thoughts

After about ten days in Denmark, I start to feel Danish again.

Maybe that sounds a bit cryptic, since I am Danish... but after 30 years in the US, I feel more American than Danish, when I am there. After some time in Denmark, I start feeling more Danish than American. I believe that-- unless you've actually lived back-and-forth between two countries for much of your life-- it's hard for people to conceptualize that a person could move their "center" of values so easily.

My perspective on "what I like most here, and what I like most there" is, of course, uniquely mine. As such, my random musings are mine alone, and not meant as an editorial about "what people feel," in general.

Just saying.

One of things I continue to like about Denmark is that it moves slower, is less aggressive and feels a lot less "type A" than the US. I also like what feels like a sort of "cultural philosophical resignation" to the fact that people and things we get involved in might well be "less-than-convenient" and imperfect. To me, that feels like a sort of "applied realism," rather than apathy.

These cultural differences manifest in many different ways. Back in 1996, I started selling things on eBay... and interacting with large numbers of buyers both in the US, as well as in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The US buyers (gross generalization, of course!) would have an email in my box 5 minutes after the sale going "I paid! Did you send the item yet? When can I expect it? Did you send it YESTERDAY (before I even bought it)? Did you send it EXPRESS at your expense, so I will get it sooner?" The Danish buyers (gross generalization) might email me three weeks after the sale and go "Ummm.... did I pay you for that, yet?"

Convenience and speed are not central parts of Danish society and culture. I'll be the first to admit that this can be frustrating, if you are trying to get a piece of paper from the government office that's only open from 11:00am to 3:00pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Often, the sense of Danish egalitarianism is to blame (gonna pick on the Danes, for a moment!), centered around the notion that nobody has the "right" to inconvenience anyone else. The argument might be (gross generalization!) that we "don't have the right to make the people in that office be inconvenienced by working late and missing dinner."

Another thing I really like about Denmark is the extent to which its culture has embraced gender equality. To a large degree, Denmark adopted (culturally, if not "officially") a system of "soft values" back in the 1960's and 70's... as a result of which Danish women probably enjoy more equality than women almost anywhere else. But it's not a "harsh" equality, filled with anger and a sense of "entitlement;" Danish women are definitely women, not "pseudo-men."

This arrangement also affects men, in the sense that male relationships are more "cooperative" and less "competitive/territorial" in Denmark, than in the US. I also like that with equality comes the attendant responsibility for equality. It's not "equality" in the sense of lifting bags of cement, as it is equality in the arena of "being a strong person;" far less emphasis is placed on specific acts/roles emerging as a product of gender first.

In the early days, this did lead to certain absurdities. Newspaper advertisements to fill jobs were (at one time) required to state that anyone could apply for the position... leading to headlines such as "Wet nurse sought, male/female."

No system is perfect, of course. And, for that matter, it's hard to say that any one system is "better" than another... I live in the US by choice; nobody held a gun to my head. I visit Denmark by choice, because I like spending time here. In some ways, going back and forth between the two reminds me not only of the strengths of each place, but of the things we really "need to work on." When I sit back and consider the areas needing improvement, I increasingly become aware that in the US we have problems with the negative aspects of a "me/I" society, while in Denmark there are problems with the negative aspects of a "we/us" society.

More, though, what I learn from observing these cultural differences (and there are many, not covered here) is a better sense of who I am, and why I feel inclined to respond in certain ways that seem almost "countercultural" in the US. I was born in Denmark and lived here (on and off) till I was 20... so many of my key early impressions (and "socialization") were based on Danish-- not US-- values and practices.

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