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8 Ways to Act More Local in: Copenhagen

a group of people walking on a city street

Whenever you arrive to a new town or country, it’s easy to just keep on doing whatever you do at home. It’s also a sure-fire way though to be labelled as a tourist by the locals, as your behavior clearly doesn’t adhere to the unwritten rules of the town or country you’re visiting. Copenhagen is no different, so here’s a few cultural tips to make your trip to Copenhagen a delight.

1. Stand or pedal your bike to the right, please

Most Copenhageners either take public transportation or bike when they’re on their way from A to B. They enjoy a great transportation infrastructure with more than 400 km of bike path and metro trains every 2 minutes, so they feel pretty entitled! So please let them, and stand to the right in the escalator and drive your bike to the right in the biking lane, that way there should be plenty of space to pass. This way, you are not the reason why they miss their appointments because you can bet they have timed their commute without calculating in unforeseen events.

2. If you get on a bike, acquaint yourself with the laws and please signal

In Copenhagen life is lived in the saddle of a bike, so we understand that you want to get on a bike as well. Before you do, please acquaint yourself with the traffic laws – or even better, let us teach you in this article. We have so many bicycle lanes that most bicycle streets only goes in one direction, so it may not be the best idea to start driving against traffic here. Especially not when you consider there are areas in Copenhagen where an average bike goes 20 km/h and if anyone are in their way, that means that they will not be catching the green wave, which ensures them green lights all the way in to the inner city.

Also please signal to your fellow bikers as it’s expected here. If you want to stop, raise your right arm. If you want to go to the right, stick your arm out to the right. If you on the other hand want to go left, make sure to check over your shoulder, if it’s clear stick your arm out to the left, if not, hold your hand up to stop. See that’s not so hard, now please start doing it.

3. If you have an appointment with a Copenhagener be on time

Copenhageners are much like the Germans when it comes to time. We like order and we base our schedule on being on time, so we can be productive in both our family as well as career life. Also, it’s just good manners to call if you’re running late or pick up your phone when we call to hear what’s going on.

4. Be polite and humble when you ask for help, please

In Copenhagen, we are subject to something that is called ‘the law of Jante’ (i.e. janteloven). It’s a cultural law that Danes are taught from a young age, which basically says you’re not better or more important than anyone else. That’s why, we urge you to be polite and humble when you ask for help, since you’re basically interrupting someone to ask for a favor – hence communicating that you and your question is more important than what they are doing. Please know that we would love to help you, but be polite and humble about it. An ‘undskyld’  [ˈɔnˌsgylˀ]and a ‘tak’ [ˈtɑg]or just the English version sorry and thank you goes along way.

5. Turn your volume down

The law of Jante is also relevant when we talk about how we behave in public. In public settings Copenhageners value their privacy and they like to blend in, so please turn your volume down. There’s no need to attract unnecessary attention to yourself. (I don’t know if this could be connected to how all Danes basically wear black or grey toned outfits)

6. Respect other people’s privacy

As mentioned above, Copenhageners value their privacy even when they’re in public. We acknowledge it’s not always possible to be completely private, but when an open seat in public transport please get up and take the seat to get your privacy and to give the person next to you theirs. Also if you’re fortunate enough to encounter some celebrities or important persons in Copenhagen, be cool about it. They’re people going about their business too and remember, they are not more important than anyone else.

7. Don’t ask us ‘how we are doing’ if you don’t really want to know it

One of the features of Danish society expats pick up the fastest when they come to Copenhagen is that it’s really difficult to make friends here. There are many reasons for this, which we will not cover here, but it basically means we care when we ask people how they are doing. We find it pretty insincere when someone ask us it in passing without listening to the response, since that’s considered a pretty serious question here.

8. If you’re only here for a short while, don’t bother speaking Danish to us

Contradictory to many other European cities, Copenhageners actually appreciate you don’t try to speak Danish to them when you’re here only for a short amount time. Besides of actual English speaking countries, Denmark is the runner up for being the country in the world where most people speak English to a conversational level and we’re in a hurry, so there’s nothing more annoying than to see a clearly English speaking tourist try to speak Danish to the clerk when we all know it would be a lot faster to do it in English.

Please understand, we’re a country with 5.7 million people living here, so our language is really not that important if you have no plans of settling down here. Also, speaking Danish is not that easy, it is said that there are two Danish languages, the written and the spoken, and they sound nothing alike. The written Danish language has some similarities with the English (both are versions of the Germanic language) but pronunciation is a completely different thing, for example half the time the d and g are silent, sometimes the d even sounds even sound like an l, the r is definitely not rolled on instead it is spoken as a sound in the back of your mouth, like this: [ˈæɐ̯], and so on.

You can probably now understand that it is not possible to guess how you should pronounce the words in Danish, for example the word smørrebrød, it is pronounced [ˈsmɶɐ̯ʌˌbʁœðˀ], but we know what you mean when you say open faced sandwich, so it is absolutely okay to stick with that.