Informal communication and humour!
Oh, the number of times I have burnt my fingers and wished, I could have swallowed my tongue before I learnt to not be as candid in foreign workplaces as I had been raised to be in Denmark. Not all colleagues appreciate the care behind asking them about personal aspects of their lives, even if perfectly benign subjects. Not all managers value having others’ professional input. And many, regardless of organisational role and position don’t seem to want to have to care about the mental health of an employee or their family. And then, there's the question of humour in a work place!
This blogpost, the last in a three-part series on Danish work culture, is concerned with the topic of informal work communication, but also how humour is applied in office banter.
To better understand these matters, it's important to recognise and understand the structure of Danish work places as well as how freedom and responsibility relates to how personal matters not even discussed amongst friends and family in other cultures are welcomed in most Danish work environment.
Informal office communication
Usually, Danish workplaces are informal, laidback and open in their style of communication. Also, it’s not unusual to experience humour, irony, and even sarcasm as part of workplace banter.
Following the flat organisational structure, the informality is probably most obvious in that everyone from cleaning staff to the CEO is addressed by their first name across the organisation. Titles are rarely used; in fact, it’s important to be humble and not brag about one’s credentials: Your point of view is not necessarily worth more than that of the student assistant just because you might be better qualified; both are equally welcomed and valued.
Lines of communication are clear and straightforward; however, written communication is often more formal than face to face interaction. It’s frowned upon to raise one’s voice or lose one’s temper; in fact, it’s considered childish and unprofessional as well as damaging for relationships as it may be interpreted as incompetency.
Danes like to pride themselves of their ironic and sarcastic sense of humour, but it’s not for everyone. For children and foreigners not familiar with this dry aspect of humour or for more sensitively inclined people, not being able to figure out if something is said in all seriousness or if someone is pulling your leg can be extremely unsettling and a great source of confusion, stress, uncomfortableness, and even anxiety in a work environment.
Kvaje bajer and kvaje cakes
To properly fit into Danish work culture, not only is it important to be able to laugh at yourself and your own mistakes; something which in other cultures would be considered offensive, you also need to be able to tolerate having your failures celebrated with “kvajebajer” or “kvajekage” aka “failure beer” and “failure cake”. By treating everyone in your team or in the office, you casually admit that you failed something you were expected to master; afterwards, all is forgotten – except when brought up again as a joke!
When I trained to become an accountant, I had a colleague who went to visit a client producing TV satellites. When inspecting the production halls, my colleagues were told that the plant experienced a lot of “child diseases” with their new production line (if a product has child diseases, it means it isn’t yet fully developed and the producers find it difficult to figure out what goes wrong). My colleague went back to the accountancy office and advised us all against purchasing such TV satellite as their children might fall ill from using it.
The laughter wouldn’t end, my colleague had to treat us all to failure cake; and at our annual Christmas party, she was assigned the office nose for the stupidest remark. And, just as expected, she laughed at herself! Not all would have appreciated being ridiculed like this, but my colleague recognised this experience as her being well-liked and belonging to the pack.
And just as Danes treat themselves in derogatory manners, they can appear rude to foreigners who haven’t yet mastered this aspect of Danish culture. How would you as a foreigner have experienced the above, had it been you on the receiving end?
Some view this particular aspect of Danish humour as a disrespectful way of cutting down people’s egos and keeping these in line in conformity with the Law of Jante. Some say it’s self-deprecating playfulness; whilst others – probably in particular if you don’t understand it and have been unfortunate to be on the receiving end of it – see it as passive-aggressive and outright mean.
To me, there’s a difference between the above example which in no way reflects the professional ability and competency of mentioned colleague and sarcastic remarks made where a direct, but caring comment might have been more appropriate if someone had failed to meet a deadline, failed to complete a task to the expected standard, or in general was struggling with settling in – in particular if these remarks are made by a superior.
I personally recall a remark from a supervisor from when I trained to become an accountant. I had asked about something several times; and when I finally clocked it and smiled with huge relief, he – in an attempt to make me feel cared for – simply said: “We haven’t been very lucky with you, have we?”. Auch, that one hurt and having been brought up in what I now understand was an unsafe and very sarcastic environment, it sat with me for years making me question my worth. From lots of other encounters, I know that this particular person appreciated and enjoyed working with me, but it stung nonetheless.
Just as well, as Danes working abroad or having international colleagues or indeed Danish colleagues, who are more sensitively inclined, need to be mindful of toning things down a notch; many foreign to Denmark need to develop what we call thicker skin to better tolerate the office abuse which is seldom anything but a bit of innocent, casual fun – at least in the eyes of the sender. Admittedly, this is difficult; and one could rightly ask, why? Why should you tolerate abuse at your work place just because it's culturally embedded in Danes, that such banter is a sign of affection rather than abuse?
Perhaps with an increased awareness of personal violation, this aspect of Danish culture might be toned down over the years to come. We all have a personal responsibility to align our use of humour, and sarcasm in particular, to the ability of the receiver to receive it in the same spirit as it was given: Not everyone experiences bits of sarcasm as proof of intelligence, wit or confidence nor care or inclusion into the group.
Tips on dealing with office communication and humour
Be polite, but direct. Don’t dress your point: make it clear and concise.
Don’t ever blow your top; if you notice you're about to lose your temper, excuse yourself and leave the room to cool down.
Calmly state your opinions, share your experiences and your recommendations. They will be much appreciated and seen as a sign of commitment to bettering your work place.
Participate in daily lunch breaks and out of hours social gatherings. This will enhance your sense of belonging to the team and allow you to familiarise yourself with your colleagues, their banter and use of sarcasm.
If someone applies sarcasm to a situation involving you, and it makes you feel uncomfortable, find a way to address this with them. Be mindful of not unintentionally shaming them; most likely, they have been oblivious to making you feel uncomfortable, have not intended to, and would like to make amends.
Before internalising things said, ask yourself if you may have misinterpreted matters based on you and the sender being from different cultural upbringings, workplaces included.
Remind yourself not to apply sarcasm to anyone whom you don’t know well enough to know if they will appreciate it or take it personally. Not even for yourself to feel as part of the group. Set good examples for others to follow.
Be mindful, that if you are subjected to this kind of office banter, it could be a Dane’s clumsy way of letting you know you are accepted as part of the group.
Above all, remind yourself that a Dane making fun of you are trying to laugh with you, not at you.
If you feel unsure about how to interpret something, ask!
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