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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Understanding humour, irony, and sarcasme in Danish workplaces!

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 Danish workplaces. I have come to learn that 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, irony, and sarcasm in a work place - in particular at a Danish workplace!


This blogpost is concerned with the topic of informal work communication, but also how humour, specifically irony and sarcasm, is applied to office banter in a Danish workplace.


To better understand these matters, it's important to recognise and understand the structure of Danish workplaces as well as how the concepts of freedom and responsibility relate to how personal matters, often not even discussed amongst friends and family in other cultures, are welcomed in most Danish work environment.


Informal communication in Danish workplaces

Typically an informal, relaxed atmosphere, alongside an open style of communication, is maintained in Danish workplaces - additionally, it is common to encounter humuor, irony, and even sarcasm as elements of workplace interaction.


Following the flat organisational structure, the culture of informality is exemplified by the practice of addressing all employees, from cleaning staff to the CEO, by their first names. The use of titles is infrequent, as humility is highly regarded, and boasting about one's qualifications is discouraged. It is emphasised that one's perspective is not inherently more valuable than that of a student assistant simply due to superior qualifications; both viewpoints are equally respected and appreciated.


In Danish work places, communication channels are transparent and direct, although written correspondence typically maintains a higher level of formality compared to in-person interactions. Demonstrating emotional restraint by avoiding raising one's voice or losing composure is highly encouraged, as such behavior is viewed as immature and unprofessional, potentially jeopardising relationships by conveying a sense of inadequacy.


Office banter: humour, irony, and sarcasm in Danish workplaces

Danes often take pride in their ironic and sarcastic sense of humour, which may not resonate with everyone.


For children and foreigners unaccustomed to this dry form of humor, as well as those who are more sensitive by nature, the challenge of discerning between genuine remarks and jest can lead to significant discomfort, confusion, stress, and even anxiety, particularly within a professional setting.


"Kvaje bajer and kvaje cakes"

In order to integrate effectively into Danish work culture, it is essential not only to possess the ability to humourously acknowledge and laugh at one's own mistakes, a practice that might be perceived as offensive in other cultural contexts, but also to demonstrate a capacity to graciously accept the tradition of commemorating one's failures with "kvajebajer" or "kvajekage" - colloquially known as "failure beer" and "failure cake".


By partaking in this custom with colleagues, individuals openly acknowledge instances where expectations were not met, leading to a lighthearted atmosphere where such missteps are quickly forgiven and forgotten - albeit occasionally revisited in jest. In such instances, humour is used to bond people and create a relaxing and forgiving atmosphere around mistakes.


During my accountancy training, a colleague of mine visited a client involved in the production of TV satellites. Upon inspecting the production facilities, my colleague was informed that the plant encounteed numerous issues with their new production line, often referred to as "child diseases" in the industry. This term signifies that a product is still in the early stages of its development, making it challenging for producers to identify and rectify the problems. Subsequently, my colleague returned to our office and cautioned us against acquiring these TV satellites, expressing concerns that using such products could pose health risks to children.


The continuous laughter persisted as my colleague graciously treated us all to a "failure cake." During our annual Christmas party, she humourously accepted the "office nose" - the annual assigned prize for the most foolish comment. True to form, she found amusement at her own expense. While not everyone may have welcomed such jests, my colleague viewed these moments as a testament to her popularity and sense of camaraderie within the group.


In the same way that Danes may engage in self-deprecating behavior, their actions may come across as rude to foreigners who are not familiar with this facet of Danish culture. How might you, as a foreigner, have perceived the aforementioned situation if you were the one being addressed?


A personal encounter with sarcasm in the office

Certain individuals perceive this specific facet of Danish humor as a method of humiliating individuals and ensuring adherence to the principles of the Law of Jante. While some interpret it as light-hearted self-deprecation, others, especially those unfamiliar with it or who have experienced it negatively, may view it as passive-aggressive or 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, eh?”. Auch, that 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 their sarcasm stung nonetheless - and I am sure that they would have been mortified had I told them how their remark affected me. It was for me to explore and deal with what it triggered in me - not always an easy task.


It is important for Danes working abroad or interacting with international colleagues in Denmark, as well as those who have Danish colleagues with a more sensitive disposition, to be aware of the need to moderate their communication style. There are fews things that can make people feel as uncomfortable as misunderstood sarcasm.


Similarly, individuals unfamiliar with Danish workplace culture may need to cultivate a greater resilience to handle what may be perceived as office banter, typically intended as harmless and playful by the sender. While this adjustment can be challenging, it prompts the question: why should one tolerate behavior that may be considered abusive in a work environment simply because it is culturally accepted in Denmark as a form of endearment rather than mistreatment? And how do you distinguish banter from mockery if you are unfamiliar with such sense of humour?


It may be beneficial for Danish workplaces to provide guidance to their international staff on the nuances of sarcasm and irony, while also emphasising to Danish employees the importance of exercising heightened vigilance when employing this type of humor.


With a growing consciousness regarding personal boundaries, it is possible that this characteristic of Danish culture will gradually diminish in the future. It is incumbent upon each of us to conscientiously calibrate our use of humor, especially sarcasm, to ensure that it is well-received by the intended audience. Not everyone interprets instances of sarcasm as indicators of intellect, humor, or self-assurance, nor as gestures of kindness or inclusivity within a social circle.


Tips on dealing with office communication, irony, and sarcasm in Danish workplaces

  • Maintain politeness while being straightforward. Avoid beating around the bush and instead, communicate your point clearly and concisely.

  • Maintain composure at all times; should you feel your temper rising, gracefully excuse yourself from the situation and step away to regain a sense of calm.

  • It is encouraged to express your opinions, share your experiences, and provide recommendations in a composed manner. Your input will be highly valued and regarded as a demonstration of dedication to enhancing the work environment.

  • Engage in daily lunch breaks and after-hours social events to strengthen your connection with the team and become acquainted with your colleagues, including their humour and use of irony and sarcasm.

  • If you find yourself in a situation where someone uses sarcasm towards you, causing discomfort, it is advisable to address the issue with them. Approach the conversation with sensitivity to avoid inadvertently shaming them, as they may be unaware of the impact of their words and likely wish to rectify any discomfort caused.

  • Before internalising statements, consider the possibility of misinterpretation due to cultural differences between yourself and the sender, including within professional settings. If in doubt, ask!

  • It is advisable to refrain from using sarcasm with individuals whose preferences and sensitivities are unfamiliar to you. This includes avoiding such remarks even for the sake of fitting in. Demonstrating positive behavior can serve as a model for others to emulate.

  • Be mindful, that if you encounter this type of office banter, it may be a Danish person's awkward way of indicating that you are welcomed as a member of the team. If you don't like it or understand it, speak up!

  • Always remember that when a Danish person jokes about you, their intention is to share laughter with you, not to mock you.

  • Should you have any uncertainties regarding the interpretation of any information, please do not hesitate to ask for clarification.


If you would like me help with expat life, including how to navigate relationships with Danes, please reach out on tel 0045 5188 6187 or e-mail henriette@thegoodexpatlife.com.


First published August 2022, revised June 2024.

Informal communication and humour






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