If you ask the Danes what they like about their business culture, they’re sure to mention the flat hierarchy. What they mean is that a management pyramid that might have ten or more layers in a hierarchical country like Japan has only two or three layers in Denmark. The flat hierarchy is a virtue born of necessity: salaries are high in Denmark, so middle managers are expensive. And because Danes aren’t supervised or monitored as much as Americans, middle management isn’t as necessary.
Doing business in Denmark can be a pleasure for internationals: the Danish business culture prizes transparency, trustworthiness, and innovation. Yet Danish business manners aren’t always clear if you come from abroad.
Should you bring a gift for your Danish business contact? How much small talk is required before you get down to a business deal in Denmark? Does Danish business etiquette require you to treat men and women differently, or show special respect for the management team versus other employees?
Kay Xander Mellish is a cultural trainer and speaker based in Copenhagen, Denmark who offers tips on working in Denmark for internationals. Kay is a US-Danish dual citizen and the author of “How to Work in Denmark” and “Working with Americans: Tips for Danes.”
A kvajebajer, or “failure beer” is a Danish tradition. You buy one for all your colleagues when they’ve just seen you make a foolish or avoidable mistake. Another option is a kvajekage, or “failure cake”, which serves pretty much the same purpose without alcohol.
Americans and Danes both enjoy a good business deal, but there are significant differences between US business culture vs Danish business culture. The most significant difference is the importance of trust in Danish culture and business culture. As a small country where people generally know each other, it’s easy for the Danes to trust each other, and in business terms this means less monitoring and less record-keeping. Lawsuits and litigation is much less common in Denmark than they are in the US, so Danes spend less time documenting their activities in case of a lawsuit.
Guides to business etiquette in Denmark don’t usually focus on arcane points of manners like who sits where and who speaks first: the Danes are too relaxed and egalitarian for that. What’s most important when it comes to business manners in Denmark is showing the appropriate respect to every individual and every level in the company. Just greeting the big boss while forgetting to acknowledge his or her team will get you off on the wrong foot.
When you enter a room full of Danish businesspeople, it’s important to introduce yourself individually to each person, making eye contact, and shaking hands if possible.
While there are plenty of cultural differences between the US and Denmark, the two cultures do have a lot in common.
Both countries have an economic system based on free market capitalism, both have a strong attachment to their constitutions and the idea of freedom of speech and religion, and both have a reputation for business and technological innovation.
The cultural differences between the US and Denmark have more to do with the countries’ differing histories, differing climates, and different population mixes.
The importance of trust, the value placed on competition, and the acceptance of diversity are some of the cultural differences between the US and Denmark.
Business culture in Denmark places a high priority on trustworthiness, efficiency, and quality. The most significant cultural differences in Danish business culture compared to the USA are the differing attitudes towards hierarchy and ambition, and the contrast between Danish trust and the US tendency towards litigation and lawsuits. In addition, Americans like to show off their energy and enthusiasm, which can create conflicts with the calm, reserved, practical Danes.
Many Americans ask if it’s possible to move to Denmark from the USA. The answer is: yes, it’s possible, but it isn’t easy. When it comes to immigration, Denmark favors immigrants who will be able to work, pay taxes, and help maintain the welfare state. If you are over retirement age or unable to work for some other reason, it could be difficult to move to Denmark.