Two words – ”trust” and ”perfection” – are all I need if I want to describe Danish national character, i.e. the way Danes are – mostly – when they are in Denmark together with each other. Danes tend to overwhelmingly trust each other (and because of this by extension to a large degree also the world at large). Danes tend to believe that perfection is attainable in all spheres of life and work, and perfection is therefore worth striving for.
Perfection and trust are actually quite complimentary: seeking perfection is trying to achieve something as you imagine it should it should be, which implies having enough trust that the world really can be as it should be – otherwise why bother. And trusting that the world can be as it should be, implies that it is more or less perfectible – otherwise why bother trusting if we feel that things never will be as they should be.
Thus this is the secret behind why according to the UN’s ”World Happiness Report” … Danes are among the most contented people in the world: they trust each other and the world, because they are part of a fellowship and a country that is more or less as they want it to be. In this world of trust and the idea of the perfect there is a high level satisfaction with what is and little disappointment that what is not what it ought to be – it is as it is, and that is as it ought to be.
There are two quite large flies in this ointment though: the world which Danes inhabit is does not only exclusively comprise Denmark anymore but has expanded and become globalized, so there are a great many influences that are not being in control by Danish consensus as to how things ought to be – what is perfect. And two, large parts of the Danish population are now in some way or another outside this common c Danish consensus, either because they have different cultural roots and cannot/do not want to be part of this consensus, or because due to the external global influences there are people who either feel that they have been left out of the consensus or do not anymore want to become part of the consensus – they feel this consensus stifling.
Consensus implies towing the line, not rocking the boat, a minimum of free-riding, a very specific work ethic, awareness of duties as well as rights as members of the consensus, and thereby also feelings of commonality in maintaining the consensus. The consensus that here facilitates trust and the pursuit of the perfect, also has little tolerance for any and all divergence in individuals in almost every sense of the word, be it habits, behavior, wealth, performance, excellency: the norm is king and the tyranny of the norm is ubiquitous in every aspect of living as a Dane – remember, every coin has a reverse side: either there is trust and perfection is imaginable, or there is not and perfection is implausible, and all of a sudden there is no trust and there is no contemplation of perfection.
Hobbes delineates a world without trust in the following manner
“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
How vulnerable is not trust and how necessary for well-functioning society and state. I have often seen the unbelievably high transaction costs of almost any human interaction both vis-à-vis each other and vis-à-vis any economic, or bureaucratic organization in countries and cultures where there is no mutual trust. In these the burden of proof that you are you, and that your intent is honest is put on the individual. This unnecessarily complicates any interaction with the government bureaucracy/banks/ telephone & utilities companies.The all therefore demand time-consuming often expensive documentary proof that what you say, and who you say you are, is the truth.
In Denmark the first really critical attack on the consensus of trust can in my experience actually be dated to 1996. In 1996 Anna Castberg got a job as head curator at a new art museum on the basis of false qualification. Surprisingly no one had ever required that she presented proper documentation for the qualifications she claimed. The position was very high profile and she even had the Queen of Denmark as a museum guest. When the papers got wind off that she had fooled the all of the Copenhagen town hall politicians and bureaucrats, as you can imagine they had a field day like sharks in feeding frenzy. Unfortunately this has adversely and permanently affected the Danish consensus of trust. Where before that, when you applied for a job in Denmark there was rarely if ever and requirement that you actually had to document your qualifications, almost from day one after this journalistic feeding frenzy, I could now for the first time see that employment ads clearly stated a demand for documentation of education and previous employment to be included with applications.
Milena Penkowa who doctored her research data on the basis of which she had quite a successful career as a scientist: she had it all, really great data, great looks – a scientist, a nerd with looks who drove a great car and listened to heavy metal and with the gift of the gab. It all came apart when the extent of her cheating and data doctoring came out. Again the newspapers went into a feeding frenzy, and the entire academic establishment had sheepishly explain and make excuses. Also again, that indefinable quality of trust that was part and parcel of the public image of the Danish academic establishment was irreversibly tarnished, and universities and funding agencies had to change and toughen their hiring and funding and research monitoring procedures.
So in today’s world trust has been attenuated, and though the idea of trust and the idea of the attainability is still part of the Danish ethos, I do see that they do not have the same import as they once had, and instead we now also see activities that go beyond the bounds of the old establish Danish consensus, especially among young people who feel that they should and must realize themselves even at the cost of the consensus (which true enough tends to stifle individuals). Furthermore there are now many people in Denmark who have not been acculturated to the Danish consensus, but rather to another consensus, either by their parents or because they are new to the Danish consensus culture. They are often justifiably/unjustifiably accused of free riding on the extensively encompassing Danish welfare state. They’re not being a part of the Danish consensus goes very much against the grain of every Danes feeling of what is proper and equitable and just. Danes have worked hard to attain their consensus, and feel therefore extremely imposed upon if someone willingly does not participate economically, culturally or socially.
The consensus though it can be stifling to individual exuberance in one’s own abilities, is yet at the same time the stable backdrop (remember trust and the idea of the perfect) for entrepreneurship. Trust means that you dare take the chance and the idea of the perfect is a guide- however little room for failure, the culture of consensus allows you. Denmark has many small startup companies often concentrating on a unique niche product. Some of these companies have even cornered the world market – who ever in the world thought of specializing in thermostats for radiators (Danfoss) or rooftop windows (Velux). In Jutland there is even a stereotype of millionaires who, usually with a blacksmith background, having discovered some manufacturing process developed it into an industry: they are called “wooden clogs” millionaires because they have retained the clothes and demeanor of their humble beginnings (the wooden clogs of peasants) even though they have become extremely rich- often their only indulgence is owning many expensive cars
Another is “The Chair”, yes that’s what it’s called in America Wegener’s chair is simply called the chair and it became famous because it was used in the Kennedy/Nixon presidential candidate debates in 1960. It’s the quintessential chair almost the Platonic ideal of a chair. This is the type of perfection Danish designers, goldsmiths and architects have been aiming for since the late 19th century. I could list Hammerhøjs repeatedly painting the light that fell in in an almost empty apartment, Bindesbøl that designed everything from beer-bottle labels to entire rooms including every piece of furniture in it, George Jensen silversmiths, Kæhler ceramics, PH who continually sought to design the perfect lamp, Arne Jacobsen who sought the sublime in simple building materials and designed an entire hotel with every piece of furniture and fixture in it.
Consensus also means that one most often moves in circles of people who only particularly share this or that consensus about what the consensus is. Consensus and or trust are highly vulnerable soap bubbles affected by the slightest touch therefore it’s built in conservatism resulting in everyone wanting to only run with the pack that resembles them. Thus, though Danes tend to resemble each other to a remarkable degree in their world outlook manner of dress and life style, tiny markers of difference or similarity take on a totally disproportionate importance effectively fostering a feeling that one can only truly interact at ease with one’s own kind, be it a sub-group/consensus of Danes, or anyone foreign at all.
The reverse side of the consensus in trust coin is jealousy vis-à-vis any one that demonstrates that they have more, or can intrinsically achieve more, than what is the norm defined by the consensus.
There is thus an overall Danish consensus with a whole series of sub like eddies in a flow of air or water these form and stay alive for generations sometimes. The youth/hippie movement of the 60’s and 70’s attempted to redirect the Danish consensus hoping to do away with these eddies of bourgeois culture for example, but the resiliency of the consensus was then still very strong, most probably because the youth/hippie movement was such an outside minority. However today this resilience has come progressively more under attack by the forces delineated above.
Being part of consensus means something – it meant life and death to the Jews of Denmark in October 1943! Denmark is justifiably famous for having been one of the few countries that saved almost all of its Jewish citizens. Everyone at levels of society was pretty spontaneously and without any sort of “master plan” involved in smuggling the Jews out of Denmark to neutral Sweden. Bent Melchior former Head Rabbi of Denmark also commented on this action that the amazing thing was not only that Danes Helped smuggle Jews out of Denmark – many countries were more than happy to get rid of their Jews – but that the day the war was over the Jews were welcomed back and in most case were able to continue their lives and jobs just as before.
Bent Melchior: “The Danes considered us to be Danes. No one thought twice about the fact that I was Jewish, the son of a rabbi. The subject never came up. When we decided to flee, we knew we had to hide among our non-Jewish friends who would agree – and there were many who agreed: the community’s food vendors, our landlords, teachers, ministers and even total strangers. Everyone agreed to do what was necessary. No one dreamed of turning us over.”
And Bent Melchior also recalled that his father had said that the lasting proof of the Danes’ friendship for Jews came not in October, 1943, when the Jews were helped to escape, but rather after the war ended in 1945, when that same Jewish population was welcomed home with open arms.
I personally deduce from what Rabbi Melchior said, that it is not so much that Danes made an all-out effort to rescue “their Jews”, but, rather, that Danes made an all-out effort to rescue their fellow citizen, who just happened to be Jewish.
This is beautifully depicted in the almost iconic TV series “Matador”, when the town’s Jewish bank employee that infamous October night in 1943 seeks aid at his employers house. Only the banker’s wife is home and she is dumfounded to learn of his dire position not realizing that he is trouble because he is Jewish. Her son comes home and though he had known his father’s employee all of his life he first now realizes that he is Jewish. The realization comes to them when they pronounce his last name, “Stein” out loud to themselves. But no matter what, right away help is proffered and few episodes later after the war ends he is heartily welcomed back to work by the his employer who is overjoyed to see that him back.
Let me leave you with an image of two little girls about 4 years old walking along a residential street in a small country town. One of them is pushing a dolls baby pram and walking right at her heel is the sweetest little Yorkshire terrier. And as little girls do, they are deep in conversation with each other. There was a bit of traffic on the road, but no one else was to be seen on the street – they were just walking by themselves absorbed in their conversation.
The charm an uniqueness of this little tableau struck a deep chord in me. I say uniqueness not because I had never seen similar demonstrations of total trust. But, rather, because I could not imagine this little tableau taking place in any other country in the world. Nowhere else but in the Scandinavian countries will you find this all-inclusive trust and protectiveness by on and all.
There is a another word that’s missing in this description of Denmark “Feminization”. Now Geert Hofstede, the author of a five dimensions system used to describe and classify national cultures ranks Denmark as one of the most Feminine cultures. That is it put emphasis on good relationships and co-operation, charity and modesty. Safety and family are very important values. Gender roles often overlap, failure is regarded as an accident and not as adisaster.
Denmark also ranks among the cultures with the lowest score of uncertainty avoidance (23). Cultures with a high score will refrain from taking risk and trying new methods preferring the tried and tested paths. On the contrary a low score of this dimension indicates a culture willing to try new ways and approaches, where a high degree of innovation may be witnessed.
This seems to me to corroborate all of the above concerning the first two words “trust” and “perfection” , where trust is a liberating factor allowing for the strive for perfection.
This is not what I mean by feminization. By this I mean that from day care to school to higher education to government employees Denmark is if not quite ruled by women and female values , are definitely “manned” by women. So if you men want to get things done, win approbation, or succeed, they better know how to curry favor from women. It seems to me that this process of “feminization” quite nicely counteracts the more centrifugal divisive tendencies I mentioned above, reaffirming and maintaining the Danish consensus society. These last thoughts came to me because of a picture I saw in a Danish newspaper of two Danish army recruits who were helping each other with their unfamiliar uniforms. They resembled two kindergarden boys helping each other to put on their snowsuits before going out to play – there was such a sweet feeling in the picture. But then ever since they were 1 year old or so, they have spent a great part of their daily life in a universe based on female values of cooperation and dominated and controlled almost exclusively by women. It would seem to me that this fact in effect is nicely counters and can to some degree neutralize the increasing individualization I noted above. Perhaps then we need not worry too much about the consensus-of-trust’s demise, at least in the short term and perfection is therefore still something that can be striven for with the confidence that trust promotes.
I do hope that modern “curling parents” in their striving for the best for their children do not throw this consensus of trust overboard by being too over-solicitous on behalf of their child’s welfare. In the final analysis the best for their children is the consensus of trust that facilitates the perfection they seek for their children