Madeline studied abroad at DIS Copenhagen before returning to Scandinavia to work with DIS as an intern. Hear Madeline’s advice for living like a local during your time abroad:
Whether you are living in a Homestay or with local students, or are invited to visit new Scandinavian friends or Visiting Hosts, it’s important to know what to expect and what is expected of you when visiting locals in their homes in Scandinavia. Many of these tips may already be familiar to you, but I hope they can offer some guidance and alleviate any stress you might feel in meeting people from different cultures.
1. For the love of scheduling
Scandinavians are famous for their love of planning and scheduling things well in advance. Don’t be surprised if you are invited to a dinner or gathering several weeks ahead of time. This is not your Homestay or Visiting Host trying to intrude on your independence, but simply a cultural difference – people like to plan ahead! It is important to have these conversations, because family calendars fill up fast. Likewise, if inviting your Scandinavian friends over for a dinner, it is expected that you ask them at least a few days in advance, if not 1-2 weeks ahead of time.
2. Always bring a gift
When visiting a new Scandinavian home for the first time, it is customary to bring a small gift. Flowers, chocolate, or wine are a great place to start. Even better, bring something from your home country or city. It doesn’t have to be fancy – it’s the thought that counts!
If you’re invited over for dinner or lunch, it’s always nice to bring some food – I recommend a dessert. However, make sure to coordinate with the hosts, and ask about any dietary restrictions.
3. No dirty shoes in the house
I come from a family that doesn’t always take their shoes off inside, so it was a bit of a shock for me when I arrived in Denmark and saw that even Kollegiums (Danish dorms) had signs reading, “Take Your Shoes Off Before Entering.” You should always start by taking your shoes off when you enter, and if the hosts actually don’t mind you keeping your shoes on, they will tell you. Even at parties it is common to take your shoes off, so make sure to wear matching socks for events like dinners and birthday parties. Or make a statement with your socks – up to you!
4. Introductions are key
This might seem really obvious, but when you arrive at a new household or gathering, introduce yourself to everyone with a smile and eye contact.
5. Offer to help cook and clean
If you arrive early to a local’s house for lunch or dinner, offer to help. You can chop vegetables, or wash pots and pans as your hosts prepare the meal. I also find that if I’m nervous to meet people for the first time, it can be calming to have a task and something to do with my hands.
At the end of the meal, always offer to help clean up. When I was a student in my Kollegium and we had group meals, the chefs never had to clean up since they did the cooking. If you aren’t actually washing the dishes, offer to dry them or put them away. It is also common in Denmark to soak all the dishes in a large container before scrubbing them in order to save water. Ask your hosts/friends if you have any questions about how they clean up.
6. Eating with a knife and fork
This might be a strange and funny little tidbit, but generally speaking, Europeans use a fork and knife differently than most Americans. I am about to get very specific on knife and fork placement, but bear with me. In the States, most people use the knife in their dominant hand to cut, then put the knife down, and switch the fork to their dominant hand to put the food in their mouth. However, in Europe it is common practice to keep the knife in your dominant hand, and use it to help place food onto the fork (that is in your non-dominant hand). Then with the tines facing down, use your non-dominant hand with the fork to put the food in your mouth. Therefore, the knife is rarely put down without the fork also being put down. Of course, there is no right or wrong way to use a fork and knife, but it is possible someone might comment on the difference – so now you know what they are talking about!
7. Taste, taste, taste
There are many, many, foods that might seem foreign to you when first arriving in Scandinavia. Pickled herring, Kalles Kaviar, and remoulade, just to name a few. I recommend you try everything that is offered to you (unless of course you are allergic or have religious restrictions). Not only is this considered the polite thing to do, but food is one of the best ways to experience a new culture. And you might be surprised by what you find delicious.
Pro Tip: remember to let your hosts know about any dietary restrictions well in advance. Your DIS Homestay hosts will be aware of your dietary restrictions ahead of time, but your Scandinavian friends and floormates won’t be and might not be as used to cooking for different food needs.
8. The last piece
In Sweden, people often avoid taking the last piece of food that people are sharing. For example, there will often be one last cinnamon bun left at the end of a tea time or a meal. Some of my American colleagues in Sweden think it stems from the fact that Swedes are typically very polite, and want to leave the last bit for someone else to enjoy instead. Therefore, in order not to stand out, I would suggest you follow suite and not take offense if there is one last slice left of a dessert. This practice does not apply in Denmark.
9. Dinner conversation
Remember, questions are your best friends when it comes to meeting new people. You show engagement and interest when you ask questions to your hosts, both adults and children, if visiting a family. In return, your hosts will expect you to be willing to share stories about your life and experiences – they want to get to know you and what makes you, you. Talking politics at the dinner table is quite common, and your hosts will most likely be very interested in your opinions from an American perspective. In cross-cultural interactions people are curious to learn about and from each other!
Pro Tip: When sitting down to eat, remember to put your phone away. It is considered rude to have your phone with you at the dinner table, as you should be focusing on getting to know the people around the table.
10. Tak for mad/tack för maten
If you study Danish or Swedish as a student here, then the first thing you learn is there is no word for ‘please.’ Instead, ‘tak/tack’ (‘thank you’ in Danish and Swedish) is used for basically everything. Two key phrases you should learn are ‘tak for mad/tack för maten’ (thank you for the food) and ‘tak for i aften/tack för ikväll’ (thank you for the evening). These are the perfect things to say at the end of a meal or the end of an evening to thank the host for having you. And it’s a great opportunity to show off your Danish or Swedish – I can promise your host will love the effort!
Madeline was the Shared Housing Assistant at DIS from 2019 to 2020 and a former Fall 2017 DIS student. She is a lover of all things water, and consistently has a swimsuit in her work bag throughout the summer – just in case! With a major sweet tooth and a knack for finding all things free and affordable, she can often be found wandering around new areas of Copenhagen with a bag of candy in hand.