…because some thoughts are worth remembering
At one of the goodbye parties, a friend I made towards the end of our stay in Denmark asked a simple question: “What are you taking from Denmark?”. My husband started to explain how we hoped to sell most of our furniture, and shipping the rest. But she was asking a more metaphysical question. What takeaways do we have from our time in Denmark?
When we went on a two-month road trip around the mainland US in between jobs, it was clear to me at the end of the trip what my takeaways were. One that stood out was that our experiences driving through cities and small towns as far north as Maine and as far south as Texas, we realized the US did not consist merely of blue or red states as the media would have us believe, and that we weren’t just poor or rich. We were more than just a city dweller or a country folk, and the sum of our cultures with warts and all, created a rich image and a deep feeling of what US was. I realize what it meant to be an American, and that I was a better American somehow, having gone on this road trip.
The takeaways from our 2 years in Denmark is still muddy in my mind. There are so many things, not all good or bad, more unsorted. It will take a while to gain enough perspective to digest what we experienced. To start the digesting process, I wrote about my reverse culture shock experiences, and some observations I made about Denmark relative to the U.S. (Part I and Part II). But they don’t begin to address the simple but deep, “What did I take away from Denmark?” question. Some themes are starting to emerge though, main one being trust.
I’ve already written about the Danish trust, and how it forms a basis for personal interactions, financial transactions as well as societal expectations. The largest surprise was their trust in their own government. I know many Americans that complain about the high taxes. Those people clearly haven’t lived and filed taxes in Denmark (high income tax, special fees on purchase of cars that triples the actual price tag of the car, value added tax of 25%, to name a few) Yet the Danes do not gripe about the taxes as the Americans do. They believe they are getting services for their taxes, and that government is making good decisions on their behalf. When you trust the government, the legislators go about their business of governance rather than being politicians concerned about looking the part. When the Danes criticize their government, the tone is that of its constituents wanting their voices heard so the government can do a better job. Sure, there are characters in their legislative bodies, but the fundamental trust and patriotism for their country and its governing bodies do not waver.
When the whole society works on trust, and it is the social norm, you behave to meet that expectation. In contrast, if you are in an environment where no one is trusted, and the procedures are laid out as if you were guilty until proven innocent, and if you find a loophole to get around it, it almost feels like it’s begging you to take advantage of it, just to show you were smart enough to spot the loophole. It’s as if the strict procedures are the only reasons we behave in an honest manner, driven by the fear of getting caught. If these constraints disappear, so may our honesty. I heard this discussion many times from Americans and others used to having systems that check your accountability (e.g., train or train station format where you can’t get in or out of the station without tickets purchased for the right amount), where they would feel silly when no conductor came and checked their ticket, almost to the point of expressing “I didn’t have to pay for the ticket for this ride!”.
Huge amount of energy is expended doubting vs. trusting, trying to find ways you can be dishonest if we don’t have to get caught vs. doing the right thing, and feeling like you are guilty until proven innocent. If it weren’t for my time in Denmark, I would have felt like I was being naive to operate based on trust. Now I know it is possible as adults to operate based on trust, and it is better.
I don’t know if the Danish trust will extend beyond their own country and their own ethnicity. I hope they do, if only so that the U.S. can point to a country as a role model in this respect.
Photo: View from the top of Vor Frelsers Kirke (Church of Our Savior) in Copenhagen, Denmark