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Interview with Kay Xander Mellish

American journalist Kay Xander Mellish is based in Denmark and is the author of three books on Danish culture, including a new book on Danish workplace culture. Enjoy our interview with Kay, a humorous and insightful expert on topics such as the culture shock an outsider experiences when moving to a Scandinavian country!

What was the biggest culture shock coming from US to Denmark?

The biggest culture shock for me coming to Denmark was the lack of competitiveness and sharp elbows here. I had been living in Manhattan and working in the financial industry, so I was used to swimming with sharks! But Danish business culture, and Danish culture in general, are much more about teamwork and common goals.


Have things changed in Denmark compared to how they were when you arrived?

Since I arrived more than a decade ago, Denmark has become a brand. Danish design and hygge -the coziness of quiet time at home – are known all over the world, and Denmark is often called the “happiest country in the world.” While they’re modest on an individual basis, Danes have become extremely proud of their societal and economic model. But, as history has shown us, pride goes before a fall. High levels of personal debt, poor integration of newcomers, and strains on the public schools and public health system are already apparent in Denmark – and these are the good times.


What got you interested in Scandinavian work culture?
In a globalized world, we’re often told that long working hours, fiery ambition, and sharp elbows are required for economic success. But the Danish working culture has none of these characteristics. Most Danes work 37.5 hours a week or less; at 5pm offices are generally empty. There’s little hierarchy and personal ambition is kind of a dirty little secret; you’re allowed to be ambitious for the quality of your product, but an eagerness to get rich or rise to the top of the heap is considered in poor taste.

Despite that, Denmark is a wealthy country with a thriving export industry. Part of it is a dedication to quality: Danes have a great respect for something that is beautifully made, and the curiosity to continue evolving what they make, whether its architecture, home goods, or pharmacueticals. And part of it is a lack of corruption and general trust in each other. Many countries – including the USA, where I come from – have to waste a lot of money on security and employee monitoring because they lack this level of trust.


How much does humor factor into your keynotes and other speaking engagements?

Danes are very good at having a sense of humor about themselves – along with the British, they’re probably the world leaders in dry self-deprecation. Where else would people present their circle of friends with a “failure cake” (kvajekage) or, after hours, a “failure beer” (kvajebager) to ironically celebrate the fact they’d made a stupid mistake? The fact that Danes are so good at what they call “self irony” makes it easy for me to incorporate gentle humor into my presentations – some of it directed at myself!


Do you have a favourite experience from your speaking career?

I frequently do “Welcome to Denmark” speeches for the many international students who study at Danish universities, and one of the topics I touch on is dating. I tell the students that in Denmark it’s very common for women to ask men for dates – in fact, if a woman waits for a Danish man to make a move, she may wait a long time! When I was making a repeat appearance at one school, a young Polish woman came up to me and asked if I remembered her from my last speech a couple of years before. I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t, but she didn’t mind. She’d said she’d followed my dating advice and taken the initiative with a Danish man she’d had her eye on – and now they were engaged!

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