Social Evolution Forum
FIND sef:
Yule in Denmark

In my previous blog I speculated that the Danes use ritualistic feasting as a way of creating a shared sense of belonging, which is an important basis for social cooperation and trust. Last week I was able to make more detailed observations on one such collective ritual. During the period preceding Christmas there are a number of Christmas parties to which my colleagues went. I only went to two, but because most people have affiliations with several departments and institutes, they go to a number of them. (A sociologist in me notes that the function must be to increase bridging social capital, by maintaining a set of overlapping social networks).

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Christmas in Aarhus (photo by the author)

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These events are called Julefrokost (which means Christmas luncheon, but the one I went to started at 6 pm). The basic idea is a potluck, with different people assigned to bring different dishes. In this it was similar to the Christmas parties that Academic departments in the U.S. put together. A major difference, however, was that the event took place on campus, in one of the large teaching/meeting rooms. In the States you can’t do that, because there are regulations forbidding consumption of alcohol on premises, so we usually move it to a professor house.

Talking about alcohol, the consumption was prodigious. I think even a Russian would be impressed. We started with champagne, then most people switched to schnapps that was chased down by bear (I stayed away from bear, because it’s not Paleo), then we progressed to Porto. After that my wife and I left, but apparently celebrations went deep into the night. After a few of these events at various departments, I started hearing people around me moaning that they couldn’t take so much hard drinking…

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Photo by the author

The food was excellent. A huge variety of really yummy kinds of herring, smoked salmon, roasted pork, and a lot of trimmings. We brought the Russian potato salad and pickled mushrooms that we picked earlier in the Fall in the local woods (this actually deserves a separate post…), and which my wife preserved for future consumption (we are still eating them).

Drinks were also excellent. I have not had previous experience with Akvavit (to which everybody referred to as schnapps). It’s basically vodka flavored with spices and herbs. We tried three different kinds. The first one was Linie Aquavit, which is made by sending the barrels with spirit back and forth to Australia. The story of how this recipe was discovered is one of famous ‘brilliant failures.’

Another one was Taffel Akvavit, produced in the city of Aalborg a short distance north from here. And I forget what was the name of the third one. All were very tasty (disclosure: I am not being paid by the distillers to advertize their products).

The important part is to look into the eyes of your drinking companions both before and after drinking. This procedure does wonders for building up interpersonal trust, especially after it is repeated 5-6 times. As the English proverb goes, “Drunkenness reveals what soberness conceals.” Russians have a very similar saying, “Что у трезвого на уме, то у пьяного на языке,” but the Romans, as usual, said it with the fewest words: In vino veritas.

Talking about proverbs, the Danes’ habit of chasing akvavit with beer reminds me of another Russian dictum: Vodka without beer – money down the drain.

But enough about consumables. Equally interesting were the proceedings during this feast. At the peak of the dinner, the head of the department fired up a projector and gave a presentation to all. The gist of it was that the University is in fiscal difficulties, and the department would have to fire five people next year. He then started discussing who specifically should be fired, projecting the CVs of particular people (sitting in the audience) on the screen. He went like this, “OK, perhaps we should fire Dr. X, he has hardly published any papers last year.” It was actually extremely funny, and everybody, including Dr. X was laughing heartily. I can’t imagine anything like this happening in my department, and I must say that the Danes (and Nordics in general) have validated in my eyes their reputation for black humor.

At one point, the department head seemed to come to a conclusion that since the department leadership, including himself, actually showed the lowest productivity, they should be fired first. This was an interesting example of social solidarity and leveling (as viewed from the sociological theory point of view).

The next presentation was absolutely “carnivalesque” (to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s term). It was now the turn of the department head to be lampooned. In a series of slides and videos he was portrayed as a bumbling Supreme Leader, while a North Korean TV announcer was describing his supposed accomplishments (in Korean, with quite hilarious English subtitles).

Of course, this turning the hierarchy upside down was not quite as impressive, as it must have been in a Medieval feudal society, because the Danish society even outside of Carnival is not particularly hierarchical (in fact, highly egalitarian). Still, it was a great fun.

12 Comments

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12 Comments

  1. Peter, as a lover of Denmark over over fifty years (a lovely Danish girl when I was at university) this brought tears of nostalgic pleasure to my eyes.

  2. Nina says:

    Dear Peter.

    As a Danish native who moved to the US in 1986, attended Harvard and worked 25 years in the states before returning to DK in 2011 I can strongly recommend the links, courses, and books offered here. link to livinginstitute.com

    Especially this book helped me understand my country of origin:link to gyldendalbusiness.dk

    There’s also quite a bit of data on the Danish “happiness” survey results which obviously do not concur with the fact that 30% of the adult population is on anti-depressants and…..as you mention…..they all drink like fish. Skaal!

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Nina, thanks for the links. I actually looked at a site like the one you recommend before coming to Denmark. I think it was the one maintained by expats. All kinds of useful info there.

      That the Danes can drink a lot is something I’ve observed at first hand. But that, by itself, doesn’t say anything about happiness or lack of it. You can drink because you are sad, or because you are happy. I am not a Puritan, and I don’t see anything wrong with drinking alcoholic beverages. Furthermore, being a teetotaler is bad for your health (literally). Naturally, there is an optimum amount of drinking, in terms of health, and it is easy to go overboard.

  3. O.Voron says:

    “the Danes (and Nordics in general) have validated in my eyes their reputation for black humor.”
    They certainly excel at it. Here is one recent fine example. The guys are from Norway, though

    Ylvis – Da vet du at det er Jul [ENGLISH SUBTITLES] [HD]

    link to youtube.com

  4. Concom says:

    As amateur anthropologist, as well (but who “snakker veldig litt norsk og dansk”), I can recall at least two authors, who proposed a solution for the “Danish Happiness puzzle”, long before the Institute for Lykkeforskning even existed.
    First, great Danish writer Hans Andersen, in his tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” has outlined a mechanism of unwritten social agreement, so powerful that it is able to overturn physical reality. Then, the great Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen, in Peer Gynt has described in detail this “social happiness” mechanism on a vivid example of troll’s community life.
    [What is the difference between troll and man? Be happy with himself, instead of being himself.]
    Perhaps, Denmark shows an example of that “social happiness” may not depend on objective reality, considering that 75% of Danes are bankrupt (has a negative net wealth), even more so, the lack of wealth with a modest (but guaranteed) income and social cohesion is a recipe for happiness. It is interesting primarily because some philosophers (eg Fukuyama) suggest that the Danish model will be the only viable alternative for all post-industrial, post-crisis societies.
    Thus, the Western world is waiting for the transformation from the individual conspicuous consumption to communal everyday happiness; from the private life to complete social openness (This is another great feature of Scandinavian life; you have open access to the financials and tax information of any citizen).
    Happy New Brave Danish World Skaal!

  5. harvardbiz says:

    When I hear about Denmark and the Happiness Study” I always think of Edward Munch and his painting “The Scream”. Munch of course was Norwegian, not Danish, but then again….Norway was part of Denmark up until 1814.

    As mentioned by the contributor above, Concom, I agree that the notion of an unwritten social agreement so strong that is overturns reality comes to mind. It is not merely impolite to point out glaring problems and evidence of cognitive dissonance, rather there is a severe social penalty for doing so. Shaming and exclusion, as also seen in other societies.

    Here’s a link to a different “happiness study”:link to happyplanetindex.org

    “Surprisingly, typical happy frontrunner Denmark ranked 110th.”

    • O.Voron says:

      Here’s a link to a different “happiness study”:link to happyplanetindex.org

      “Surprisingly, typical happy frontrunner Denmark ranked 110th.”

      I followed the link. The formula the HPI (Happy Planet Index) uses doesn’t make sense to me at all.
      HPI equals Experienced Well-Being multiplied by Life Expectancy divided by Ecological Footprint.
      “well-being is assessed using a question called the ‘Ladder of Life’ from the Gallup World Poll”;
      “life expectancy data from the 2011 UNDP Human Development Report”;
      “the Ecological Footprint promoted by the environmental charity WWF…measured in terms of global hectares (g ha)” (!)
      “The HPI index scores rank countries based on their efficiency, how many long and happy lives each produces per unit of environmental output.”

      They do warn that “many high-income countries score low because of their large Ecological Footprints”. The results are hilarious! These are the top ten:

      Costa Rica
      Vietnam
      Colombia
      Belize
      El Salvador
      Jamaica
      Panama
      Nicaragua
      Venezuela
      Guatemala

      Bangladesh #11, Honduras#13, Pakistan#16,Albania#18… Myanmar, Haiti, Lybia, Ghana, Zambia alll score high on the list. Yes, indeed, to have a “happy planet” we must strive to live just like these countries!
      Norway barely outdid Palestine ( no economy – no ecological footprint, simple!).
      Denmark scores just a notch higher than Afghanistan with life expectancy of 48.7 years ( “long and happy life”) and ecological footprint of 0.5 (close to zero, no wonder)
      So, Norway and Palestine, Denmark and Afghanistan produce practically the same number of “long and happy lives… per unit of environmental output.” ( per ha! )
      You better believe it…
      This HPI is one more meaningless and useless index in my mind.

      However, from that very site there were links to very interesting interactive graphs and maps.
      So judge for yourself how Denmark compares to other countries in optimism, resilience, meaning and purpose and so on (not GDP!)

      link to nationalaccountsofwellbeing.org

      link to nationalaccountsofwellbeing.org

      This is not to say that Danish society does not have a dark side to it. They must have it as everyone else does.

  6. Robert says:

    We drink beer and are chased by a bear. “…Akvavit (to which everybody referred to as schnapps)…” You don’t need both “to’s”, since “to which everybody referred as schnapps” is more correct than the more colloquial “which everybody referred to as schnapps”. To use “to” in both places is utterly redundant, not to mention weird. It’s as if the adoption of the more correct usage is unnatural for its user, and so the reflexive obligation to put in the second “to” remains.