Crazy foreigners & cultural norms

Cultural norms.  They’re entertaining on so many levels but especially so because when it’s you, yourself, doing something culturally unique, you’re unlikely to even know it. Whether it be putting your baby outside to sleep in all weather (as in Denmark) or walking to the shops with no shoes on & rubbing noses by way of an official greeting (New Zealand). We all assume we’re doing something ‘normal’ until we jump on a plane and find ourselves in another country.

That happened to me three years ago.  That’s when my life in Denmark began and I began noticing a whole lot of things Danes were doing which weren’t my ‘norm’.  Things like putting babies outside to sleep, eating leverpostej (liver pate) on rye bread (Rugbrød), and flying the national flag with a level of excitement and enthusiasm that still amuses me. 

The Dane & his flag

The Dane & his flag

And then there’s curtains and carpet (stay with me on this tangent).  Danes don’t really do either and it’s taken me a while to recognise that actually both of these things, as simple and as ordinary (insert ‘boring’ if you like) as they sound, bring me quite a bit of comfort.  They’re my normal.  I like curtains and carpet. I miss them.

In New Zealand, curtains and carpet play a fairly important role in insulating our houses.  It’s a country which unfortunately has more than it should, of cold houses in which rooms (not houses) are typically heated. The result of which has created some fairly average housing stock, for those unwilling to invest and upgrade their properties.

The good news is that over the years building regulations have changed and houses are improving and becoming warmer.  But the fact remains, that New Zealanders live a bit differently than Danes (and Europeans) in general. 

New Zealand houses

New Zealand houses

Curtains. as well as being essential for insulation, also help with the fear that one of the neighbours might (heaven forbid) look over see you eating your dinner.  In complete contrast to my life now in Copenhagen where every window in our house gives me an opportunity to stare into a wide number of apartments along the street.  Except I don’t of course.  Because after a very short time you realise that your neighbours are actually quite boring and you’ve got better things to do with your time than stare out the window at them.

I’ve been navigating the Danish cultural norms for the past three years.  The shock of most has now worn off.  Non-negotiable 700kr (NZ$125) parking and public transport fines, Danes love affair with their flag and the fact that they call wholemeal bread, white bread, all now wash over me with a certain level of acceptance.

But returning ‘home’ to New Zealand for a holiday after 3 years living in Denmark was an unexpected assault on my senses.  I realised my fellow countrymen (New Zealanders) also have an amusing number of cultural norms. We call people ‘bro’, tell each other it (whatever) is ‘sweet as’, and like to finish most sentences with ‘aye?’. We also speak fast and, as a predominately monolingual society as a result of not having to learn at second language at school, we aren’t that good at speaking with others who mother tongue is not English.

But my number one favourite New Zealand cultural norm was that New Zealanders talk to EVERYONE. If you are moving to New Zealand or about to travel there for a holiday, you need to know about this unshakeable habit we as New Zealanders have.  We’re not trying to mug, con or rob you.  We just like talking to fellow human beings.  We think it’s normal to acknowledge a stranger on the street as you walk past them. Granted slightly different rules may apply in the big cities.

Then there is New Zealanders unrelentless friendliness and helpfulness.  Arriving at Auckland International Airport really was a world away from the previous 30 hours of travel, and three other international airports we had experienced since leaving Copenhagen.  Traveling solo with BBB (the 3-year-old) and balancing a pram and multiple bags, Auckland airport staff within minutes offered me help, on multiple occasions with one even escorting us through security.  Maybe it’s written in their job description and maybe it’s not.  But it was the first time on our travels we’d been offered any assistance (other than an elderly Chinese lady giving me a shove from behind when I became wedged in the airplane aisle with BBB and luggage).  But even if it was in their job description, this sort of experience typically can be found throughout all of New Zealand both by employees and by members of the public. 

Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland, New Zealand

Perhaps its New Zealand’s physical remoteness that has enabled this cultural norm to remain.  New Zealanders seem oblivious to what (most of) the rest of the world are doing (or not doing as the case may be).  And if not oblivious, then how the rest of the world acts it’s just too far away to actually be our reality to influence the way, we as New Zealanders, act.  Maybe.

So, you see, we’re all a bit odd.  Our cultural norms.  Whether we put our babies to sleep outside or in.  Whether we wear shoes to the shops or not and whether we eat brown or white bread. We’re all foreigners.  It just depends what country we’re in at any point in time.

We’re all the same. No one is normal.

During 2002 the poster with the wording ‘Foreigners, please don't leave us alone with the Danes’ was put up in the streets as a comment on the increasing harsh climate in Denmark with regards to public debate on immigrants and issues on integration.  - via

During 2002 the poster with the wording ‘Foreigners, please don't leave us alone with the Danes’ was put up in the streets as a comment on the increasing harsh climate in Denmark with regards to public debate on immigrants and issues on integration. - via

What’s your countries craziest/loveable cultural norm?