Friday, January 22, 2010

Further Discursive Analysis of Business Relationships and Danish Humor

I'm pretty sure that I, at some point in this already verbose affair, mentioned one of the first tenets of Danish society and probably the key to survival here: "Nothing is sacred." The second tenet, or rather the first corollary, which I have appended for your reading pleasure and comprehension, is this: The Danes have no shame. Or at least not the shameless ones.

The veracity and prevalence of this trend are alarming, and honestly I didn't expect to find such stellar examples of it so soon. These kinds of claims are often made, even in America, by people who claim to not be politically correct or what have you (a la Mencia), but really they just end up having a poor sense of humor or are quite plainly socially illiterate. In America, this line is usually delivered as a preemptive anti-inflammatory measure by people with no tact, as if to apologize for the imminent offense they will be unable to avoid committing. In Denmark, it's not just one or two people -- it's the entire bewilderingly forward cultural environment. Now that's not to say that you can walk up to every Dane and inquire as to the current affective state of their chlamydia and expect them to laugh about it. Quite to the contrary, chlamydia is a serious problem in this country, in many glosses of the term.

But for the majority of Danish people, the intimacy of a problem like STDs only makes it more hilarious. We were told in orientation that the best social weapons in our arsenals are dead baby jokes. They're like the nuclear option of the joke arms race in this country. And it isn't just that they aren't offended by topics like The Clap or dead babies, in the passive sense that we might imagine in the US -- the sense that if it happened to be brought up they'd laugh along. Many Danes actively pursue offensive comedy, and it doesn't matter if you're a close friend or a brand spanking new acquaintance, the humor is there to stay. Their way of breaching awkward or unfamiliar situations is with aggressive humor. Being made fun of is a compliment here, but in practice all of this is really hard to respond to. We aren't hardwired to casually poke fun at sensitive topics with people we hardly know, but even if you can manage to laugh along without retorting the situation will stay groovy. While it's a little off-putting at first, it also takes a lot of the burden off of you (especially when you're listening to somebody else get made fun of).

A great example of humor as an icebreaker is the introductory lesson to my Journalism and Public Relations class. I expected this to be more or less a journalistic style course or an introduction to news writing, but it turns out to be a much more grounded, practical and vocationally relevant affair than I had thought. Most classes here are team-taught, with experts in two different but related fields teaming up to alternate lesson plans. This comes into play in especially smart form in this class, where we have one PR guy and one full-time journalist working together. They have worked with each other before, and the PR/journalist dynamic is one of the most difficult to manage but also the most critical in both fields.

So, the two teachers are Rasmus and Esben (names not substituted to maintain anonymity). Esben is a journalist for arguably the largest paper in Denmark, and is every bit the newspaper writer. He has no patience for long sentences, most PR people or drawn-out blog posts on points that could have been made in three lines. Rasmus, like his name suggests, is the essence of corporate evil: he walked in today wearing a black suit with a black undershirt and black tie, missing maybe only the red horns and tail to epitomize the company dress code for his employer -- get this -- Phillip Morris. Yes, he is a PR person. For Phillip Morris. Not the Phillip Morris you used to steal Fruit Roll-ups from in the elementary school cafeteria. The Phillip Morris that wrote in a report to the Czech government that smoking was good because the premature deaths it caused would mean less of a burden on the state's health care and welfare systems.

These guys are sharp-looking, no-nonsense people -- hombres, more accurately -- and I have never heard so many curses or insults fly on the first day of class. They have known each other for decades and been working with each other for almost as long, each being one of the only other people in the business the other really respects. The banter between them about how stuck up journalists are or how sleazy and dumb PR people are was priceless and would have been off-putting if they project a clear sense that they knew what they were talking about. These are professionals who have to, on a daily basis, handle people approaching them the wrong way and going about their jobs poorly, and I don't think there's a more qualified type of teacher than that. The best exchange of the day, that far and away reveals what I mean by my tenets and corollaries, is reprinted below:

Esben: You know, the cardinal rule of business that applies in every situation holds true. "You can only screw somebody once." Well, twice if they're really dumb.
Rasmus: I've been screwing Esben for 10 years.
Esben: Good point.
Rasmus: It's great that his wife's been so understanding.

Let's be clear here -- he went out of his way to imply that they had a gay affair of more than a decade. He could have just let it slide and play it off as a hilarious lost-in-translation moment of some kind of twisted Danish-English game of telephone. But his cultural upbringing mandated that it be about buttsex, to which neither he nor his colleague (and the butt of the joke, PUN INTENDED) blinked an eye.


At the beginning of class, they explained themselves to what had to have been a cowed audience of underwhelmingly intelligent communications majors. Rasmus pulled out the classic Benny Goodman line: "I'm not sexist or anything, I'm equally an asshole to everybody." This is 100% a legitimate preface to a serious college course in Denmark, which made it so much more refreshing than any other class I've had so far.

Another hilarious classroom interaction was my Nordic Mythology class, which apparently the entire state of Ditzville is required to take by whatever shameless front for a nightclub they call their alma mater. The teacher has the wackiest accent I've ever heard, which I later realized is what a nerdy Dane sounds like, and is unabashedly geeky. In fact she started out the lecture telling us as much and more; not only was she a geek, but she was officially ranked as a part of the internet Hierarchy of Geeks:

When she asked if anybody knew what she was talking about, you bet your biscuitgravy I was the only one to raise a hand. Some kids from my hojskole immediately remarked "You would know, Simon." If anybody from The Internet is reading this right now, do I get any web cred for that? Any like redeemable goody-blags or coupons?

Didn't think so. Still, I felt like a boss. More ranting to come about how little respect I have for a select group of my classmates, once I run out of positively ridiculous stories to tell (read: August).

In short form: Highlights of Thursday night, an exploration of the bar scene in my now-hometown of Helsingor. Local bars, local music. Guy and his guitar, he played some classics, among which was California Dreamin'. He came off the small stage and complimented me on my vocal harmonies, which more or less made that night.

Returning to more prosaic modes of recollection, Friday night was also the night of the DIS Welcome Party. The program rented out an entire Discotec for the program's 660 students and over 100 Danes affiliated with the roommate, host family or buddy programs. We got there fashionably early and the group from my hojskole, astonishingly enough including me, were the first ones out on the dance floor busting moves and, quote, "clownin on these fools." It was sparse at the beginning, but a combination of the constant influx of more party-goers and free unlimited beer and blue champagne did a lot to grease the works.

The club we were situated in is called the Discotek IN, a combination of what turns out to be at least 4 different discotecs miscegenated into some neon-flavored club-bomination with free drinks. They had a full-on neo-hacienda for the DJs, an obelisk of beats rising from the center of the floor where two incredibly European guys controlled the music, lights and gratuitous fog machines. Bemusingly enough, I'm told that this is where all the losers of Copenhagen go to party -- which, if that is indeed the case, means that untold wonders of science and society lie beyond the hallowed gates of whatever establishment the cool people of this city choose to grace.

I had an alarmingly good time at the club, a surprising and reassuring fact that has made me feel totally OK with spending my Saturday largely indoors (blogging). I managed to have a couple of conversations with people I had only really seen walking around before, which was uncommonly brave if I may say so myself. I got out on the dance floor and strutted my stuff. Strutted, in this instance, is as a newborn giraffe would strut about as it transitions from a life of leisure inside the womb to a cruel, gangly existence peeping over (and grazing on) the neighbors' hedges. But I really didn't care, because seeing the other people around the outside of the room -- and more importantly seeing how anxious they were about cutting loose and dancing -- was wonderfully emboldening. Plus I was in good company, which is never a disadvantage in the field of public embarrassment.

The other best part of the night was that I stayed remarkably sober the whole night. Being in a club-like environment can be disorienting to say the least, and I know first-hand that it can soften the symptoms of drunkenness, or at least distract you from noticing them. The normal metrics of room spinning, slurred speech, etc. are muffled by the already delirium-inducing surroundings of heavy bass, low lights and churning masses of people. So, I took it easy, and had a spectacular time of myself anyway. As I said -- a surprisingly satisfying night on many fronts.

That being said, I do still feel a bit haunted in the manner I had mentioned a few days past, but I suspect it goes beyond just thinking I recognize everybody here from somewhere else. Long ago I came to terms with the fact that I have trouble letting some things go. I haven't really figured out the criteria for what those things are or why they seem to persist in my subconscious for so long, but they are indelibly there. I have trouble getting over stop signs I've driven through or curse words I did a catalog search for in the Highland View Elementary School library.

But even more than guilt, it's the spectre of change that seems to be the heaviest on my shoulders and also the most elusive to the touch. I think this sentiment proves to be a commonality between all human beings, since the fragrance of change is so acrid in the nose of a people who have evolved socially to stay put and stay comfortable. There are some parts of myself and of my manners, modes and dispositions that are so self-destructive but so irreconcilably hard to rid myself of. The parts that make me pause for critical reflection of relationships past in the middle of a packed night club, or the parts that make me follow the same girl around time after time. That's really why I can't avoid the term "haunted," maybe not in the sense of spirits and spooks (but then again maybe so), but certainly in the sense of a certain cyclic redundancy in the affairs of my life and, most prominently, the mistakes I have yet to take to heart. Luckily, I've got a lot of time to learn.


  1. Now with 20% more exposition!

    The real issue here is that I keep sitting down to blog about something, and then something else ridiculous happens and I have to postpone the composition stage and then later write something twice as long. The process makes itself more prone to delay as x approaches infinity, where x is time. Ultimately, we wind up with something like the above. Some day I'll figure out how to give you that 15 minutes of your life back, I promise!

  2. I saw offended Danes twice.

    (1) Someone was talking very misogynistically (is that a word?) and using lots of rude slang for female parts.

    (2) I learned lots of Danish bad words and put them in a sentence. I don't think they were offended, just surprised. One of their jaws fell open, then they stared at me and said, in a super-thick and smoky Danish accent, "Do you realize what you just said?"

  3. let the fragrance of change WAFT into the noses of the just.