Relations of belonging – international professionals living in Denmark

April 8, 2024

It’s hard for internationals living in Denmark to make Danish friends. In this thought piece, I share insights from my research showing how international professionals create a web of relationships that give them a sense of belonging.

There’s one recurring theme in studies looking at international professionals’ experiences of moving to Denmark: it’s hard to make friends with Danes.

The usual explanation for this is that Danes are already friends with people they met as young children at kindergarten or school, and don’t seem to want or need to expand their social network. Danes are often described by incoming internationals as rather closed and reserved, rarely being warm or welcoming. They are seen as culturally incurious, reluctant to open themselves up to new ways of doing things, and that they don’t ‘do spontaneity’ – their social calendars are pre-booked months in advance.

Language, of course, is another barrier to incoming professionals: to really become friends with Danes, many report it’s much easier to connect by speaking in Danish. Even in companies where the corporate language is English, much informal socialising, networking, and decision making is in Danish.

While it’s true some of the internationals interviewed in my studies bemoaned their lack of Danish friends, my research has identified several other, perhaps more important, ways internationals develop a sense of belonging when living in Denmark.

When we move across borders, we often start from scratch: our relations of belonging usually have to be renegotiated – the ones we relied on before, living somewhere else, are not always easy or relevant to maintain.

In seeking out a sense of belonging, we hope to form social attachments that allow us to feel embedded in a group – something that offers us a form of collective identity. 

Such a shared identity might be linked to coming from a particular country, or being from a particular religious or ethnic background. Being connected to a group means we don’t feel alone in the world, and more importantly, that we feel recognised by others, and can connect through our similarities. This recognition bolsters our self-esteem, a sense of solidarity, and makes us happier (as argued by Honneth, 2004).

So what are the insights my work can add? Based on our interviews with 44 high-skilled professionals (and eight of their partners), who had moved to Denmark for work – my team and I found that:

Family was often identified as the most important relationship contributing to a sense of belonging. Usually this meant the core family – professionals moving with their partners and/or children – but might also include extended family based elsewhere. Our interviewees emphasised the importance to them of keeping in regular contact with their extended family.

Friendships with fellow internationals, who had likewise moved to Denmark for work, was often given as a vital source of social support to underpin a sense of solidarity. Our subjects had met these friends online, at work, through people they already knew who lived in Denmark, or often through their children’s school parents’ network.

Almost all the international professionals we interviewed had no Danish friends. Many had come to a realisation this was unlikely to ever happen.

So it takes years to find friends in Denmark, years and years, and still after so many years, I was sometimes surprised how challenging it is to really find a connection to society and to feel like you actually belong. I still don't feel like I belong and I've just kind of, the realization has hit me and I have understood that. And then you just understand that a large share of your friends are going to be internationals’ (Elise)

Some had made Danish friends, but more indirectly: ‘Yeah, so I have all expat friends. I have one friend who's Danish because he's dating my expat friend’ (Kathrin).

Meanwhile, non-Danish friends seemed much easier to find – perhaps because they shared a history of moving to Denmark for work or study, or because both parties really wanted and needed to forge a new social circle.

Some people we talked to actively preferred to seek friends with the same national, cultural, or linguistic background. But usually a distinction was made between people ‘in the same boat’ – those who had moved to Denmark to take up a professional position – and others whose families had immigrated to Denmark in previous generations, or who weren’t themselves mobile professionals. Other recent research in both Denmark and Finland has reinforced this point.

Being part of a specific religious community, or pursuing a specialist hobby, is another commonly mentioned social connection supporting a sense of belonging. Niche hobbies mentioned by our participants included role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, skateboarding, or operating drones. Unlike more mainstream activities such as playing football, such more niche activities seemed to create a stronger basis for developing friendships – and given the smaller communities, oftentimes helped with connecting with likeminded Danes too.

While these insights are all relations of belonging that are largely formed outside work, our participants also described a sense of belonging gained at work.

Actually, at work, I get a sense of belonging. We have a shared goal in the company. It's essentially trying to make people's lives better. So that's kind of something that I agree with from a moral point of view. I think that always helps to sort of feel part of a community if you're aiming towards the same thing or you have similar values’ (Nicky)

Being enthusiastic about work, building a collective professional identity, believing in making a broader contribution, and using hard won expertise to work with colleagues to achieve goals, all drove a strong sense of belonging.

Other times, a personal professional identity – as a data scientist, or an engineer specialising in climate change technology – meant our participants felt a sense of community with others like them – maybe in Denmark, but also through their company’s offices in other parts of the world, or via a broader professional network, developed through conferences, or business collaborations.

When a sense of community and belonging is expressed in this way, it’s clear that the Danish national borders need not constrain the relations of belonging that bind and sustain international professionals living and working here.

Overall, the people we interviewed had created a complex web of relationships of belonging, that delivered at least the potential to afford them a sense of recognition, of stability, of feeling content with their lives in Denmark.

And what can Danes take from all this? If you work with international professionals (perhaps in company HR or culture teams, or by leading a team with international members) or meet internationals in your local community, at yoga or the gym, in a cycling peloton, in the choir, or through school – be curious. Ask about their interests, the social connections they already have, what ones they might still want to make – maybe you can help!

Reference: Honneth, A. (2004). Recognition and justice: Outline of a plural theory of justice. Acta Sociologica, 47(4), 351-364.