Changes in Public Attitude in Denmark

Denmark is famous around the world for being a liberal society, surpassed by none (except maybe the Netherlands) in its everything-goes attitude towards life. We were the first in the world to legalise porn (1969), same-sex unions (1989), and the first to perform sex-change operations (1952). Freetown Christiania was unique at its time in providing a haven for lefties wishing an alternative lifestyle (not to mention marijuana).

Although these issues are not about to change, others are. Previously, the Danish zeitgeist could be described as: “we don’t need people telling us how to behave, thank you very much”. Now, this is increasingly giving way to “it’s perfectly all right to have common do’s and don’t’s”. Certain issues have seen a remarkably fast change in public opinion over the last decade or so. Let me highlight a few examples.


I can only applaud this one. The U.S. were pioneers, and for a while in the late 90’s the difference was huge. I’d travel to America and notice with amusement the groups of office workers standing on the kerb outside their building, banished from the inside. And I’d return to Denmark to meet the unpleasantries of nicotine-deprived Danes puffing happily at baggage reclaim. It used to be impossible to travel any long distance in Denmark and not have your clothes smelling of tobacco from interaction on trains or ferries.

Not so today. The office building scene is now a common fixture in Copenhagen, and dining out is much more pleasant. Even more interesting is the fact that most Danes support the new laws. A genuine change in attitude has occurred, and a sizeable number of people are even open to the idea of restricting smoking in your own home, in order to protect children from second-hand smoke.

Child rearing

Another issue that has remarkably fast become a non-issue is domestic corporal punishment (also known as spanking your kids). It was not a common fixture in my childhood, but it did happen, and it probably worked, too. The practice was, however, outlawed in Denmark in 1997. And today, 13 years later, any discussion of the topic is a dead duck. This is just not socially acceptable any longer.

The ban follows other countries, all European. It is still legal practice in most of the world, including the U.S., but also England, Switzerland, France, and Australia. In many places, corporal punishment in schools is also legal. This was banished in Denmark in 1967.

The interesting thing to note in both examples is that new legislation has a very real effect on public attitude. The degree to which we accept new laws and let them become social mores is surprising.

Behaviour on trains and stations

My last example has no political connections, but is saying all the same. I notice it every time I ride the S-trains in Copenhagen. This year they have commenced a massive effort to teach us (the passengers) how to behave. Let people exit the train before entering. Use all train doors to ease congestion. Don’t let your bicycle block free passage of others. Etc., etc. Previously, campaigns like this would have been something you saw in Singapore and dismissed with a shrug. Perhaps it’s necessary, and I’m a big fan of public order, so that’s fine.

But it’s an altogether different attitude from not very long ago. I remember a letter to the editor in the DSB monthly, Ud & Se, in which a reader suggested putting signs on escalators telling people to stand on the right and walk on the left. Why couldn’t we figure it out here, when it worked so well in other world cities? The reply was non-committal: there is no need, people can figure it out for themselves. Apparently, they can’t. Not that many years after, signs exactly as requested started appearing throughout Copenhagen. And people have learned pretty well, I’d say.

I can’t really make up my mind as to whether the change is for the better or for the worse. On one hand, I like not getting second-hand smoke or being blocked on escalators. On the other, it is a little bit frightening how public opinion can change, given the right law or campaign.

The big question is: are we still as a people free-thinking, liberal and open-minded? Were we ever, really?


Author: Kenneth Mollerup Birch

Living north of Copenhagen, Denmark. MA in Information Science. Interests include communication, internet, sociology, language, politics, religion, theology, travel, music, and food.

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