I’ll bet you’ve already heard of hygge. Actually, I’m willing to make the bet more interesting by putting 100 kroner on the fact that you’ve been told that it’s a good thing. That hygge is a curled-up-on-the-sofa-in-November-with-dimmed-lights-a-good-movie-popcorn-and-a-dearly-beloved-under-the-rug kinda thing.
I’m afraid you’ve been lied to.
There’s nothing likeable about hygge at all. Except if you like keeping your air intake at the absolute minimum level required to keep your vital organs working or otherwise celebrate conditions where externally imposed stimuli are completely absent. Nevertheless hygge is not only a state of mind that Danes escape to now and then to catch their breaths in the humdrum of modern life. It’s the mother of all downsides of Denmark, so to fully understand our unfortunate national character, we need to scrutinise the phenomenon intensely. Hence the two-piece split-up of this post.
Let’s start with pronunciation, which implicates the ability to master the Danish way of dealing with both the Y-vowel and the sound of the double consonant GG.
If English is your native tongue, you’re in trouble with the Danish Y. There simply are no words in your language that encompass this sound. The best thing you can do is to purse your lips as if you were going to say “OH” but make the sound of “EE” instead. The GG’s are easier – you can find help in “bragging” or “gagging”.
If you’re German, it’s ein Klacks für dich. Think of “Ü” and you’re there. GG shouldn’t cause trouble either.
Now French. Think of your word for “naked” – “nu” – and you’ve got it. The GGs could be a challenge for you, but try doubling the first G-sound in “demagog”. (I’m aware of your… special needs… regarding the H in the beginning. Try letting air pass from your throat and out of your mouth without adding any sound. Like a sigh of despair.)
For the Spanish readers it’s easier to explain what not to do: Don’t use the sound of Y in your ‘word’ for “and” – “y” – and don’t just double the G-sound from “gringo” because it would just mess you up.
If you speak Mandarin you could practise your Ys by calling out for your friend Yu. Regarding the GGs – I’m afraid I have no idea… Perhaps my friend Liyuan can be of assistance.
Now let’s move on to the actual meaning of the word hygge. The problem is that it’s possible to find words in almost every other language that’s approximately the same as some of the original aspects of the hygge concept. The cosiness that applies to locations in English speaking countries. The Gemütlichkeit that can develop among Germans. Or the douillet in French cafés. All of them describing a certain feeling of happiness, individually or in groups, deriving from feeling safe and shielded from circumstances or people that could inflict harm. But none of them come anywhere near what hygge has disintegrated into in Denmark.
We adopted the word from Norway, probably because Norway was Denmark once. But as with so many other aspects of life, all the different and interesting nuances of the concept that thrive in Norwegian culture have been eroded by the general Danish brutishness. So all that’s left now is one single characteristic: recognisability. And that brings us to the heart of the matter.
Hygge in Denmark is the condition of complete absence of anything we haven’t seen before. Because new things have the mere possibility of imposing danger. You can find proof of that in how we use its antonym, uhygge. That means ‘scary’ in Danish. We use it to characterise scary movies or the perspectives of war. Perhaps this circumstance makes the meaning of hygge clearest to all you lucky non-Danes out there. I’ll bet another 100 kroner on the fact that you wouldn’t find ‘not cosy’ a fulfilling description of what’s going on in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ or life in the jungle in Vietnam in the early 1970s.
The perverted philosophy of life that hygge has become offers a variety of paradoxes in Danish culture. I’ll give you a few examples, but my advice is not to try to understand them, because that would mean that hygge has infected you and hygge is known to be incurable.
On the surface Danish society looks like it has a stream of fairness running through its veins. No one is homeless. No one is filthy rich. Distribution of wealth through high taxation is welcomed with a smile by everyone. The workplace culture is dominated by a sense of consensus, not by tyrannical bosses.
But if you scratch the surface the uhyggelige truth emerges immediately: 5,000 people are homeless. The ten richest families collectively account for a fortune of 320 billion kroner which equates to around 20% of our gross domestic product. 70% of Danes find moonlighting okay (the number for immigrants is 18% by the way…).
The number of psychopaths in managerial positions is four times higher than in the society as a whole. The number of compensations paid out by insurance companies for personal damages induced by bad managers has risen 50% during the last 3 years.
And if you present these figures to Danes, they’ll either question the validity of the statistics or say that it’s their firm belief that it’s worse in other countries. Why? Because acknowledging the truth would mean that changes should be made. And change compromises hygge.
At first glance, Danes seem quite tolerant. They will tell you that they believe that everyone has the right to practise their religion as they please. That gay people can kiss and hold hands in the street, even marry each other if they want to. That everyone is entitled to their quirks and a variety of foibles in the local community only adds charm to the neighbourhood.
Here’s the reality check: In the late 1960s and early 1970s a substantial number of Muslim citizens came to Denmark. It took more than 30 years before they were permitted to be buried outside Christian graveyards. Not a single minaret has been allowed to be built yet and the vast majority of mosques are refurbished cellars or apartments. This week the government decided to give 100,000 kroner to any Danish citizen of ‘non-western origin’ that leaves the country for good.
Gay people can marry – but not in churches. Last week a famous football player published a book (probably written while he was serving a sentence for beating up his ex-wife) in which he states that he “really hates gay people, they are fucking disgusting” and “admires Hell’s Angels for not doubting their masculinity”.
That led a famous actor to yell angrily at him in a TV show they both attended the other day. Not because of the obvious bigotry or sick fascination with violence. But because the book had stirred up a commotion that “completely ruined the hygge!” in Denmark. The head of communications at the Danish Football Association stated that gay men should “pay respect to the majority that could feel unsafe when confronted with viewpoints of minority groups”.
The number of lawsuits between neighbours has risen 300% during the last 5 years.
So you see, there are no limits to what Danes will do to defend the sanctity of hygge by oppressing anything and anyone who dares to be different and deny any truth that challenges them to change things. I think this also explains the extremely high suicide rate in our country compared to the rest of the western world. And I’m not alone in this theory. The brilliant British novelist V. S. Naipaul wrote about it in a letter to his friend Paul Theroux in 1995:
“If you are interested in horrible places, I can recommend Denmark. No one starves. Everyone lives in small, pretty houses. But no one is rich, no one has a chance to a life in luxury, and everyone is depressed. Everyone lives in their small well-organized cells with their Danish furniture and their lovely lamps, without which they would go mad.”
In Holy Hygge (Part 2) I’ll take you through a couple of examples of the fact that Danes are willing to put up with self-mutilation – even death – to defend this relic of the hygge cult.