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Column: For the Danes, life is all about community... can we learn from them?

The Danes have good food, a high standard of living, and are the happiest people in the word… what’s their secret? John Verling looks at the culture differences between Ireland and Denmark.

John Verling

THE DANES SEEM to have it cracked. Good food, great public services, high standard of living, the happiest people in the world apparently… yet none of us seem in any hurry to go live there. Do we see the Danish way of life as, well, a bit boring? For the Danes, life is all about community and the bigger picture. For us, though, taking part and giving to society is for the scouts or Tidy Towns, not for those who love the bit of craic.

That to me is the crux of the issue; in Denmark it’s all about being part of the community, trusting each other and everyone contributing to society. They even have a word for it, hygge (pronounced ‘hue-ga’), which translates roughly as ‘cosiness’ or ‘everyone helps everyone.’ In Denmark this is how you live your life, how you get value out of it and – crucially – how you enjoy yourself. Good hygge is when you have someone round for a drink and a meal, when you’re sharing and enjoying your home.

However it’s also about paying high taxes, working for each other and thinking about society with everything you do. Whether there is bad hygge I don’t know but I presume it would cover selfish and self-aggrandisement behaviour. Having hygge seems to lead to a sense of belonging and community.

Could we have something similar here? Unfortunately I don’t think so. We find it hard to trust each other and history has backed us up on this belief. All those institutions we gave our trust to since the foundation of the State have left us down. The Church, the banks, political parties, the government and even our fellow citizens have all shafted the common man.

Ireland’s problem with trust

Once we started to get somewhere economically in the early ‘90s the State handed over the keys to the developers. This at a time when we were setting up Tribunals to investigate wrongdoing between developers and politicians.

How many estates were built badly or built where they shouldn’t have been while promising buyers that it couldn’t get any better? We were selling faulty product to each other and nobody said stop. Instead of curtailing profits and putting an emphasis on quality affordable housing, we let the market take control. We did this to ourselves. Nobody seemed to care that we were getting saddled with ridiculous mortgages. Sure wasn’t it a sign that we were doing great?

In Ireland we just can’t trust each other. Every representative organisation splits at some stage, usually from mistrust. There is always a fear that the other guy is out to do you (and you’re probably right, too). If someone is developing something or putting an idea into place you just can’t rely on it being done for the good of the community. You just know its being done for profit reasons, quick profit too and so don’t feel part of it.

For example wind farms could be a big boon to the economy, but who owns them? If a town built its own it to supply everyone’s electricity, all would feel part of it. Suddenly they wouldn’t be half as noisy, if fact it would be a sweet hum. That terrible noise of somebody else making the profit would disappear. This isn’t some socialist idealism, it’s just looking at the bigger picture of how society as a whole can benefit.

Majority of Danes are happy to pay high taxes

High taxes are a feature of Denmark but I don’t hear much a cry for tax increases here. In fact the majority of Danes are happy to pay high rates of tax; they even believe it is morally right. Here though why should we pay more as we can’t trust those in charge to spend it properly? Waste in the public sector hurts, especially when key services are cut instead of highly paid government appointees. Why should the hard-working taxpayer fund the mismanagement?

Millions was spent on dead-end projects and according to the PAC this still is happening. There are too many to even start mentioning them – even the thought of drawing up a list makes my blood boil. Recent scandals such as the CRC salaries highlight the sense of entitlement, the need to be ‘doing better’ than others, something which has ruined the country.

Without the sense of people getting a fair whack of the cake then nobody is inclined to feel part of it. The last government did away with below-cost selling just to please foreign retailers. This has resulted in Irish produce being priced out of the market, to be replaced by cheap, lower quality goods and many producers going to the wall. We did this to ourselves, there wasn’t any EU directive. The self-righteous in power said it would lead to lower prices for the consumer; all it did was increase retailer profits, most of which flow out of the country. Nobody has called yet for its reintroduction, mind you.

The Irish citizen will never have that feeling of hygge, that feeling of being part of the bigger picture. We may have had that in the ‘30s and ‘40s when the country was getting established. Maybe then we pulled together to get the ESB started, Aer Lingus off the ground or an unarmed police force that was respected by all. My father, an Aer Lingus employee from its foundation, once said that ‘we had to do it ourselves, do the hard work, find our own way as there was no one to show us.’ Meaning how they worked hard and together in the early years to make a great company. Those early State employees had great pride in doing something for Ireland. A value of giving personally so the country could prosper.

Somewhere along the way we lost that value.

Maybe we became too busy swapping hygge for ‘craic’ while forgetting that it has to be earned.

John Verling is a father of three children and is from County Cork. He writes a blog called Verlingsweek. To read more from John for TheJournal.ie click here.

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