We Need to Talk: It’s Boring to Generalize

The Happiness Ranking is a real thing. It is a valuable way to consider our global standard of living, as well as particular aspects such as work, health and family and how they fit into our cultural paradigms. But if I hear one more time, “Danes are the happiest people in the world!” OR “Danes are NOT the happiest people in the world!” OR “Danes do this thing that I decided is weird and I’m going to explain it,” then all bets are off. Bets about me being non-violent, I mean.

Can we all just calm down for a second? Can everyone please take a deep breath? Are you ready for some brutal truth? DANES. ARE. HUMANS. So are Swedes, Americans, Chileans, Egyptians and Cambodians. All humans. All just walking around, looking around.

I am not denying cultural norms, socialization and differing value systems. Those all exist. Those are all incredibly interesting to think about, discuss and share. But the fact that we as humans are interested in how other humans live doesn’t excuse the kind of generalization that is running rampant. And this isn’t just the way we talk about Danes, it’s all over the damn place.

But since we’re based in Copenhagen, let’s talk specifically about Denmark.

Why is it so tempting to generalize about the Danes? The most obvious answer is that they’re considered homogeneous. Given the image that the country presents internationally, it’s clear why. If you’ve spent any time in Denmark, however, you know that Denmark is a country with an evolving racial and religious profile.

There continues to be an influx of non-Danes making Denmark their permanent home.

These changes are not always met with open arms; indeed, there is plenty to talk about when it comes to xenophobia, racism and social problems surrounding immigration.

Calling an entire country xenophobic is neither accurate nor a good way to start a conversation. I’ve heard Danes say things I consider to be racist but I’ve also heard just as many Danes stand up to those people.

Having a dialogue on these issues is important. Making it about just Denmark takes away from an essential conversation, one that includes race, colonialism and the modern global market.

Denmark has a convenient lightning rod for generalization: the title of “Happiest People in the World.” This title has created more interest and more backlash for Denmark than probably any other thing they’ve done in modern times (provoking cartoons and dead giraffes aside).

It’s a strange title for so many reasons, including that the version of happiness referred to is a completely subjective one. What’s most fascinating about the whole thing is that so many people worldwide seem to take issue with it. In theory, this is such an innocuous award to be given. Danes are the MOST HAPPY! Shouldn’t we be happy that other people in the world are happy?

Even if we don’t agree that they’re happy, do we need to shout it in their faces? So they think they’re happy, the delirious fools, you may say! So what! Why the need to rip it apart, prove it wrong? It’s not like they get some kind of money reward. Maybe tourism goes up a bit but that’s about the extent of it.

What I’m taking an awfully long, convoluted path to say is: maybe Danes are the happiest people in the world and maybe they aren’t. I don’t know and I’m sure as hell not going to speculate.

If you want to know what Danes are like, you should talk to some Danes (lots of them, preferably!) and then form an opinion.

After reading an earlier draft of this article, our Creative Director Freya asked me, “where do you draw the line between talking about culture and generalizing?” It’s a great question; one that has lots of valid answers.

For me, talking constructively about a specific thing (for example, etiquette rules, how to present yourself in a job interview or what a particular holiday is about) is a useful way to write descriptively about culture. Even if one feels irritation about the culture, there is a way talk about differences that is open and takes one’s own bias into account.

Another useful way to write about culture is from an ethnographic perspective, where the writer shares his/her experiences in an objective, holistic way.

The line from cultural exposition to generalizing occurs when the author presents an opinion as fact, doesn’t take into account history, values or intersectionality and seeks to establish a single motivation for a whole population.

You may say, “if you’re not into these articles, just don’t read them.” Which is fair. It’s pretty much been my policy thus far. But I think the topic of generalization itself warrants discussion because it is so noxious and, given how fast information can travel these days, so apparent.

I am not of the mind that this generation is somehow outrageously different than generations before. Years, decades or centuries ago people were not less nuanced or weird. People have always been freaks! They do psychologically inscrutable things! Their culture affects them in various, matrix-like ways. This has been going on since forever, I promise. The internet has not changed this. It is neither the savior nor the downfall of mankind.

What the internet has brought us, however, is that every little thought and quibble has a much more likely chance of being disseminated to a very large group of people very rapidly. Often, that’s awesome. Also often, that’s shitty. And unfortunately shittiness breeds more shittiness. Response, backlash, agreement, arguments. One article is never just that; it creates an entire universe unto itself.

I know that generalizations won’t stop because I say so. I also know that I can just go on not reading all the articles I don’t want to read. But before I resign myself to that, let’s talk about what these articles actually mean.

Why do we generalize? Some do it to work to a place of understanding; the generalizing is a process by which we group, then regroup our thoughts. This can be a helpful jumping off point for learning and debate.

Some do it out of frustration or anger. Some do it because that’s the only way they know how to think about cultural differences (sad). It’s fascinating, if sometimes aneurysm-inducing, reading if you know better. But what about those who don’t? Is it harmful, or just a bit of fluff?

I don’t really have the answer, other than to provide my own anecdotal evidence. My experience with articles that generalize, both about Denmark and elsewhere, is that it they never foster honest conversation but instead either make people defensive or validated. I’ve never come away from reading one of these articles with a changed opinion. Have you?

I want to make clear that I am not telling people to stop sharing their frustrations with institutional injustice like sexism or racism. People and governments always need to be called out on their crap; that’s not generalizing and it’s not what this article is about.

For the rest of it, there’s got to be a better way. There has to be a way to bring the social and cultural issues we perceive without accusing everyone of being the same. Let’s ask questions! Let’s share stories and allow others to do the same, then truly listen to those stories!

I’ll start: how do you feel about articles that generalize whole populations? Leave your thoughts in the comments; I’m looking forward to starting this discussion with all of you!