Denmark’s Greatest Asset: The Social Capital
According to Britannica encyclopedia, Social Capita is a concept that represents the social ties within a society where the degree of trust facilitates the exchange of benefits. In simple terms, as expressed by the former Egyptian President of the World Psychiatric Association,Dr.Ahmed Okasha, Social Capital is the level of Trust and Love within the society.
Social Trust and Morality
Dr. Gert Svendsen, professor of Political Science at Aarhus University in Denmark, known for his research in the Danish trust culture, asserts that Social Trust— trusting strangers— is the cornerstone of the Danish welfare system. Results of a study that Dr. Svendsen participated in showed that 78% of Danes reported that they trust people they have no previous acquaintance with.
In his 2018 book titled ‘Trust,’ Dr. Svendsen points out that Social Trust entails Self-enforcement, which refers to a form of informal social accountability. For example, Danes lodging in a quiet coastal island usually pay for their stay before their departure driven by moral obligation rather than law enforcement. Another example is the disposition of many Danish businesses to depend upon “oral agreements” rather than formal contracts. Those examples do not reflect a lack of vigilance or an unrealistic approach to trusting others. However, my explanation for this kind of attitude is inspired by the Lebanese thinker Camille Moubarak who argued in a France 24 T.V. interview that enlightened societies are not herded by scrutinizing laws.
Trust and the Danish Character
Walking in the Danish streets, one usually sees untied bicycles in front of homes. Most of the time, people using means of transportation do not need to show their booked trip tickets; rarely would anybody attempt to get a free ride. Traditionally, Danish mums fear no harm on their babies left unattended in their prams within a reachable distance outside coffee shops. You go shopping in the supermarket, and you are free to use your own tote instead of a shopping cart because you are trusted to scan all your picked items and pay for them at the self-service machines.
This sacred position of trust in the Danish culture echoed confidently in the former Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen's description of the Danish character saying, “You rarely see a Dane with a knife in one hand without a fork in the other” (Svendsen, 2018, p.7).
Experiencing Danes’ disposition to trust and helping others— without sacrificing the values of Individualism— has always triggered me to think about the reinforcement factors to this model of the Social Capital. One significant answer I found in Dr. Svendsen’s book, among others, is related to the keenness of the Danish official authorities to maintain the inculcated element of trust in the society by ensuring that the heavy taxes loop back to the people in the form of a prosperous life. Hypothetically, the absence of trust would result in the collapse of the welfare system and violation of law which would then be viewed merely as means of serving the interests of people in power. In the same vein, more than one Danish friend expressed to me that although taxes in Denmark are among the highest in Europe, they pay them with content because they trust how they are handled.
Here I mention (and translate from Arabic) what Dr. Mostafa Mahmoud, an Egyptian thinker, said in his book ‘God and Man’:
“The modern way to attain virtue is not by praying but by providing (the citizens) with good food, clothing, housing, a school, a playground, and a music hall. A true (social) reform starts from the pocket of the government, its treasury, and model of resources’ distribution; only then would mining iron, arsenic, and manganese lead effortlessly to mining honesty, loyalty, equity, and virtue from the hearts of people.” (p.24).
Wellbeing as a Result of the Social Capital
Life in Denmark is usually dubbed “frictionless” thanks to the seamless harmony between the system democratically set by the government and the people who trust the authorities and each other. Danes enjoy one of the best work-life balance globally; people like what they do in the daytime and enjoy hygge-lish/cozy evenings. This healthy lifestyle manifests itself in people smiling at strangers in the streets whenever eyes meet. Therefore, Aarhus, the second-largest city in Denmark, gained the title of “City of Smiles.”
The “good quality of life” is one way the concept of Well-being is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) and is directly correlated to the model of the Social Capital dominant in a society, according to Britannica.
Firsthand Experience of the Danish Social Capital
Based on my personal experience in Denmark, I encountered instances that I could later link to the concept of Voluntary Cooperation implied in the Social Trust as explained by Dr. Svendsen. Inspired by Dr. Okasha’s definition of Social Capital, I call those instances “random acts of love.”
As soon as I arrived at Copenhagen airport, I asked someone working there to guide me where to check out to my plane to Aarhus; to my surprise, the man did not describe the way orally, he walked me all the way to the check-out point and wished me a good day. Struggling with my luggage at Aarhus airport, I was approached by someone working there who said: “I will give you a hand”; additionally, he asked me where I wanted to go, suggested I take a bus and walked me to the bus outside the airport. On the same day, I had no clue how to bring both of my suitcases— each weighing 23 kilograms— up the stairs to the second floor where my dorm room was. I met someone and asked him if I could find help with my luggage; without thinking twice, he said: “I can help you.” After getting into my room, I needed to contact my family and assure them that I was home and all went well, but I could not connect to the internet because the setup page was in Danish. It was my Danish neighbor living on the same floor, whom I had never met before, who spent part of her evening trying to connect me to the internet and left only after I called my family.
The next day I started quarantining as per the safety measures against the spread of COVID-19; in the afternoon, my University Buddy contacted me to know my food preferences because she was on her way to the supermarket to buy me groceries before bringing them to me.
On my first days in Denmark, I used to ask about directions; it happened to me several times that people smiled and willingly checked my destination on their phones and patiently described the way. In one instance, I did not get out of the bus where I should have; I started explaining this to the driver, who did not clearly get my English. After a while, someone tapped on my shoulder and asked me, “How can I help?”. Without even knowing each other’s names, the young man voluntarily decided to take me to the bus station where I would take a direct bus to my destination, wished me a good evening, and left.
Isn’t it amazing how people willingly walk the extra mile for you as a complete stranger to them?
Before I conclude, I would also like to highlight that life in Denmark is considerably structured and time is well planned; usually, nothing happens haphazardly. While people inhale trust and exhale love, they are aware that no angels walk on earth.
In conclusion, during my relatively short stay in Denmark, I was deliberate to observe, reflect, learn and understand the factors contributing to Denmark being a peaceful, prosperous and safe country. Eventually, I have attributed such elements to the model of Social Capital distinguishing Denmark.
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Christine is a researcher in Communication as social science, a Master of Arts student in Journalism and Mass Communication, and a future lecturer.