Forget ”hygge” — here are 3 Danish words you need to adopt in your workplace.
It’s December and people are getting their candles, warm socks and mulling spices out in pursuit of that nebulous sense of HYGGE. But here are 3 Danish words that you need to learn and adopt in your workplace, if you truly want to achieve that Scandinavian work-life-balance and sense of happiness.
When I first noticed the Danish word “hygge” starting to make its way into conversations in households and offices in London back in the mid-2010’s, I was both proud and somewhat surprised. Unlike Danish design, food and egalitarianism, the Danish language is generally not held in very high esteem and is mostly known for sounding like muffled elf speech (it does) and for being spelled completely differently from how it is pronounced (it is).
Hence, as a native Dane living and working in London at the time, I was very happy that one of our guttural and impossible-to-pronounce words had made it to international fame.
The problem with the popular hygge, however, is that it really is not so untranslatable and ephemeral as people make it seem. “Hygge” really can be translated to just “cozy” or “coziness”. Of course how you create a hyggelig (i.e. cozy) atmosphere in Danish culture is relatively unique (spoiler alert; tea lights are EVERYTHING), but the concept of coziness is not.
After returning to Denmark in 2018 and working in an international environment with both Danes and non-Danes, I have, however, come to realise that there are three Danish words that actually do not have a direct English translation and which I think would make a much bigger impact in workplaces around the world if they were to be adopted instead of hygge.
In no particular order, they are:
According to The Danish Dictionary, faglighed means “knowledge, prerequisites and competencies that a person possesses within a particular subject, field, craft or occupation”. This brilliant word hence refers to the fact that every person brings a unique skill set with them to work, which can be applied to different degrees depending on the job or task at hand. The closest synonyms in English would be “professional capability or integrity”.
Examples of usage include:
- I need to change jobs, because I never get to use my faglighed where I am now.”
- “I’m really sorry, but I would be compromising my faglighed if I were to agree on that direction.”
- “It really frustrates me when my colleagues don’t acknowledge my faglighed and just ignore my input.”
Adopting “faglighed” into the vernacular would give us a language for acknowledging that we all have unique and valuable knowledge and skills to apply in a work context and for discussing how we ensure that these are applied as much as possible.
(pronounced: just like the English word, phew!)
The difficulty with sparring is that it is a so-called “false friend” i.e. a word that exists in both English and Danish, yet has different meanings. In both languages, the original meaning of sparring is to practice boxing with someone. However, in English sparring has since moved on to also mean ”having serious but friendly arguments with someone” (Merriam-Webster) and can refer to a friendly competition or a verbal challenge. In Danish, sparring has more positive connotations of mutual support, inspiration and feedback. The closest synonyms in English would be “bouncing ideas off each other”, but sparring can also be applied to other types of supportive exchanges.
Examples of usage include:
- “Do you have time to spar with me tomorrow about the new Budget Proposal we need to put together? It’s been a while since I’ve been doing finance.”
- “I’ve joined Dragon’s Den in order to meet investors who will give me financial investment and ongoing sparring.”
- “The team puts aside 2 hours per week for knowledge exchange and faglig sparring” (notice the combination of both faglighed and sparring here).
Because it is a false friend, you should be aware that your Danish co-workers are probably not using the word to challenge you — they are trying to draw on your faglighed.
The direct translation of overskud is simply “surplus”, but when used descriptively about a person, it refers to that person having a surplus of energy, headspace or capacity that allows them to make an extraordinary effort. Overskud can’t be bought or achieved by putting in extra hours of work, it comes from being in a healthy mental and physical state and having the right motivation that propels one to make the extra effort. Delivering a great result because you’ve put in an unsustainable number of all-nighters is not overskud. Neither is buying expensive Christmas presents for all your colleagues.
Examples of usage include:
- “I really appreciate that you had the overskud to give me advice on how to apply for a job at your old company, seeing that they treated you so badly.”
- “I’m really sorry, I just don’t have the overskud to look at that report right now.”
- “He has two kids and a full time job, and yet he brought home-made cake for our team meeting last week; I don’t understand where he gets the overskud from!”
Adopting words like “faglighed”, “sparring” and “overskud” into the English language would give us a global corporate vocabulary;
- that acknowledges that we all have unique and valuable skills that we need to ensure are applied productively in a workplace context,
- that underlines the importance of ongoing supportive feedback and exchanges between people,
- and that reminds us that great work doesn’t come from putting in an unsustainable amount of hours, but from being in balance and having the right motivation.
Together, these three ingredients are the “secret sauce” that help make Danes among the world’s happiest. So this year, as you pull out your candles, warm socks and mulling spices in pursuit of that nebulous Danish hygge, don’t forget to also consider how you can bring more focus on faglighed, sparring and overskud to your workplace too. Achieving better work-life-balance and higher work motivation could be a true gift for your workplace; and what could really be more hygge?
Oh — and just so you don’t think it’s all sunshine and rainbows in Denmark, we also need to introduce a terrible Danish word that you should avoid at all cost (in fairness, it should be banned from Danish too).
“Jo” is without a doubt the most passive-aggressive two-letter word in the Danish language (perhaps in any language). Jo is used, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes very consciously, to imply that the receiver should already be aware of the information given — either because they’ve been previously informed, because it’s common knowledge or through Divine Intervention.
Examples of usage include:
- “Alice can’t send you that email today, she is jo on annual leave.”
- “I can’t read that report, I am jo dyslexic.”
- “The new guy is a bit snobbish, he has jo lived in Paris for many years.”
Of all the words introduced so far, tiny “jo” is perhaps the one that is most difficult to find an English translation for. The closest would be:
- Adding three full stops at the end of the sentence …
- Rolling your eyes while saying the sentence (or adding an eye rolling emoji, if in writing).
- Starting or ending the sentence with a loud sigh.
- Or simply saying: “As I’ve told you a million times; [insert original sentence here].”
Indeed, not very hygge at all.
About the authors:
Timothy Ahrensbach is the Global Workplace Strategist for the LEGO Group and sets out new strategies and concepts for the company’s offices. After working in London in the intersection between urban development and workplace strategy for 10 years he recently relocated back to his native Denmark, where he’s reacquainting himself with work-life-balance, emails without introductory pleasantries, and dark winter nights that never seem to end.
Marie Møller is a language specialist with a Master’s Degree in English and Language Psychology. Her focus areas include English as a workplace lingua franca and the specific relationship between Danish and English. She has worked as an educator, translator and technical proofreader, and she especially enjoys translating finicky rhyme schemes for fun. Marie is a native of Copenhagen and the Internet.