There is no direct English translation for the Danish word ‘hygge.’ Google will often translate it to cozy but this commonly heard phrase means so much more. The best I can explain it is to imagine that feeling of being close to other people that comes with sitting in your living room around the fireplace playing board games with your family while it’s dark and snowing outside. Hygge is for any relationship whether romantic, family or friends. It’s a focus on connecting, in an in-depth way, with the people in your life and having fun.
Though just a word, hygge to me sheds light on the focus Danish culture has on family and friends – on being closely connected to people. For an American coming to Denmark, I was warned that Danish people don’t talk to random people they don’t know in the way I’m used to and it can be hard to initially become friends. While somewhat true, and I learned to appreciate this a lot (see Lesson #2), there is this whole other side to the depth of relationships people have with each other that I was not prepared for. Someone once told me that once you become friends with a Dane, you are friends for life. I wasn’t really sure what that meant until I lived there and saw the depth of friendship most people have with each other. It truly spoke to who I am and what I value. It’s obvious in many big ways and many subtle ways, like the amount of eye contact and level of presence people have with each other. In my classes, I felt like my professor was actually present and interested in what I was saying. In my friendships, I felt like my friends were actually interesting in knowing me – not just being friends. A Danish roommate explained to me that when American’s say “what’s up” a Danish person stops and expects a genuine conversation so it always takes him a minute to remember that’s just saying “hi.” This says a lot about the culture to me.
Hygge shows up in the fact that most Danes eat at home, rather than go to a restaurant. (It shows up in making homemade Danish rye bread – yum!) It shows up in the fact that most Danes I met are close with their family and see them often. It shows up in countless ways and it’s a word Danish people take pride in.
Sometimes when I think of hygge, I think of the closing scene in Moneyball (a personal favorite) where the Dad has chosen to keep his current job rather than accept several times the salary working in a different town because he wants to be with his daughter as she grows up. Obviously the word does not describe that exact situation but I think hygge does speak to that feeling of choosing people (or experiences) over material things.
I stand by my belief that there is no real way to describe hygee. The best way to understand it is to experience it. For that, I must thank Nanna, whom more than anyone else, showed me what hygee means. Likewise, I’d like to thank Camilla, Peter and so many others for also helping me understand hygge. There was a bit of ‘you are too nice’ floating around in my mind at times because I was in disbelief.
I’d like to close with the thought that part of hygge, for me, is about accepting other people. It’s about inviting people in and trying to understand them. It’s about letting people try to understand you. It’s about not talking so you can listen. It’s about active listening and questioning so the person knows they are understood and you care. It’s about seeing people for who they are, meeting them there and enjoying that time with them. And that is powerful!