I felt nervous about my trip to Denmark, representing my first visit to a country outside of the Anglosphere, but I needn’t have worried. As in much of the world, English acts as a lingua franca throughout Scandinavia, and Danes especially have a reputation of both near-ubiquitous English fluency and a very relaxed attitude about speaking it with visitors.
In my last week here, I have found this entirely true, my jittery pre-flight memorization of Jeg taler ikke dansk and Taler du engelsk? completely unnecessary, exactly as suggested in this blog post by Alex Berger. (As both that post and this WordReference forum thread suggests, these stock phrases can easily come across as more confusing than polite in Denmark.) Within two days, I’d conquered my uneasiness about just speaking English with locals through the development of a extremely simple language-negotiation protocol, one that lets me use my home language abroad — or in Denmark, at least — while not feeling like a stereotypically unilateral American.
It comes down to this: When a Dane greets you with “Hej!”, resist the temptation to hear it as “Hi!”, regardless of the fact that the Danish word has both pronunciation and meaning almost (but not quite!) identical to the English one. Hear it as its own entity, a Danish word whose subtle differences you respect, and respond by saying “Hello”. This one-word response not only returns the greeting, but it signals a request to continue the conversation in English.
If, distracted, you respond to “hej” with “hi”, your interlocutor might hear that as “hej” and take it as a signal that you wish to exercise your Danish skills, requiring apologetic backtracking from both parties before actually getting to the content. “Hello”, on the other hand, serves as a friendly and super-compact way to make plain your status as visitor in asking for the favor of English while also respecting the unique Danishness of “hej”.
I find myself deploying this manner of “hello” with smiling and slightly exaggerated enunciation, padding it out to the span of perhaps one full second. I like to think this lets my conversational partner think “Whoops, Anglophone” and make the appropriate mental gear-shifts in a way they might find more pleasant than had I just launched into my request or whatnot. As a lifelong monoglot, I really don’t know how much help this actually provides. But I do it anyway, and have felt entirely at ease with all my transactions so far while visiting Denmark.
Corollary: If you wish to greet a Dane in passing without entering into a longer conversation, go ahead and say “hi”. If you are like me, the other person’s casual “hej” as they make their way past you and down the stairs will fill you with a truly unique delight.