Guide to Greenlandic culture
Introduction to how Greenlanders think and act.
By Mikkel Larsen
Introduction to how Greenlanders think and act.
By Mikkel Larsen
I lived in Sisimiut in Greenland from July 2010 to July 2016, where I taught high school and for the last four years was part of the qajaq club, most of the time as the only immigrant. The majority of this guide was written in 2013, and updated until 2016, with corrections made again in 2020, so my insight into Greenlandic conditions is therefore not very great. But as long as I don’t say anything wrong, I will still write down my knowledge, so that new visiting Danes (or others) can learn from it, and that it thus benefits Greenland.
The best thing would be if far more experienced and native people would write such a “guide”, but either you are too polite for that (you do not express yourself on behalf of others) or you think it is unnecessary…. despite the fact that you don’t like Danes who play tricks on Greenlanders.
However, my students from 2010-13 have read and made corrections (in 2013, thank you very much), and I have incorporated most of these into the text. If you have any additions or changes, please feel free to write to me.
I have noticed that some authors of “real” books about Greenland have stolen passages or reinterpreted anecdotes from this cultural guide (which I’m pretty sure can only come from me, e.g. the one with the 3 Danes in the classroom who made more noise than my entire Greenlandic class that worked in groups), without citing it, and me. Please leave it at that, but quote me or write and ask for permission.
Mikkel – email@example.com
..all the important things besides what you can look up on the internet
Greenland has almost all modern conveniences, provided you are in the big cities. The selection is a little smaller and can fluctuate especially depending on whether the supply ships can arrive, in the smaller ones. Things cost almost the same (alcohol, however, much more, and as of 2020 has even been banned in some cities) – there is no VAT, but that saving is eaten up by transport costs or more. What you cannot buy here can be ordered from Denmark. It takes 3-7 days by plane or a month by ship, which is cheaper.
The temperature feels warmer than in Denmark – technically it is colder, but because the air is dry it feels warmer – so -10 degrees in Sisimiut feels like 0 degrees in Denmark. Kangerlussuaq [gangerslussuak] can easily be -30, and then you feel that you exist on nature’s terms. The same applies to transport – ferries and planes always operate sooner or later, usually on time, but if there is a snowstorm you might not get off until half or a full day or two later.
The internet is expensive but almost always works, regardless of the weather.
Here I interject on request that you don’t live in so-called igloos (and hardly know how to build them anymore) and don’t have penguins and polar bears as pets.
It is not always so easy to get to the doctor and dentist because of waiting lists, but it can easily be done – perhaps you get an appointment a week later and hope that you are still ill – or healthy. If it is urgent, you will of course be there immediately and will be happy to be flown to Nuuk or to Denmark if required. It all depends on many different circumstances, but basically, here is a fine – and completely free – healthcare system.
There is a big difference between the cities – Nuuk is very big and Danish, Sisimiut is more wild and natural because of the many sled dogs and the large hinterland where you can ride snowmobiles and practice skiing. Qaqortoq and the south coast are beautiful agriculture – mostly, but in a few places the nature is destroyed by mines. I’ve only seen (almost all the cities on the) west coast up to Ilulissat, but haven’t been to the north and east myself, so I can’t say anything about that, apart from what I’ve been told by people from there whom I’ve known.
You can read the rest yourself at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenland
Taking care of each other – except when not
In the supermarket, there is a culture of queuing if the counter is designed for it. But if there are two boxes open, people move to the one with the shortest queue regardless of whether others have waited longer. There is nothing to do but be very patient and not think about it., don’t grumble or complain – it will probably be seen as a breach of good behaviour.
Conversely, you don’t complain if the person in front takes a long time to finish, you just wait patiently.
Cars do not take cyclists into account – perhaps the explanation is that only in recent years have more cyclists arrived, perhaps because the car is logically more dangerous, so you think that it is the cyclists who must be careful not to be run over by the cars. Cars like to drive in front of cyclists and pedestrians on bends, but on the other hand neatly avoid people walking on the roads or they slow down where there are visible puddles if there are also pedestrians.
If you ask for help, you get it willingly – but you often have to ask for it yourself. One does not offer to help others in a direct way or offer good advice if not asked for. (unless they know that you are completely lost or want advice) It is seen as disempowering the other person – the idea behind it is that you cannot allow yourself to know what the other person needs or wants. And then you like to do things yourself, to be independent.
Unfortunately, this is also seen in connection with suicide or “mental health”, as someone would rather not tell others how sad they are or ask for help, but instead gets drunk senselessly and hangs himself early in the morning.
So before you do something new, ask a local if that person would do what you are about to do, for example go out in a boat in the given weather or build the dog sled the way you have done it.
If you offer help and get a no thanks (or silence, which in this situation can mean the same thing, or maybe that they don’t understand what you’re saying), you shouldn’t ask again or change your offer of help either. (as Danes will do: “Do you want a cup of coffee? Aaah, come on, just a small cup? Well, it’s still hot – are you sure?”) If the situation is more sociable, for example going hunting or to drink a beer, you can insist, just not too persistently.
Often, offers of help can be disguised as questions, and you have to be aware of that. Greenlanders can express themselves very discreetly, while Danes are used to big and direct announcements. Then the question “Is your jacket warm enough?” can therefore mean “Put on more clothes before going out if you don’t want to freeze TOO MUCH!”)
In addition to women having children of their own – perhaps with several men, as in Denmark – there are therefore sometimes also children that they did not give birth to, but who are treated in the same way. I have only read about it, but there is a term – “gift children” – that covers an adoption that people arrange among themselves. So the mother gives the child away to a family member to raise, or offers a family member to conceive and give birth to a child for them. (I have encountered one example of the latter)
I know that there are many who have foster families and are adopted – but they do not divide it so sharply (into half-sister or sister, for example) or treat it as a taboo. This is a way of helping each other when, for example, a young woman cannot take care of the child, or a couple has lost or cannot have more.
It may not be something that happens so often anymore, but it is an example of how Greenlanders can be very close, even if they don’t necessarily tell anyone. An important action/help that you just don’t flaunt.
I have experienced that you require a certain independence, you have to try yourself instead of asking all the time. I experienced it in crafts, where I was given one instruction and then it was up to me to try to do it myself. I’ve tried it in other situations where I wanted to cooperate, but was just ignored and left to find out for myself that my method was socially unacceptable. What you, as an immigrant, need to do is to be friendly, quietly persistent and present. NOT eager and ready for action and wild and bloody. As people get used to you, they begin to include you, which can happen before you know it, and in an unexpected way. But all in all, it requires humble patience on your part. (I write this based on my experiences as the only Dane in the qajaq club)
People are used to learning practical things with the family, but want to ask the Dane they are talking to if they are pronouncing the language correctly. However, I never correct people – I am far too polite – but I know from my own Greenlandic teaching that it is a great help that people want to learn Greenlandic from themselves, and moreover learn to pronounce Danish correctly themselves.
Although people are in many ways very inclusive, in some situations there can be a “fight of all against all” when it comes to certain resources. A group that has a sum of money may not be too happy to share with others, but conversely, uninvited guests to a coffee meeting will be very welcome. I’m not quite clear where the boundaries are, but among the great sense of community there is also an interesting hint of selfishness. An empty chair can also be “occupied” and not even friends are allowed to sit there, while on the other hand you happily share the food or spirits you have. Perhaps it comes from the old days when each prisoner had to secure his own share, although you also helped each other as a group for some catches and situations.
To laugh with or to laugh at, that is the question
People laugh a lot at things over which you have no influence. This also applies to small accidents or mistakes, for example when you slip on the ice or when Danes destroy the Greenlandic language in an attempt to learn it. It’s not to be condescending, you just think it’s great that someone cares to learn their language. Major accidents are of course taken very seriously and with immediate action.
As a newcomer to the country, you must quickly get used to being laughed at and to laughing with the others by yourself – it makes your life much easier and gives a less ugly impression of Danes in the country. It is of course a common humanly reasonable thing, but as a guest in this country it is really necessary, I think.
People don’t see laughing as teasing, you just enjoy what’s happening.
What is Greenlandic humor? First and foremost physical: you tell stories about physical feats that went wrong or scares or laugh at accidents. Parodies and “clowning” are a sure hit! I have never heard high-brow humor on an intellectual level mixed with a bit of sarcasm in Greenland, as in Denmark – while acting and physical comedy are sure winners. Next, you laugh at the unexpected or the reactions to it – you don’t put it up for others and laugh when they experience the accident, but if it happens, you laugh.
Humor based on sex – or rather taboo around sex – is not very common – at least something is not “naughty”, it is just funny. The British/Danish humor where people disagree and get into fights is not that popular here either – the mentality of not causing trouble is very deep in people.
I have experienced that a whole school class laughed at a reindeer that was shot and let out a deep roar, whereas I expect that a Danish class would feel extremely sorry for the animal. I have heard of an electric utility that bought a very expensive machine that an incompetent truck driver managed to completely destroy while the rest of the staff watched laughing as he repeatedly dropped it and drove into it, even though it meant the settlement was now without power for another 2 months. I have seen 3 Greenlandic teenage girls walking together and when one slips on the ice and lands on her ass, all 3 of them start laughing and the other two stand around waiting until she gets back on her feet.
To contrast with a Dane’s reaction, I can tell you that I saw a visiting Dane helplessly crawl around, and subsequently get stuck in, a snowdrift below our house. She was very annoyed that I looked at her laughing, even though she was neither in danger nor on any sensible errand – she had learned that the sissy couldn’t carry her but continued around in it anyway, to “save” some children who effortlessly jumped around on top of the snow because they weighed much less. Although I approached her to see if she still wanted my help, she overwhelmed me.
Conversely, no one laughs when a qajaqroer tips around, because you know how dangerous it can be. It is often tourists who go wrong, for example by letting small children go to the dogs (which are generally NOT pets and who are always more hungry!) or by going out on thin ice, but if Greenlanders see that someone is in danger, help comes. Of course, you don’t laugh at serious accidents or other people’s pain. And it is also extremely rare for people to swear over mistakes, accidents or lose their temper – for example, dropping something and then swearing and sulking. You can get angry about it, but you don’t get upset about it.
An interesting fact is that “tornaarsuk”, “toornaq” (spirit) [dornaarsuk] was inserted into the dictionary as a swear word by Hans Egede (who Christianized Greenland) because he saw it as invoking evil spirits, while it is actually said to invoke good ones spirits to protect oneself or a loved one. Many Greenlanders actually don’t know this either.
People can get very emotional, and because you are not that way on a daily basis, it surprises some.
You do not “interfere” in the feelings of a touched person, i.e. offer advice or a comforting touch, you usually let the person talk or cry, and let the silence do its thing. And most often it is the most dignified way.
I’ve been to coffee parties where a guest talked about how grateful he was for coming to the house for many years, and while he was talking, he became more and more touched – to the point of tears. While he was telling, all those present (10-12) became completely quiet and just listened. By the end, he was about to cry, and instead began to sing the birthday song, which is traditionally sung very quietly. The rest of us started too, and the whole room took on a very dignified aura. When we finished singing, we sat for a while in silence.
On another occasion, a girl got a call from home that a family member in Denmark had died, and she collapsed in a heartbreaking scream. I tried to hold her but of course she was too upset and luckily another woman came and took the girl outside. The others present were completely silent, apart from the girl’s friend who also started to cry. After the girl had gone home to some family in town and we had all calmed down a bit, it was very quiet for a very long time. We were sad for someone we knew and loved, and we all know either being far away from someone we love, or having lost family members or friends. It is a condition in Greenland.
Victories are celebrated at full blast. Winners of qajaq and dog sled competitions are sometimes lifted up by friends and carried around – sitting in the qajaq/on the dog sled. You are proud of your victories and are supported by friends and others present, who immediately after the victory come over to shake hands as congratulations. In fact, a handshake is the right approach in many situations: if you meet someone who has done or received something good – or has a birthday – congratulate them with a handshake and say “pilluarit” [bichluarit] (congratulations).
A victory – even for one’s political party or sports team – is celebrated with both arms in the air. The Danish approach with restraint and the neglect of one’s own efforts is not understood. The author and nurse Kim Leine, who has lived in Greenland for a total of 15 years, was surprised when he entered the door of his publisher and was told that he had won an important literary prize. He first looked around in confusion, then raised both arms straight up in the air in triumph! For the Danes present, it probably looked a bit strange or childish, but for a Greenlander it is the only correct reaction to that situation, and makes complete sense. This joy in winning is contrasted by the humility of one’s own effort or ability. Sports competitions are perhaps more about being together and celebrating the sport,
And therefore, conversely, you try not to win at the expense of others, and you are just as happy with the achievements of your competitors as with your own. This is also seen in many groups, where one does not emphasize oneself over others, but often formulates one’s starting point as “we”. Don’t say “You’re doing it wrong”, but rather “Maybe there are some things that can be done differently.”
The deep reasons for this are several: people knew that hunting was based on luck, and one day up, the next down, needing the help of other people. And in these small communities, everyone knows each other and depends on each other every day and in all situations. Even IF people don’t like each other, they simply avoid contact.
For the Greenland championships in qajaq 2012, I participated myself, as the only Dane/qallunaq, this year. I had built a qajaq – with a lot of help of course – and entered the competitions after only 5 hours of training sitting in one. My club mates did not want to hear about the fact that I could not go to the competitions or just go along without participating: “You learn to row during the competition itself!” After almost every competition there was a medal presentation and people were called by name and walked or ran to the podium to get a medal around their neck. The audience clapped and cheered enthusiastically when people were mentioned and especially when people with the medal around their necks raised both arms triumphantly in the air. Being the shy man that I am, I chose to bow instead, which people could not understand at all – they persistently tried to persuade me to triumph, and when I did that at the last presentation, people clapped extra loudly. Back on the square, or after the ceremony, you politely shake hands with each other, regardless of age. Helpers, canteen staff, judges and others who have helped with the project also receive applause and cheers.
One also does not discuss feelings in public, but only to close friends. Danes may find it difficult to understand the restraint, because Danes put words to everything. “Can you elaborate on that feeling??”, “What are you thinking?”, and so on. Greenlanders are not so quick to find out what they feel and think – they simply give themselves more time for that sort of thing. And in addition, the language also comes into play if you talk to a Dane: perhaps they don’t feel that they can properly express themselves in Danish, and so they choose to be silent or shrug their shoulders.
Conversely, you tell exactly what happened: if you ask how a person is doing, you may well be told that the girlfriend has beaten her or that she is homesick – or a man tells you that he has beaten his girlfriend or that his brother once committed suicide. On the other hand, they cannot elaborate on it – perhaps because they do not feel that there is a need for this. The best thing you can do is just listen – possibly ask simple questions that get the other person to tell more. I have often experienced that people, when they meet me for the first time, say things that (to a Dane) seem private. But it must be perceived as sympathy or trust on their part.
There is a new trend in the country, that of sitting in a circle and talking about your feelings and impressions on a subject – if you feel like saying something. I have experienced that people have said things that they have not told others about themselves before, and I think it works very positively to take the pressure off a group or situation. It is not about expressing one’s opinion and then debating it – only that each person has the opportunity to express themselves.
On the great psychologist..
An important Greenlander, Jens Simonsen, once said that Greenland is a small country and Denmark is a big country – although the perception in both countries is the opposite. He had discovered this at a very young age when he came to Denmark for education. He had to travel by train to get to his school, and on the very long train journey new towns, farms, houses, cars, factories and everything else appeared all the time. In Narsaq, where he had lived all his life, you only have to go out of the city and into the valley, and it is as if you are completely alone in the world.
I have experienced this myself, during a course in Denmark while I have lived in Greenland. Even a relatively – in the Danish context – short drive brings one through seemingly endless roads of ever-changing landscapes. You can drive and drive and drive on the roads, and there is so much to see that it is quite overwhelming.
In Greenland, you move in the mountains (of necessity) at a slower pace, and there are “just” mountains, snow/grass and sea. Simpler.
Nature shapes man, and Greenland’s landscape has certainly shaped its people. Greenland is a tiny captive society, so they are flexible and prone to improvisation, and they are open, accepting and exploiting all available forces. Conversely, Denmark is a (relatively) large farming society that requires long-term planning and provides a rigid social structure with rules. The Greenlander appreciates freedom, wants to be able to see the world and feels trapped in a big city. The Dane appreciates frameworks and rules, does not want others to look into his world and feel lost out in the open countryside.
Both countries have advantages and disadvantages, but they basically stem from the appearance/nature of the country.
Many Greenlanders living in Denmark have a kind of longing to return to Greenland – at least a deep love or sensitivity – and no one who visits the country can leave feeling a deep impression after being alone in the mountains. Stand still and you can literally hear the blood rushing through your own veins. The literature and songs are full of nature and love for the country, except for a period in the 1970s aimed at the Danes and in the 90/00s aimed at failing parents, and perhaps the Greenlanders can generally be said to be a romantic people, for nature and being self-sufficiency (at least partially) is an important part of people’s consciousness.
The weather and not the clock has determined the rhythms, and that is still in people. Distance is measured in time rather than in kilometers: how far is it to the next town? 2 hours – by boat, of course. There are not very many people who have dog sleds and almost no rudder in a qajaq – although quite a few have done it over time. Quite a few have been reindeer hunting – that is, 2-4 days of hiking in the mountains, far away from people – and many have been fishing or seal hunting with a dinghy, and it is not unusual, as a small child, to shoot your first seal . Many people own a dinghy and some have snowmobiles – they use them for family outings. Charley Kinney says that “there are many cars and they are called boats!” – a natural reaction from an American – unless you fly, people like to take both 4, 6 or 8 hour sailings to the nearby towns or out into the mountains for excursions or catches, although 12-14 hour journeys are not uncommon. Longer trips are by ferry, which costs half as much as flying, but is a more magnificent experience.
The cities are far apart, and since there are no roads between them, you travel by boat and plane. The cities are very different from each other, in every way. But in recent years, people have traveled a lot between them, and you have family and old friends in many different cities. In fact, Greenland is a country of rootless people, there are very few people who have their whole family in the same city they live in, and there are also the Danes who have traveled there. The root then consists in the country itself, the culture, nature. In the past, you had to travel to where the game was, and family members died of disease or at sea. In Sisimiut during 1910-20, approximately one capsized at sea every six months.
Today, people travel for education or to help their family where they are, or to live with someone else in their city. So deprivation is treated relatively logically, without the big outbursts of emotion, even if it is deeply felt – it has been both a historical and a modern necessity. But people have a great fondness for their home town, and visitors from that town will be received lavishly, and you will talk about who you know from there, and other local news. Often, visitors to another city will have been told to bring packages or objects or greetings to someone who lives in the other city – even if he himself does not know them.
In many people’s minds, Greenland is synonymous with polar bears, but very few have seen or shot one. When that happens – because they stray too close to the towns and are therefore a danger to people – the skin goes to the one who sees it first (even children!), and the rest to the one who shoots it. Then everyone gathers together – possibly informed via mobile phone chains – to see it being dismantled. Often the meat is examined for trichinosis and distributed to schools or nursing homes, with the rest taken by the state. It is not legal to shoot them out in the mountains, so if it is still done as a form of hunting, you will be fined and the body and skin confiscated.
Today, bears are more likely to come close to cities because they are hungry, and then there is a race between people who want to see them up close – unless the polar bears are INSIDE the city, then it is a race to get in in husense and away from them! It happens every few years in West Greenland, and in the East they take a rifle with them every single time they go into the mountains. I’m not sure what it’s like in the north.
But most Greenlanders have seen polar bears in the same place as Danes have seen moose or wolves: in the newspaper.
If you google “Sermitsiaq” and “polar bear”, you can find quite a few stories and pictures.
A hunting tag costs DKK 100, is issued to anyone who asks for it, and having a rifle is as normal in Greenland as having a Weber grill in Denmark. There are almost never murders (the statisticians disagree, however – but in absolute numbers…) – and even less often with guns – and if they are stolen during burglaries, it is only to be sold on. Rifles are simply seen as a tool, nothing else (well, also suicide) – and can therefore also be bought in outdoor equipment shops and the port kiosks.
Treatment of game animals is rooted in religion, I think. Of course, everything is now regulated by quotas and hunting periods that vary throughout the year, but no one thinks about breeding reindeer and musk deer in enclosures.
In the old days it was said that the animals had an “inua” – since “inuk” means (human), the animals have a soul just like us. When animals are equal to humans, they are treated with respect – the way you think animals will be treated. In the old days there were rituals around the catch (very few of them are still seen from time to time), today the perception is that you only catch what you need to use or can sell and that you use or give away what you catch. There have been a few cases of dead seals found without their skins, and caribou carcasses from which only the clubs (the fleshy hind legs) had been taken – and people are always outraged by the way good meat is wasted. And the practice of European tourists catching fish and then putting them back out is directly considered animal cruelty.
Greenlanders have no understanding of the EU’s ban on the sale of sealskins, when the seal populations are so large that they threaten certain fish species, and all Greenlandic seals are caught in the wild as adults, by local trappers in small boats. The EU finally agreed to allow Greenland seal skin, but perhaps the damage is done. The fact that the Great Greenland company, which processes and resells skins and finished products, seems to have been run less fortunately and as of January 16 has changed directors, does not help. They have sent mixed signals – both that skins are piling up in the warehouse and being thrown away AND that prices for small sewing rooms and other businesses have apparently increased 125% in 3 years and supply is unstable. They are focused on luxury products, and therefore neglects cheap goods – even ordinary skins cannot be bought at all in their webshop – which thus excludes a wider appeal. (including in Greenland) It destroys the economic basis for a good economic export opportunity, which is also an important, almost vital, cultural function. And seal mind is beautiful!
There aren’t that many trappers left – only people who trap in their spare time. It is also only people with jobs who can afford good dinghies, so it is difficult to be a full-time fisherman, or a big fisherman. And no one fishes from a kayak anymore.
Inland, it is only allowed to hunt from dog sleds or on foot – this is both to keep the tradition alive but also because snowmobiles are so efficient that the animal population would be eradicated too quickly.
Catching/hunting is VERY important to people – independence is important to Greenlanders, including being able to catch one’s own food, provide for one’s family. It is far from everyone who does it on a daily basis, but most have been hunting or fishing in their lives. Going hunting/trapping is therefore not just about providing food or getting “in tune with nature” – it is about feeling connected to the land in the deepest sense – as a Greenlander, as a human being.
“The mountain” means the same to a Greenlander as “freedom” to an American or “freedom of expression” to a Dane: it is deeply rooted and its importance cannot be exaggerated at all.
They call it “the great psychologist” for a reason.
There is a lot of waste around the cities, but also in the nearby nature. Some of it is because it blows around in the storms, some of it is apparently because people just don’t really care about garbage. At least that is my impression, although others have told me that it is different from city to city. I think people’s practical approach is coming into play again.
An understanding is dawning in these years that we must take care of our surroundings, but it is not yet that big in day-to-day life. On the other hand, the discussion about large-scale industry is heated – it is clear that, for example, the planned aluminum plant at Maniitsoq can destroy large areas.
Apart from the fact that the water around the towns should not be fished in, the nature is completely clean – there is rarely a need to take large quantities of water out into the mountains, because there are many springs and rivers to drink from – and it tastes fantastic.
To be together is to live.
Kaffemik is a relatively official gathering, for an occasion. Well, Greenlanders most often say “kaffisortitsineq” to each other, but not always. Danes always say kaffemik because they don’t mind the trouble of learning the language, so it’s become standard now. The word kaffemik means “by the coffee” or “the place with coffee”, understood as “want coffee”. Never add the suffix “-mik” to a woman’s name just because it sounds funny – unless she already wants you. To be able to understand it more directly, it is like an “open house” as it is called in Denmark – without a set time and where everyone can come without an invitation. However, it is seen, especially in large cities, that the host goes around a few days in advance with a small written invitation, which she/he hands out to the more distant friends and colleagues he meets, or perhaps send an email invitation or even post on Facebook at extremely short notice. But if you come along as an uninvited guest, you will still be warmly welcomed. Remember to take a small gift with you – which I often forget. Don’t do like me.
Kaffemik is possibly a kind of continuation of the older culture – when a hunter comes home with plenty of catch, the whole settlement is invited to dinner. Today is a celebration of children’s first day of school, of birthdays and christenings and weddings and the like. The event itself is kept private by the family, but everyone they know is invited to coffee afterwards.
Maybe you get the invitation a few days in advance, maybe the same day. The more official, the longer the notice – but rarely more than a few days. If someone you know is going away, it’s okay to go along – just remember a small gift. Feel free to wear nice clothes (officially “nice clothes” is a white anorak and black trousers, but a shirt and cowboy trousers are perfectly fine – other kinds of nice clothes are of course also fine), but if you don’t have nice clothes, there is no who criticizes you for it.
You take off your shoes in the passage, almost always. Many Greenlandic houses have 2 entrances for that reason, first a room to put the shoes and outerwear in, and then a “real” entrance. In private houses and certain institutions, you always take off your shoes in the hallway before entering. Just be aware when you walk in the door yourself – if there are shoes on the floor, you must also put yours on.
Even though people wear shoes inside, for example in large schools and shops, there is never slush. People brush off even the worst snow, and floors are washed several times a day.
Once inside, you are welcomed by the host with a “takanna” which probably means “enjoy eating, here is the food” You hand over the gift – perhaps you put it on the gift table – and greet the host AND their parents and grandparents nicely and say “pilluarit”. [bishluarit] (congratulations)
Please note that gifts are not unwrapped while you are looking at them – this could create embarrassing situations. In this, and many other ways, Greenland is reminiscent of Japan, perhaps other Asian countries.
Perhaps you will be introduced to the different dishes on the table. Typically there are…
A roast – reindeer or musk according to the season, Greenlandic lamb and beef
Fish – trout, salmon, cod, halibut, marinated or salted or smoked
arrowhead shrimp, maybe crab claws
Mattak [madæk] – there is raw or lightly cooked whale skin.
Whale or seal meat, boiled or fried
Suaasat, soup with rice and whale or seal meat
Cakes – a LOT of cakes.
Maybe there’s alcohol, but you’re not supposed to get drunk.
Everything is on a take-your-own basis, and you move around and eat as you wish. Sometimes small appetizers are served, but this varies from place to place. In the meantime, children run around and play, and it probably corresponds somewhat to the “second half” of a Danish party.
You might sit for an hour or two – the more people there are, the shorter you will be. It is said that Danes sit for many hours, but as long as there is space, I think it is all right. At least I do – it’s fun to see who comes by during the day, and you meet so many people that way.
Sometimes there are members of the choir visiting, and then of course there is choral singing – often the special, quiet, drawn-out, two-part form of Greenlandic hymns. Maybe there are speeches, but that is the exception – speeches are mostly held in the evening at large events.
If a lot of people come, then it is most polite for the person who has been there the longest to leave the place – and maybe there are more coffee shops to go to. And maybe you meet some of the same people there too. But otherwise, one’s visit to Kaffemik can last from half to three hours, depending on who is visiting: whether it is family and friends or neighbors and more distant acquaintances. And of course with the event – whether it’s a confirmation or a normal birthday – and with your own plan for the day: are you going for several coffees or going sailing, or do you have the weekend off.
Some people, without so much money, may well have a tight budget after a big coffee break, because some are very keen on preserving tradition. Perhaps especially single people. There IS status in having a good coffee shop – I’ve heard Greenlanders comment that Danes’ coffee shops never have a sufficiently large selection of cakes! (and it’s true ;-P)
Parties can be anything from 3-15 people who have been invited in advance (or invited on a “hello-look-past-basis”) who gather at home on the sofa. Then you bring your own alcohol, and the host provides chips and sweets. And after the first item or 3, there is practically a free bar – so it’s like in Denmark.
But parties can be both noisy and quiet – some young people let the system run at full blast, while others (also sometimes young) sit together around one or two guitars and sing. Then the whole table sits and sings Greenlandic classics – and it can also happen in a bar, in an airport (or an airport bar, of course) or in another semi-official place, and strangers come and participate. Many can play the guitar and everyone can sing some songs – certainly when they are drunk. It can also be that you tell stories about someone you know, then the rest of the table sits and listens.
If you are new to the party, people may not talk to you for a long time. But just be nice and friendly and people will start asking you about who you are or telling you things of their own accord. Especially if you are relatively quiet and listen, people tell a lot.
Danes also hold “kaffemik”, but the selection is not that big (which Greenlanders also notice), and you can’t bear to participate for as long. In general, a party with Danes up here is a noisy affair – people talk (loudly) at each other, and there are always many conversations going on.
In discotheques and pubs there is of course also loud music – although the genre differs from place to place. The discotheques play dance, while pubs can easily have Greenlandic-language live music, which is always a hit. The older people dance to anything that has a swing beat, and in general, people are happiest with songs with rhythms and tempo – you’re in town to have fun, after all. If there is live music, a guest (known to the orchestra) often comes up and sings a number.
Because it is a small community, everyone knows each other – at least the superficial information. You can go into town most evenings and meet someone you know, if only by appearance. On the other hand, you can’t talk because the music is so loud – so “eyebrow” is practical. Then people run around in a multitude of mixtures between winter outerwear and the best party clothes. Someone literally drinks themselves on the floor, while others sulk on a sofa, and others again – both young and old – ton around the dance floor in full joy of life.
In general, people are very extreme: when they party, they party through. Going home at 3 o’clock when the pubs close is not so normal, you go to the after-party instead. From there it is different when you go home: some go home at 5 or 7, others continue the whole next day.
It is very important to be together. You prefer not to leave a company or a party – and those who do are looked at with hidden concern or wonder.
Especially in the big cities, you can buy everything you need. In the small ones, the selection is a little smaller and in most cities you can find that you run out of certain goods before the supply ship comes again. Usually it’s no problem, though.
Everything from the sea and the mountains can of course be obtained for cheap, depending on the season. If you don’t know anyone, the towns have the “board”, or a small shop where the prisoners sell their catch – and everything has lived a good life, is local and organic. I have even sent packages of 15kg of fish back to the family in Denmark, they were very impressed as fish costs twice as much there – but my Greenlandic students think that Greenlandic food is very expensive and that the prices are rising. The best is of course if you know someone who (or you yourself) catches and fishes. (See the section on nature, below)
However, you can only get prawns and crabs through someone who works on the trawlers or Royal Greenland’s products in the supermarkets – very unappealing because Royal Greenland forbids the prisoners to sell such things, as if the country’s 55,000 inhabitants would erode the giant’s profits…. So you get prawns by paying NOK 150-250 for 5 kg of lightly cooked frozen prawns to one of the sailors who have gone ashore from the trawlers – they get two boxes each as part of the hire. Or, of course, by paying double the price at the supermarket. Either way, eat them semi-frozen – they’re best.
In general, you eat here without cooking it too much – I have never been served boiled cod or fried plaice here, and it was only here in Greenland that it dawned on me that the Danes are completely wrong about it. Fish is marinated or salted or dried (dried fish hangs outside many windows on drying racks – eaten as a snack), or things are served raw, such as mattak [cooking eggs] and prawns/crabs. Smoked fish and reindeer slowly emerge and taste fantastic. Reindeer, musk and lamb are served as a large roast. Putting quail in drinking water is also widely used and tastes great. Food is usually simple and practical.
You naturally eat a lot of Danish-inspired food, such as creamed potatoes or roast potatoes, but prepared Greenlandic specialties can be cod liver mixed with blackberries, seagull eggs and, of course, the many cakes. Oh heavens, the many cakes!
When you visit, you will hear stories of people eating rotten alk stored inside seal carcasses (“kiviaq”), or seaweed, clams and ducks. I have met a woman who came to Copenhagen as a child and could not understand that you just let the ducks alone in the lakes, in the middle of Copenhagen – you certainly didn’t do that at home.
Everything is true – but it is no longer eaten. I do not know why.
Hate and love forever and ever
A Greenlander knows everything about Denmark, but a Dane knows nothing about Greenland.
..and a Greenlander can say whatever she wants about Greenland – and Denmark – but a Dane cannot say anything critical about Greenland / Greenlanders. People are hypersensitive to criticism, both because of the Danes’ ignorance and prejudice, but perhaps also because they have not “mentally decolonized” themselves – read the end of this section.
You hate and love Denmark at the same time – just like in an unhealthy marriage, from which neither party can come together to divorce. I meet many elderly people (50 years and over) who talk familiarly about Danish cities that I have never been to, from when they were foster children or on education in Denmark. Or when I’m in town, I meet drunk people there, a little curious and a little hostile, asking who I am and maybe saying nasty things in Greenlandic. But who, when I answer the bit of Greenlandic I speak myself, dissolves the hostility and instead starts to tell about Danish ex-husbands who were some pigs or about when they studied in Denmark or the like. And everyone has family and friends who live in Denmark. They all have love for, and hurt and sorrow from, Denmark.
DR has used the term “southern Danes”, implying that Greenlanders are “northern Danes” – and it can only be a blue-eyed (in the sense of stupid and idealistic) Danish humanities professor who invented that term.
A Greenlander thinks and behaves, expresses himself, feels, impressions and expresses himself, very differently and differently from a Dane. In really many ways.
Those up here who originate from Denmark are not allowed to call themselves Greenlanders. People up here are very protective of their identity, and it is fashionable these years to speak Greenlandic (but less than in 2010, and now also more inclined towards public bilingualism), to call themselves Inuit (which, funnily enough, means (people) in general) , and there is more respect for someone who sails a qajaq (not that plastic hall eye) than someone who plays handball – even though there are by far the most handball players.
Over the centuries, Danes from outside have told Greenlanders that the old ways of being and world view were not good enough, they have introduced a lot of low technology that replaced the Greenlandic one, and a lot of high technology that you had to get used to using. Underlying the whole thing is an idea that “the Greenlandic methods” are not preferable.
In Denmark, development has rarely come from the country itself, but through ideas from outside – but it is harder to point fingers at someone. In Denmark, too, the small farmers and fishermen no longer exist, and in Denmark, too, people have had to learn information technology and foreign languages to be able to do well. But in Greenland it has only been the Danes who have been the “gateway to the world” – at least it has been easier to point out the Danes because they have been easier to see – so Greenlanders today have an image that the Danes have pushed development down over their heads, without perhaps being ready for it.
And in many cases Danes have been the ones who have visibly introduced these changes – as visiting craftsmen and teachers – and when they have done so, it has been without understanding the Greenlanders’ culture. In the past, visiting Danish craftsmen even received a much higher salary than Greenlanders with the same work – sensible but unfair. Someone had to be attracted who could build the many homes and other infrastructure, but for Greenlanders it was, of course, evil and imperialism itself. And another brick in the wall called “inferior”, which I think is inside many Greenlanders, perhaps unconsciously. In the words of Aviaaja Egede Lynge, there is a lack of “psychic decolonization” in society.
Danish is the language of the elite (the best educated and some headhunted people come directly from Denmark), and you prefer to speak it – understood in the sense that you want to show a Dane that you speak Danish. If a Dane tries to speak Greenlandic, he is relatively often answered in Danish – perhaps because there is status in being able to speak Danish, but perhaps because you know that Danes do not understand what you say in Greenlandic anyway, that their Greenlandic is very limited. (but how do Danes learn Greenlandic?)
I have experienced that among my high school students there is a bit of hetz AMONG Greenlanders from those who do not speak/spell Danish properly – but I am not sure how widespread it is. It must also be said here that some of my students correct me when I speak or ask them to teach me Greenlandic: “Speak Danish, Mikkel! We have Danish now!” (…because I am their Danish teacher) But it could be that they just want to learn, without there being anything elitist about it, because they like that I want to learn their language.
An example of the relationship between Denmark and Greenland can be the “Experiment”: Save the Children proposed that a group of children from poor homes – but with above-average intelligence – were selected to be in Denmark for one year, and then have to return home as future leaders of Greenlandic society. The plan was submitted to the Greenlandic Landsting, which after a thorough debate voted 22 in favor and 4 against. In 1951, 22 children from all over the country were sent to South Zealand in Denmark. After a year and a half with a foster family and in a Danish school, they came home to Greenland, but to an orphanage – not with their family. Here they were not allowed to speak Greenlandic, at school they stuck to the Danes because they were teased by the Greenlandic students, they were refused to go home to their biological family and in general they were in every way “stuck” in having to stay in Danish.
Only 3 live in Greenland today, half never got to speak Greenlandic again and not a single one of them has held leading positions, as was the intention. On the other hand, 7 are no longer alive – and the rest are relatively bitter…
When a film was made about the whole thing, it became a colossal audience success in Greenland – in Denmark almost no one bothered to watch it.
So: Greenland has been influenced by Denmark’s ill-advised desire to help, Greenlandic leaders have looked up to Denmark and therefore willingly participated. The common people have done as they were told, but have ended up feeling inferior and bitter. In the 20s, Greenlandic catechists spread Christianity, in the 60s the Greenlandic politicians accepted the implementation of industry and the welfare state that only Danish workers could deliver, and today Greenlandic politicians set Danish standards for the Greenlandic population, which (almost) only Danish academics can deliver.
The last 30 years were hoped to be a transformation to full equality, full independence – but the reality is different: Greenlandic politicians and leading figures – Danish civil servants, advisers and public servants with specialist knowledge such as nurses and high school teachers. In practice, the Danes are therefore very visible in everyday life.
Because you are closely connected to Denmark, you also choose to be assessed on Danish terms, and you cannot live up to that. It is completely understandable – for example, in Greenland you only have 20 years of experience with widespread high school compared to the Danes’ 100 years (or at least 60 years) and many students are the first generation to GO to high school at all – but it is a minor defeat. An example is that the self-government / government has decided that my students must be taught Danish A – in line with Danish students in Denmark, even though these Greenlandic students have Danish as a foreign language and some of them do not speak it particularly well. Perhaps they would benefit from, or have a successful experience with, the subject Danish at B level? And the poor grades are awarded by imported Danish teachers, often with very little understanding of Greenlandic society and the students’ challenges.
If you as a person want to counteract this on a daily basis, learn some Greenlandic – that’s the key.
There are also some who dream of practical independence from Denmark, but you will probably never be able to have a welfare state on the Danish level when there are only 55,000 people – and certainly not when only 15,000 live in the largest city, 5,500 in the second largest, and so on. It will require that all people contribute something concrete – and that is not the case… not even in Denmark, but there the pool of available people is simply much larger.
One can assume that it creates a feeling of having sold one’s soul.
As I myself said to my students: “If you think that the Danes take all the good jobs, then you just have to follow the lessons and complete your education – then the Danes have no reason to come. It’s not ME who has to stand here and teach – it’s one of YOU!”
Conversely, there are very few internships or dormitory places in the country – so many travel to Denmark instead. Unfortunately.
In these years, you are realizing that you will never get rid of the Danes – the upheaval of the 70s and 80s was mostly about politics and economics and the 00s mostly about language – and are instead in the process of recreating their identity, and the pride by it. “He who loses faith in his own abilities is happy to be dominated by others. ” – a strong paraphrase of Robert Petersen, via Aviaaja Egede Lynge in “The best colony in the world”. Here she continues to write that “..the whole point of becoming independent (is not) to become as good as the Danes, economically or materially.” (…) “The time has come for us to tell our own story and define our own feelings and our view of how we have been affected by 250 years of colonialism – if we intend to become mentally independent.” This is what she calls a “psychic decolonization”.
And as a comment to this one can ask why this – in my opinion wise – statement has now been copied into ANOTHER text written BY a Dane ABOUT Greenlanders. But then again, Greenlanders are welcome to do it, so the Danes don’t have to. If you don’t tell about yourself, at some point a stranger will come and do it. And you might not like that story.
Eyebrowing and silence
You don’t talk that much here – and not at all in each other’s mouths. It’s not because you’re always quiet (Greenlanders can chatter a lot when the mood is up to it), but most often it’s only one person at a time who speaks while the rest listen, and you usually speak quite quietly. 20 Greenlanders of all ages can make as much noise as 3 Danes. I also think it is about respect for the speaker, but in reality it is because in Greenlandic you have to hear the whole sentence clearly in order to understand the meaning – in Danish you can understand what is being said quite quickly. So Danes (and others from the west) often interrupt and speak loudly, Greenlanders do not.
When stories are told “around the table”, it is often done with gestures and great facial expressions – many people are fantastic storytellers – but in everyday life you don’t use gestures. Maybe because you’re used to having your hands in your pockets in the cold weather or don’t have that much of a temper? It is said that especially old Greenlanders did not talk much but instead told (tell?) stories with gestures and body movements.
The first thing you learn, as someone new to the country, is to “raise your eyebrows” as I have dubbed it – raising your eyebrows can mean a multitude of things: “thank you”, “okay”, “yes”, “I accept”, “I understand”, “hello”, “welcome”, “you don’t have to worry”, “you have my attention”, “I’m listening” or “I’m not mad”. Actually the same as the sideways nod in India. Over time, you learn to see the movement of others, however brief and discreet it may be. People who have just arrived in the country can be seen walking around trying to make their eyes fall out.
The other movement is to wrinkle the nose, but it is seen much less often – it means “I don’t understand”, “which one?”, “no I don’t think so””. When you are asked, you can answer quite a few things without saying anything in words – it is very practical.
This mimicry is connected with the Greenlanders’ sparing of words, I think. Likewise, you can easily experience being greeted with silence – this may mean that you do not know what to answer, that you are not understood or that you simply have nothing to add. Likewise, you can sit or stand next to each other or be at a party without talking to each other the whole time. But the silence is one of the most difficult things for a new arrival because Danes are used to putting everything into words and elaborating on the simplest things, and conversation is a sign of interest and friendship – on the other hand, the silence is something that the rest of the world could learn from a lot of. The silence gives room for reflection.
When speaking, do not use sarcasm. People are good at irony, my favorite joke is a friend who said he wanted to help me find a girlfriend for me – and he wanted to try them first to see if they were good enough for me.
Often people clearly emphasize that “..it’s just fun” when they’ve made fun of you or been ironic. The term “nagu” or a long drawn out “Saaa” is used in Sisimiut, which is short for (Sallu) [sæeschlu] which means “It doesn’t fit”, “lie!”
So they are good at using and understanding irony, but the clearer, the better – language barriers have an impact here. Sarcasm, the malicious form of irony, is not used and only creates confusion – so avoid it.
Often people are very honest – especially when people are drunk, but certainly also when sober. Be prepared for a simple “how are you?” can give you answers that you didn’t expect or perhaps wouldn’t have told yourself. On the other hand, it is not expected that you can solve the problems or help the other person. Just be compassionate, that’s all.
You also don’t spend time “condemning”, i.e. thinking about whether you are doing well enough or whether you can do better. Nor are you “interpersonally paranoid” – that is, you spend time thinking about what others think of you. In fact, you don’t try to guess what others are thinking at all, because you feel that you cannot allow yourself to do that. I myself have spent time guessing/thinking about other people’s possible reaction to me or motivation, and have experienced visiting Danes who were to a greater extent, in a defensive position against curious questions such as “How are you?” (yes, I know – it’s extreme!) All in all, Greenland and its people are a wonderful opportunity to teach yourself to be immediate and live in the moment.
Note that this does NOT mean that people are walking around, free of worries – but they are only thinking about their own situation – not how others see them.
People are characterized by a great respect for others in everyday life. You can even call it a “conflict shyness” as the Danes see it. People don’t publicly criticize each other, and if someone thinks you’re an idiot, you may never find out. Unless, of course, they suddenly send a complaint about you to your boss, and get you moved or fired – that’s the Greenlandic way: suddenly and indirectly.
The old legends and history books tell many stories about how, traditionally, the hated or threatening party was lured out into the mountains, hunting or hiking, and then the other parties returned home without the person concerned, and without a word. But everyone knew….
If you disagree, you keep quiet instead. Perhaps you ask a counter question or a suggestion, but if you still disagree with the other person, you say no more. There is simply no reason for it.
It must of course be said that there are deviations, some people are more direct than others.
I myself, as a visiting and personally very open-mouthed Dane, have unconsciously acquired this shyness of conflict. I will not criticize a person who “loses me” in a conversation, but rather nod politely with a minimum of commitment. Afterwards I will then make my own choices. Why? Because I will probably meet this person again, need this person’s help or he will meet people who know me. If I want to protect my reputation or have the same future opportunities, I cannot allow myself to create enmity.
So a rule of thumb for you in a conversation might be that if communication stops and only goes one way, then you probably shouldn’t think that it’s because you’ve convinced the other person. In any case, notice the body language and whether the “eyebrow” becomes appreciative.
In my time here (from the summer of 2010 to the summer of 2016) I have only experienced about 12 unpleasant people – but 8 of them have been Danes (or were born in Denmark), despite only 10% of the population being Danes. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but it’s thought provoking.
On top of that, there are people who have done nasty things to others but behaved politely towards me. Over the years you learn things about each other in such a small community – and the solution is to keep a polite distance.
On the Internet, people can be extremely critical or downright rude to each other – that characteristic occurs in everyone who sits behind a screen, and also “infects” Greenlanders. At meetings, you can hear people who clearly express their opinion, such as “I don’t think so – I think you should rather…” or “You can’t do that.” But usually it is formulated more passively, without actively mentioning specific people: “Perhaps you could also try to…” – this indirectness is important to learn when you come as a newcomer.
But in everyday life, people are always polite, don’t interrupt, speak softly, and so on. In gatherings, regardless of whether they are parties or professional meetings, there is always silence when someone speaks – children and adults. Therefore, groups of Greenlanders can even be very quiet, which you quickly learn to appreciate.
Danes typically speak much louder – especially if they have just moved here or are tourists – and like to talk to each other. Especially the children. In the lessons we have had guests from Denmark, and the 3 of them spoke louder than my 25 students during group work. For Kaffemik, it is a distinctive experience to be able to go from a “Danish” with 10 participants to a “Greenlandic” with 30 participants, and feel the first as a noisy experience and the last as a pleasant one. Of course, this also happens because you divide yourself to a certain extent, stick to “your own”. There is a division in society, as there is in all other societies: privately, Greenlanders see most often other Greenlanders, and Danes equally.
Many nurses are from Denmark, and are only here for half a year or a whole year. Until quite recently, it was normal to be sent here only for three months – an economic and cultural disaster, in my eyes. (and a necessity, as people for strange reasons don’t want to live here for just a few years, and therefore have to be moved here at high cost for as little as 3 months at a time – people are insane) I’ve even met a Dane carpet fitter who for 3 months traveled up the coast and laid carpets in a number of houses. Strange that a Greenlander should not be able to handle that job.
I had a friend who was very ill for a period of time, and I therefore saw with my own eyes how falck doctors with infinite patience and gentle touches – contrary to my own frustration at the moment – waited until the patient was conscious before slowly entering into a dialogue with the patient and each other and only after a long conversation, almost reluctantly, took her to the hospital. It was all out of respect for the patient, and not an expression of incompetence or bewilderment.
She later told that in Denmark, the same disease had resulted in slaps, knuckles in the chest and harsh words from falck dressers.
At the city’s hospital, she was treated by Greenlandic nurses and called Danish ditto. The former woke her up and spoke to her gently and patiently, while the latter were more “professionally oriented”.
A Danish nurse, who at the time of writing has been here for almost a year, calls it that people here are not results-oriented, but rather people-oriented. That is a very good description of life here.
It must also be said that with these words I have NOT described the healthcare system – because there are divided opinions about that. I have only mentioned a way of dealing with the patients.
People often look each other in the eye – at least I have observed that people here often look me in the eye. I don’t know if it’s another form of respect, but perhaps it’s more likely that it’s to decipher my intention when the language is a (partial) barrier. I have discovered that I do it myself when I have to understand what people say to me in Greenlandic.
On the street, at least in smaller towns, people look at almost everyone they pass on the street – because the chance of meeting someone you know is very high.
Danes use the word “man” when referring to themselves in an unpleasant situation but do not mind naming someone who is criticized – Greenlanders use “man” for others who are criticized but do not mind saying “I” about themselves in an uncomfortable situation.
To be natural
There is not the same fear of touching sex here as in the rest of the world. For the same reason, you talk about it in a completely different way, a more free way. A trip to the city can easily result in an offer (phrased as “who are you with? Are you going with them?” or the more direct “Can I take you home?”), and they actually can’t understand if you refuse that. I myself have experienced it from four women, and know two women who have experienced offers in everyday life from young men – one man was a craftsman at work in her apartment who was immediately fired when she (the customer, my Danish colleague) called and complained .
Be aware that if you get the offer from someone you’ve only met that night, she might be very drunk and have a frayed heart – so it’s mostly about being with a nice person: sex in exchange for a safe place to sleep. If you get an offer and don’t want to, DON’T be offended – a “no thanks” is always accepted. (perhaps only after a simple “oh, come on…” or “Why not?”) The immediacy shows here – it’s easy to ask and it’s easy to say yes or no thanks – maybe that’s why there isn’t are there porn magazines here?
And of course people do – sexually transmitted diseases abound, and so, unfortunately, do abortions.
Two of my students have written the following: “As I said, we think it’s because Greenlanders are closed and secretive that they don’t talk so much when they get to know each other, and that’s why they skip dating, instead they choose intercourse. ” Several students agree with this description.
There is no porn or sex in the public space or sexologists as you know it from Denmark. Maybe it’s considered so normal that issues around it are a little bit taboo? On the other hand, people – at least the young ones – are not physically disabled, people who are friends are often seen wrapped around or holding each other, and lovers kiss and hold hands without anyone seeming to notice. And yesterday’s courtship results only in very brief teasing, not in any condemnation or astonishment.
Despite the above description, it is NOT the same as everyone wallowing in sex – on the contrary. But if you like each other, there is not so much “superego” and there is more immediacy. In addition, there are many funny remarks about sex and party games often have a cheeky edge.
It must also be said that many have been sexually abused – between a quarter and a third of the women, depending on who you ask: the newspapers or people who know the young people. (Sermitsiaq 8 March 2011: “Every 3rd woman in Greenland exposed to sexual abuse”) This is comparatively 16 times more than in Denmark. (I don’t know how many men)
Maybe it’s the alcohol, maybe it’s the same immediacy that is connected with the misplaced macho behavior below – i.e. men who imagine that the woman, girl, child(!) wants it, even if she/he doesn’t – and maybe she doesn’t dare express his displeasure and thereby confront and create enmity. I believe that these factors play some role in the great sex abuse.
So don’t tell jokes about pedophiles, don’t show “The Party” without telling the plot first (a mistake I’ve made myself). Maybe I’m exaggerating, but maybe it’s best to be on the safe side.
The following paragraph is quite controversial – many of my students who have read it are upset by it and think that I have not justified it.
It is a violent society, but only spouses and children feel it: 62% of women have been beaten themselves and “under” 25% of children have seen their mother get it. A friend with an understanding of this sort of thing believes that half of the young women are beaten by their boyfriend – or give him a beating. I myself have met three Danish men up here who had violent boyfriends, and at least three Greenlandic (and one Danish) men who beat their girlfriends – who, by the way, stayed with them.
The psychologists believe that a little under a third of young people here have close to what are called Post Traumatic Symptoms, which are usually only seen in soldiers who have been at war – a consequence of the great amount of violence, drowning accidents, suicide and other things. Around 70% of young people can be categorized as “reticent”.
See also Politiken: “Greenland is the world’s most violent society” and Marianne Krogh Andersen: “Greenland…” page 59, which has similar figures)
My students who have read through this document largely believe that the above is wrong – maybe they haven’t read the sources given, maybe they haven’t experienced it themselves or know someone who has. I can only tell what I have experienced, heard and read.
Why it is a violent society, I myself would guess, has to do with the fact that you don’t talk as much. It is almost only in the west that people “talk together” about problems or learn to express feelings – and in Greenland, attempts to articulate this sad situation are often met with silence: people prefer not to talk about it out loud, especially not in the newspapers.
In Denmark, it can be seen that immigrants from third world countries are violent to a much greater extent, and this is perhaps because they do not place importance on dialogue but only on dominance, the strong is right, patriarchalism. They are thus not trained to put thoughts and feelings into words or to “negotiate”. This is changing these years, self-help groups and psychological talks are slowly spreading.
In Greenland, it has historically been the man’s role to catch, and later to fish, but there are fewer of these jobs, and today his role is more blurred. However, this is NOT the primary reason, I think. It may be that people in Greenland are not used to talking about things. If you disagree with a stranger, you keep quiet – if you disagree with your girlfriend, you hit. (Or if she misses, you hit!)
Maybe some Greenlandic men need to figure out how to be a “real man” without dominating his wife? Or at least to get his way through without the use of violence or threats.
Here, of course, I emphasize that this is far from the case for everyone – but I have encountered it enough times that I see it as a widespread phenomenon. Perhaps skilled psychologists, of whom there are now very few, could make a difference over a number of years?
Can you tell who is “those who hit” or “those who are hit”? No – I thought I could, until I discovered the opposite. At least not until they put it into words themselves or show up with bruises – or you hear it through the wall or see it happening on the street.
In that way, Greenland is similar to Denmark: The same reasons for and relationship between wife violence and alcohol, but on a proportionally larger scale, and more clearly seen, in these small communities.
“Alcohol is a solvent and it solves everything but problems.” (Maria Forberg)
The problems with violence and alcohol have to do with growing up, of course. From 1950 and especially to the mid-1960s, there was both a large migration to the big cities from small settlements, as well as a lot of Danish ten-year-olds, primarily craftsmen. Greenland had to be modernized! On the one hand, this was a huge change which further went over the heads of most Greenlanders – this alone must have made people feel worthless. But the demographic changes led to many single mothers – if you wanted a job you had to go to the city, and status passed through the rich Danish craftsmen. Although the craftsmen might in some cases want to acknowledge the children, they were simply not allowed: it was grounds for dismissal.
These Danish men were seasonal workers – some also lived here in the winter – and while they were here, they worked many days, all week. A friend of mine has told me that he once worked in Paamiut, near the enormously beautiful church, drilling for foundations in the mountain. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder, he turned around and discovered the priest standing in front of him in a priest’s dress, now asking him to wait with the work until the service was over. He hadn’t even realized it was Sunday!
Think – the Danes come to the country, persuade everyone to become Christians – in one way or another – and as soon as it is done, they come back as a new stream of Danes who do not respect the Christian traditions!
But rootlessness has always been a part of Greenlanders’ lives. In the old days people moved around after the game animals or family members died of disease or at sea. The reason today has another reason – if I may say so – and alcohol makes it show its face.
Evil always arises when drinking, alcohol unleashes the demons in all of us. The Danes think that Greenlanders drink more than Danes do in Denmark – this is wrong. Furthermore, the small group of Danes in this country are to the highest degree able to drink their way through. I have observed this with my own eyes, but Greenlanders themselves are quick to tell this – because they are very upset about the (wrong) image that prevails in Denmark.
It must be said that it is only on the weekend that people drink, or people who take a handful of days to drink when they are bored. I have not met anyone who drinks continuously for many months or years, like in Denmark. I think it has to do with the fact that when you party, you party through: a relic from the old days when you had to eat when there finally WAS something to eat. In fact, you think that Danes are a bit strange if they (including me) go home at 3 o’clock or turn down one more beer or a party in general.
However, it is important to say that I know several families where you enjoy alcohol at parties, without actually getting drunk.
Hash is a part of it and there are apparently many who use it regularly – or maybe I just end up in the wrong places. It costs a farm, but luckily there is nothing stronger than that. The Greenlandic mafia obviously has some kind of moral limit.
Almost everyone has experienced one or more friends or family members who have killed themselves – some know as many as 5-6. I myself have experienced two of my own students who have done it – and a handful who have tried it – and I have been told about many others. In the newspapers you occasionally see that a young person has disappeared one evening, and you rarely find them again. More often it happens that you find them in a rope at home.
There are several reasons, and they all have a greater or lesser conscious or subconscious impact:
1: You don’t have a tradition of expressing your feelings, in general. In the old days, you could only challenge each other in a song battle, just like a modern rap battle, and in that way annoy or dominate each other. Many people lived close together and were dependent on each other – this is still the case to a high degree – and therefore cannot afford to have enemies. It is simply very bad behavior to be aggressive and agitated, to call attention to yourself or emphasize your own advantages, or even to ask for help.
So many Greenlanders often hide their feelings a bit away.
2: Society is everything, the individual is nothing: you are dependent on each other, and the worst that can happen is to be ostracized from society. In the old days, you had to leave the place of residence if you did something despicable or if you had to flee – you became a qivittoq: one of the disappointed people who leave society. (today the word does not have its original root (West Greenlandic) and therefore cannot be found in that form in the dictionary)
Even today, there are quite a few Greenlanders who – just like in every other society in the world – flee, some all the way to Denmark. Society can be both the city you live in, but it is also your family, your boyfriend.
3: Death has not been associated with anything negative, as in Christianity. This means that even though Greenland is Christian, the view of death in earlier times was pervasive. Death has even been necessary in certain cases to ensure the survival of others in extremely hard times.
4: You have lived in the present and not thought so much about the future. When you have been dependent on the weather and game animals, there has not been much reason to plan ahead – and when the Danes arrived, they were the ones who took the initiative and were the bosses / naalakkat. So you feel very strongly, consume what you have today and hope that there will be more tomorrow – but don’t always think about next week. (Of course, you have saved food as often as possible, but you have known that the accident can ruin the plans) And the problems today are experienced as heavy, without thinking that life will get better in a week, a month.
5: As in most of the world, it used to be the first-born boy who had to succeed the father as the catcher who must ensure survival, therefore he was – and still is – spoiled. And when you’ve had everything, the first big rejection or the first defeat can feel insurmountable.
All of these things then come to the fore when drinking, as someone prefers not to tell others how upset they are or ask for help, instead drinking themselves senseless, experiencing a host of feelings of abandonment and despair, or simply hurt pride and hang or drown themselves one early morning: young people who, at the age of 16-25, leave behind friends, family, children.
IngBritt Christiansen writes about Isumaminik, “his own opinion”, about the widespread phenomenon in society of not meddling in other people’s affairs. It is the flip side of the otherwise wonderful Greenlandic cultural trait that everyone is allowed to be themselves: when you are left alone even if you don’t want to, but can’t figure out how to ask for help. This leads to people being alone with their problems for a long time, and eventually feeling so desperate that they see no other way than suicide.
When we have talked about it at school, for example in a circle letting each person ease their heart, it has always had a good effect: people NEED to talk about it – and things like coaching, psychologists and therapy groups are on the way. But if you don’t take the initiative, you would find it very difficult to discover that people have lost a cousin, a best friend, a brother, a boyfriend, a son.
Patience is a….
Before you come to Greenland, you may hear about “immaqa” (maybe) [immahra] – the Greenlandic version of the Spanish term “manana” (tomorrow) which implicitly means an indefinite time in the future. I have rarely heard the term used, but the attitude is widespread – and often understandable in this country that is so dependent on the weather. A Dane will ask for precise meeting and travel times, to which the Greenlander will perhaps say a precise time but expect it to be both one and two hours later, or perhaps will say “in the afternoon” and set aside the whole afternoon for it – unless something more important just happens. If you have a meeting and the other person hasn’t arrived yet, you decide for yourself whether you want to wait, and that way there is no reason to get upset.
Once I was going to a celebratory dinner after a sporting event, and turned up at 19 to a locked door. Then I went home in weakness and frustration, and when I came back at 20, there were 70 people who had all finished the main course, and could not understand that I only came then.
More than a year later, it happened again at Brugseni’s annual party: I arrived 15 minutes late for the specified time, and by then 200 people had finished the main course. Maybe I’m just the last to know something?
Time is not so important, only weather and distance.
It is also connected to the country – time has no meaning when it is always light in the summer and almost always dark in the winter. The weather and the tide decide – or at least traditionally have – whether you can go out fishing, so that has instead been the motivation. The weather determines a lot, even today: whether the plane will take you to your destination, whether you can go fishing or sail down to the neighboring village, whether it is too cold to paint the house because the paint hardens and changes character, or dig construction work because the frost has made the earth hard, and so on.
Many things are based on what I would call unofficiality – if you are familiar with third world countries or immigrants in Denmark, you know what I am talking about. There are often people who just hang out in (especially the small) shops or other places, or people work there even if you can’t see it on their clothes. Many things are done on a “know someone who knows something” or “spread the word” basis. The law states that alcohol may not be sold after 18 and not at all on weekends and holidays – but no one bothers to put up signs or cover the goods in the shops, so when you try to buy a bottle anyway, you get scolded and told that “everyone knows it!”. But the store still doesn’t want to put up a sign. In Sisimiut, we had internet and mobile outages for 3 days – and when a visiting Dane asked how to have emergency preparedness and call the ambulance, she got the answer: everyone knows you can call via VHF! But she didn’t know that…. and I don’t do that either, despite my now 4 years in the country. Plus the fact that there is a constant change of Danish called-in workers who all try to buy a bottle of alcohol on Saturday night and to know that you can’t…. but the shops still don’t bother to put up a sign.
Sometimes at very short notice you are invited for coffee, told about craftsman work that others hope you will participate in, meetings that you are expected to attend or whether someone is needed for a project. If you only speak Danish, the mystification is even greater, but luckily people are nice to translate. Conversely, it is not mentioned if you do not participate, i.e. you are not held to account.
Conversely, if something cannot be done, you just ask yourself until you find someone who can help you with a solution. And because everyone knows each other, you find a solution quite quickly.
If you need the municipality or need to submit an official document at the last minute, you can often just go there and enter the office of the relevant person and talk about it. Then a few days pass and things happen.
On natural upbringing and natural names
Many children are out playing until very late – especially in the summer when the weather is good and it is light around the clock – and older children look after their siblings. However, this has both to do with the size of the cities and how attentive the parents are.
Parents can of course get annoyed with the children, just like anywhere else in the world, but it is rare for parents to reprimand and scold the children. Parents expect that they have learned from a young age the difference between good and bad actions and thus can distinguish themselves. But then again there is the difference between parents – some often correct while others are satisfied that the children are not doing anything illegal and are attending school.
In general, there is greater trust in the children here – they are simply allowed to do more “dangerous” things here, which I have experienced in Denmark will immediately be forbidden by the parents. You notice that the children walk on thin planks high above the piers, or climb the outer edge of the mountains, or jump around on ice flakes, but you don’t reprimand them. I think the children are therefore healthier here, that way.
Often, parents who are out walking with their children will stand still and wait for their children, who are standing a little way behind and looking at something. Of course they say “qaaniarit” [hraaniarit] (come on), but they rarely go to the child, lift it up and force it on, or drag it away by the hand. And when they do, it is without an angry tone. Most people want the children to enjoy their childhood.
I have read the explanation that children are considered adults. This may be an expression of the same respect that adults show each other, but perhaps also a remnant of the belief that the souls of the deceased return to the children or at least stay in the family. Even today, people like to name children after deceased family members, but do not expect the same deeds as the deceased did.
Since around 1750, Danish priests have baptized Greenlanders with Danish names – which people have then Greenlandised: Mette has become Miiti, Kirsten is Kista [gista], Søren is Suulut, Simon is Siimut, Mads is Maasi – and sometimes they are just friends must use the Greenlandic form, while foreigners must use the Danish baptismal name! – or you just put an “i” at the end: Mikkeli and Jensi. In addition there are nickname forms such as –eeraq and –nnguaq which mean small and sweet/dear – for example Angu- -t (man), -nnguaq (dear man), -titsiaq (half-sized man) and many others. You can of course be baptized with these.
Christine Højlund Andersen: “..the name is used as an identity marker for where one stands in the group of siblings but also to whom one is related and has obligations towards, be it both the biological and non-biological family. We saw that the tradition of the naming custom goes all the way back to the pre-Christian period.”
In addition, one of my students shrewdly points out that Greenlanders originate from Asia, which is the reason why they can be a bit reminiscent of Buddhists – among other things, putting the deceased’s name on the child, then the soul returns. I myself have thought that Greenlanders have FAR more in common with Asians than with Danes, in terms of ideology and behaviour. In the movie/short story “Shogun”, Mariko explains that Japanese people are many people gathered in very little space and therefore have to take each other into account. The same applies in Greenland – there is simply a shorter mental/cultural distance (in some ways) from Greenland to Japan.
Christine talks about what I would call the place-in-the-family names: Aqqa- (the name, its name) -luk, -ooraq, -lu, -luuti and so on. Nuka- (little brother/sister) there are really many names – and different people call a certain person Nuka – namely only those who are the person’s older siblings of the same sex, Nunu (infant), Naja (..want a boy call his little sister), and Aqqalu. (..as a woman will call her little brother)
A person can thus have 2 or 3 names, depending on who is calling – besides of course “father”/”mother”, and so on.
I see that especially younger people have “Greenlandic” names – things from nature – perhaps because they are the ones I most often associate with. These are of course ancient names, but it is interesting to see that people aged 40-70 more often – as far as I can see – have Danish names, or Greenlandised versions.
Sorlannguaq (small rose root)
Sinniisoq (substitute, the “substitute”, the one born after the first child has died)
Sikkersoq, Sikkerninnguaq (flower, little dear flower)
Angerdla (home – spelled the old fashioned way)
Ilatsiaq (good company)
Aviaaja (small flower)
Paninnguaq (little daughter, comes from “panic” (daughter))
Inuk (human) or Enok or variations of Inu- for example inunnguaq (little sweet human)
Seqininnguaq (Dear Sun)
Katu (drum stick)
Aqissiaq (grouse chicken)
Nivi- (first part of niviarsiaraq: girl)
Pilu- (leaf from a plant (piluaq)
Paarna (berry, blackberry (parnaq)
Pullaq (a bubble, filled with air)
Qulutaq (the naughty one)
Qilaq (the Shining, Shiny, Dazzling)
Salik (the clean, pure)
Taatsiaq/Taannguaq (riding chicken/little sweet ride (riding is a type of gull)
Ujarneq (small stone)
Ungaaq (the youngest)
Tuilik (the suit you put on when you sit in the kayak and have to turn around so that you don’t get water in – I know the boy’s father, who has been kayaking most of his life)
And finally there are Greenlandic names whose meaning comes from words but which are now almost forgotten:
Ivalu (comes from Qaanaq dialect for tendon thread, but cannot be found in the dictionary and can mean several things – but typically Greenlandic for sure!)
Natuk (getting lost in “inequnartoq”, being nice)
Pipaluk (the girlfriend you have)
Twins are often just called “Angaju” and “Nuka” (“big brother/sister” and “little brother/sister”) – I’m actually unsure if they have “real” names, but two pairs of identical twins in Sisimiut are simply called Angaju and Nuka. One pair has different hairstyles, but the other pair I have a hard time telling the difference, even though I’ve seen them many times… but there is a 50% chance of guessing correctly. I solve it by calling them “marlulisat” (twins) [marshluli set] when I see them together.
Children are not as noisy as Danish children – so what applies to adults is also true for children. They don’t answer again or are rude, but on the contrary can “wriggle in the rope” – but without stomping on the floor and howling. However, some believe that it has become more normal in recent years – that they have been infected by “spoiled brats” from Denmark, with whom they are in kindergarten.
A well-bred child is one who does not interfere, but waits and listens – it is called naalaarpoq. It is very welcome to look into the adults’ actions, preferably participate actively or stick its head fully forward, but not express its own opinions too violently or criticize.
So when Danish teachers demand verbal participation and a critical attitude, it is IN DESPITE of Greenlandic upbringing – you could say that it is doing a bit of violence to the children’s upbringing.
In my daily work, I do not have any knowledge of children’s relationships, but those who do say that many children have sad upbringings. But I meet them as grown-up teenagers, and once in a while they lift the veil and talk about beatings in the family or by the boyfriend, sexual abuse, suicide among friends and family, drinking and indifference. But of course not everyone has problems – and in Denmark there are also many who have such challenges to work with.
The dead, the living and all in between
Greenland is a Christian country with strong pre-Christian traditions. For some, the introduction of Christianity has brought an end to long family feuds or the many rituals and taboos, but especially the necessary luxury goods came with the demand for Christianity. The Danish priests have been strict – demands to attend Church on Sunday, regardless of the good weather for the necessary catch, or that a man had only one wife – leaving many women without a breadwinner, and men with fewer helpers for the daily work.
Finn Lynge writes that Greenland is a divided country as far as Christian culture is concerned, because the country wants Christianity, but they do not want the missionaries and the colonial power who brought Christianity to the country. Therefore, this division can also be instrumental in creating increased interest in learning about and preserving the pre-Christian tradition today.
Christine Højlund-Andersen has written about modern spirituality in Greenland: It is “..not just a past that is still cultivated, it is an identity that after centuries of undermining is called forth again, and exists side by side with modern technology and other forms of spiritualities .” “Through the storytelling tradition that is present here in Greenland, the young people become familiar with myths, legends and stories from their pre-Christian period, these stories they internalize for use in their own lives, and thus create their world view, based on both the past and the present, where the latter is grounded in a Western understanding of modernity.” “Through this, their worldview now becomes a fusion of what took place in Greenland’s prehistory, where traditions are transformed to fit into the framework of today.
The Greenlanders want their worldview to appear as something independent of their former Danish colonial power. One therefore overlooks the great importance that Christianity has had – 98% are members of the church. Incidentally, there are relatively many Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of the Pentecostal church and other small religions here.
So here there are baptisms, confirmations, marriages, funerals, Easter and Christmas as in Europe – but there is also drumming in the church and a widespread belief in qivittut and ghosts that must be respected and that let us know that they exist.
In the old days, you could be evicted from the settlement, or evicted yourself out of shame or if you could not agree with the other residents. You also sometimes went to the mountains – and thus to your death – if, as an old man, you only made the others a burden if there was not enough food. Here there is a connection to suicide: the self-destruction of the (self-perceived) useless. Those who live alone out in the mountains are called qivittoq [mountain walkers] and it is said that some get magical powers from living there: they can assume different forms and run and jump faster and higher than ordinary people. It is certain that people are/were afraid of them – even today there are many who believe that qivitut exist – not only among the elderly.
Everyone up here can tell stories about qivitut that have been seen or found traces of in the mountains. Whether they get superhuman powers is anyone’s guess, but there are still people who disappear – and not all of them are found. Others have told me stories of abandoned (but clearly inhabited) caves in the mountains, and of wild hermits who stole sheep and equipment from the farms and were therefore searched and picked up by the police.
Even today, the idea of qivitut is used – you move a lot around the country or to/from Denmark during these years, due to work and education or the need for a long-term hospital stay. So if some people might feel uncomfortable in the city or are ashamed of something they have done, you can move to another city or to Denmark. It might be called a modern form of “going qivitoq.” (qivitorpoq?)
Another pre-Christian tradition that survives is “mitaartut” (the dressed up or the silly ones). Today, people only know that they celebrate the Christian Epiphany: in medieval Denmark, the days after Christmas – the birth of Jesus – were split into several holidays, including 5 January, which became a religious procession through the city, where you followed a “guiding star” that became worn in front. After the introduction of Protestantism, it became popular and festive processions and parties, even drunken trips.
Jette Bang’s film Inuit (1940) describes how people in Qaanaaq in winter dressed up and (drum-) danced to scare the evil spirits away, or perhaps to simulate the many nature and helping spirits. (“toornat”) It is obvious that mitaarpoq (dressing up) originates from there, and is thus a pre-Christian custom that has been preserved, although the origin is forgotten. It is Emanoraq Nathansen from Sisimiut who – as the only one – has made me aware of this explanation of why people now meet for a costume and scare contest every year in Taseralik on 5 January.
On the other hand, this dressing up and frightening behaviour is also seen when a person (mostly women) paints themselves black, with white and red drawings on their face, puffed-up cheeks and hair braided on the back of their head, and tries to scare those present. I don’t know what it’s called at the time of writing, but it’s also a form of remembering the “toornat” around us.
Kalaallisut – Greenlandic in Greenlandic
You take good care of the language, and cultivate it intensively: Songs in Greenlandic are always popular, and proportionally, there are an awful lot of Greenlandic-language songs and bands – but this also has to do with people’s great joy in music and socializing. The language is used on a daily basis everywhere, even if loanwords from Danish are inserted and people sometimes use outbursts or sentences in Danish in between – exactly as they do in Denmark with English: a word like “fuck” can express something that Danish words do not quite precisely able to.
Contrary to Canada and the USA, Denmark as a colonial power has been gentle in this and some other areas – by that I mean that the Greenlandic language (THE Greenlandic languages or dialects) is not prohibited, but rather supported through the production of dictionaries and the use of certain terms instead of replacing them with Danish.
In everyday life, people are bilingual, but to very different degrees.
Just like in the Danish language, many foreign words are “Greenlandised”: “barnevogni” and “bærbari”/”computeri”. A computer can also be called a “qarasaasiaq”, which means a small brain: brain is “Qarasaq” and the suffix “-riaq” is “..the place where one..”, while a more popular explanation is that it means “something there is like a brain”.
The point is that there is a Greenlandic word – but often just the Danish word is used in a Greenlandic way. Another little funny thing about saving time is that people relatively often shorten the language, i.e. the words – both when speaking and writing. “Ipassaq” (yesterday) becomes “ipass” and “nuannaaq” becomes “nuann”. That makes it a bit more difficult to learn, so you have to focus on the root of the word. In addition, you have to hear the whole sentence in Greenlandic to understand the whole meaning – in Danish you can interrupt halfway… which Danes also do. So there you have the explanation for Greenlanders not interrupting each other (the secondary explanation is the respect for each other), which is a positive experience/surprise for visiting Danes.
It is said that Greenlandic is very difficult to learn. I don’t quite agree. Unfortunately, it is a fact that if you as a Dane learn just 20 words/endings in Greenlandic, people will be extremely impressed with you and constantly exclaim “pikkori!” (skilled) and notice you. But that says more about the laziness of Danes than about Kalaallisut as a language.
Why don’t the Danes want to learn Greenlandic? Perhaps because everyone in the country can speak Danish, at least understand part of it. There is thus no reason. Especially not when you may only be in the country for a few years.
Conversely, I have regularly heard of fathers who understood everything the family talked about in Greenlandic, but just wanted to answer in Danish themselves.
And to this comes the whole problem with Greenlanders who have lived in Denmark for many years and have forgotten their Greenlandic language.
The easiest way to learn Greenlandic is to move to a small settlement: the less Danish is spoken, the more you are forced to speak Kalaallisut. I have heard this many times, but I have not practiced it myself – on the other hand, I was a high school teacher in Sisimiut from 2010-2016, where I therefore spoke Danish every day, but where there were very large opportunities to speak/hear/learn Greenlandic. I have been in the qajaq club, as the only Dane, for 5 years. The problem is that I speak so bad Greenlandic that people would rather I speak Danish – but how am I supposed to learn it?
Of my Danish colleagues and friends who have been in the country for more than 2 years, there are perhaps 15% who understand 30 words and endings but only use them to a lesser extent themselves, and 5% who understand 100 words and endings and maybe uses half of them himself. In addition, there are a small handful who have been in the country for many years – but did not grow up here – and speak the language thoroughly or fluently.
You should also note that you can’t look at people whether they speak the language or not, you can easily be Inuit and be bad at kalaallisut [galarshlissat] or qallunaaq [hrarslunaak] and speak it fluently.
Greenlandic is a very practical language that is smartly structured. (to some extent)
If the toilet is occupied, it is “inoqarpoq” – “inuk” (human) and “-qarpoq” is (has something) – i.e. something that has people in it.
He dances = “qitippoq” [hritibok] (qitip) + “-ppoq” (verb), but “he dances again” = “qitiqqippoq”. [hritiri book]
“Hangover” is “tomorrow darkness” (aqagu-taar) [arhragudaar] (“taaq” is “dark”, interestingly like the English “dark”?)
Here’s a little primer – note that I might SPELL it wrong! I am NOT very good at Greenlandic, and have mostly heard it pronounced, not practiced spelling it.
Note that I’m using a bit of code language now. In quotation marks it is “the word as it is spelled” and in brackets it is (the translation) while the strange square brackets are [the word as it is pronounced for a Dane]
1) Greenlandic consists of a stem to which a suffix is added:
“nuannaq” [nuan-næg] – shortened colloquially to “nuann” (Nice)
“nuannarpoq” [nuan-nar-bok] (It is nice or good).
“nuannarputit” [nuan-nar-butit] (You are well (or happy)
“nuannarpunga” [nuan-nar-bunga] (I feel good)
“nuannarpisi” (You are doing well)
“nuannarpugut” (We are fine)
In very simple terms, you just need to be able to recognize the endings “-it” (you, your, your), “-poq” (something that is), “-unga” (technically “-nga”) (I), “- isi” (you) and “-ugut” (technically “–gut”) (we or our)
As it becomes more advanced, the endings change: “iliniartoq” is a student, while “iliniarpoq” is to read, and “sumipaa?” is (where is he/she/it?”) while “sumipat?” [sumipæt] is “where are they?.
And then Greenlandic becomes much more difficult, but there is a system behind it all. words ending in “-toq” are jobs or positions (“piniartoq” (catcher/hunter) [biniardok] and “aalisartoq” (fisherman) [alisardok], words ending in “-poq” mean that someone or something does something : “sinipoq” (he/she sleeps) [sinibok], “kaffiliorpoq” (he/she makes coffee / “coffee makes does”), while words ending in “-neq” are concepts: “inuuneq” (life) [ inuunek], “asanninneq” (love) [asaninek].
The last thing about (-neq) I have observed myself – I hope I am right all the way.
Just learn the simple rules and the rest will come later, all the exceptions and precisions.
Sometimes you just have to remember a “word” (technically a sentence) and forget the grammar: If there is something you want or want, you can just put “sumipaa” after it, and your meaning will be understood: “Anders sumipaa?” (Where is Donald?), “computeri sumipaa?” (Where is the computer?) or “coffee sumipaa?” (Where’s the coffee?) – technically it’s called “kaffiliorpit?” (do you make coffee?) or “have you made coffee?” but people get your point.
2) Just like in Danish, there are words that are pronounced differently than you read them.
LL = sl – “illu” [ichslu] (house) – LL is actually pronounced mostly like the German word “ich”
RL = sl – “aarluk” [aarsluk] (orca),
Q = r – “qamani” [hramarni] (out there, in there), Qajaq [hrajak] (kayak)
K = g – “Kassassuk” [gassasuk]
P = b – “neriupunga” [neriubunga] (I hope)
A = æ – “nuanaq” [nuarnæg] (lovely), “kalak” [galæk] (ridiculous or slightly insulting term covering a “typical” or caricatured Greenlander)
G is usually silent or at least very gently pronounced, as in (hung), for example “nuannarpunga”
Double letters need to be stretched a bit, but can give completely different meanings: “nuannarpunga” (I am happy) versus “nuanaarpunga” (I am happy)
Start by getting the endings and word sounds under control – and get used to being laughed at or saying it wrong. The most important thing is to get started.
But just to make you nervous, just because I can, I will tell you that many words mean something completely different but sound almost the same: “nuanaq” [nuanæk] (nice) is very opposite to “nuaneeq” [nuænik] (boring or sad), while anaq [anak] (shit) is not at all the same as “arnaq” [arnak] (woman).
3) Therefore, Greenlandic is a smart language because you can guess many things if you know a number of these words. A house is “illu” – a place has the ending “-fik” – so a town is “illuqarfik”: a place with houses. (You don’t need to think about the middle: “-qar-“, but it means to have, so that (the place that has houses).
Something that is small has the ending -araq, and therefore a hut is an “illuaraq”. Easy and logical.
The most important thing is that you can see the ending and thus guess words.
When you know that an “aarluk” is an orca and the ending “-punga” is (I), what does “aarlupunga” mean? (I don’t actually know if the bending is quite right, but if you follow this pattern you understand the shape and then you just let people correct you in the individual situations – this is the method I’ve used myself: ugly but practical and easy to remember)
And when reading (or learning) is “atua-” what does “atuarfik” mean?
Now you are ready to analyze a Greenlandic sentence:
“qaa” [hraa] (come on)
“-it” is (you)
“Illit” is (you, you)
“uanga” is (I, me)
“-nut” is (where there is, at)
So what does “qaagit unnut” mean?
And what does “illinut” [ishlinut] mean?
4) In addition to this about endings, there are a handful of expressions that are good to know:
“ajunngi” (how are you? / how are you?)
“bye” – loanword from English.
“ateqapunga” [atehrabunga] (my name is) – insert your own name first. Technically, it means “name I have”
“kaak kaak” [gakkaak] (gak gak, ih dog!, wow) – perhaps borrowed from Danish?
“qujan” or “qujanaq” [hrujæn] or [hrujarnak] (thank you)
5) From now on, just add one word at a time to your inner word list. When you hear or read a word that is easy to pronounce, you just find out what it means. And then you use the word often – if people understand you, you pronounce it correctly.
When I have learned something new, I immediately tell it to a Greenlander and wait for the reaction.
If I have to have something translated into Greenlandic, I say “qanotarsaapat (Danish word) kalaallisut?”, it’s my own primitive way of saying “how do you say it in Greenlandic?”
The dictionary is available at: < http://www.ilinniusiorfik.gl/ordbogen/daka and for iPhone/Ipad > and for Android it is available as an app and is called “Ordbogit”. They are working on an English/Greenlandic dictionary, but who knows when it will be finished.
The reality of everyday school life
The following is written from my own background as a Danish teacher at the high school in Sisimiut, from 2010 to 2016. The following only covers Greenlandic conditions, although I would like to write at least as much about general pedagogy.
You must know with yourself that you want the challenge of teaching in Greenland – in a culture that you do not understand – for at least 2 years. You must know that it will be a great challenge for you, personally and professionally. You must therefore also not have anyone in Denmark whom you cannot do without during that period – 2 years – summer and winter holidays excluded.
Still reading on with interest? Okay, so here are some educational/cultural advice:
In the beginning, you will find it difficult to decipher the students’ reactions – but get to know their facial expressions by asking them if they have understood. Be honest instead of putting on a good face for a bad game – and you will also gain their trust.
Danish is NOT their first language, and they often find it easier to formulate thoughts in Greenlandic, and together with a friend or two. (..but often easier to write it down in Danish than in Greenlandic!)
Therefore, do not disturb or stop them if they are talking to each other in Greenlandic, instead ask quietly if they come up with anything interesting or in a friendly tone about what they are talking about.
The first rule for you as a teacher is therefore to speak as little as possible, formulate yourself very precisely. Think before you formulate your sentences. You can literally make some students annoyed with you, or even make the students shift their attention away from you. They cannot capture all your words: it is mentally hard work to have to translate all the time from a language you only partially understand. Your internal clock should stop you when you have spoken for 3 minutes.
You must also speak in low lix, i.e. no difficult words – or even better – after each and every difficult word or Danish figurative language you use, you must insert an easy synonym: “I have experienced – I have learned, discovered – that many people put price of pancakes, that they like pancakes.” But just let them read the difficult words and force them to look up the word in the dictionary, either da-gl or one with explanations/etymology.
As mentioned, THE MOST IMPORTANT THING is to speak much less than you are used to – practice saying things in the shortest possible way first, and later tell an extended version to individual students. Get the basic concepts in place and always give practical examples of their use, but don’t give long-winded explanations – this will bore and confuse the students.
Your practical daily task is not to convey academically precise information, but rather to convey relevant information in an understandable way – this interpretation is entirely my own: students sometimes benefit more from a simplified version than from a detailed and completely accurate ditto. This can, on the other hand, be given to students who want it or who have higher requirements.
For task correction, they would rather have a short verbal instruction than a written list of things that are wrong – no long explanations, just point down in their task two or three things they need to remember/change.
Do not force students or pressure them to talk or begin the task. Most of the time, they just need time to think – so wait! Remind them gently but firmly/decisively of the task if it is taking too long – they will probably start at some point.
They were not raised with authority, so a harsh tone will have big and negative consequences – even if they don’t show it to you. As a teacher, you can easily be consistent without raising your voice.
You need to get used to NOT being controlling, but rather guiding and encouraging. In many respects, this is crucial for a good relationship with the students.
Most people don’t want to ask the teacher (especially much) for help – maybe they’re a little embarrassed, afraid of making mistakes? Maybe they just plan poorly? There’s not much you can do about it other than repeatedly – and in different ways – encourage them to let you help them.
Just as Greenlanders are generally quiet, so are the students. It is a joy to be able to whisper a message to the student at the back of the class, during group work – which the class also laughs about. I have had 3 Danish students and their teacher visit the class, and despite the whole class working in groups, the 3 Danes made more noise even though they were sitting at the back and talking to each other.
Of course, Greenlandic students can also be noisy – especially when they are not doing school work – but as a whole it is my experience that Danes talk louder.
The following is taken from the section on children, and it explains why the students behave like this: A well-behaved child is one who does not interfere, but waits and listens – this is called naalaarpoq. It is very welcome to look into the adults’ actions, preferably participate actively or stick its head fully forward, but not express its own opinions too violently or criticize.
So when Danish teachers demand verbal participation and a critical attitude, it is IN DESPITE of Greenlandic upbringing – you could say that it is doing a bit of violence to the children’s upbringing. At least it’s new to them.
The silence is also expressed by the fact that it is difficult to start group discussions – there are a handful who like to talk and contribute, while the rest do not bother. Maybe they have no opinion on the topic, maybe they have nothing new to add – in any case, group discussions can take a long time, so you have to deal with that. On the other hand, it provides a nice environment.
Note that those who do not contribute can easily benefit from listening to the others – so do not scold them for not participating, rather summarize at the end: “Who learned something new today? Hands up!”
One way to break it is to provoke them – take individual students as an example and put them in fictitious extreme situations, then the person concerned can relatively often get themselves to participate. But it IS difficult – and that is a condition that teaches.
When I mention that you can single out the students as examples, it is important to remember the respect for the individual – people are very sensitive to being singled out, highlighted, categorized. I myself often check with the student afterwards that it was okay to tease him/her during the lesson. So remember to use yourself as an example too, or be random in your use of the students as an example.
Of course, remember that people are different – some students don’t like being singled out as an example. The result may be that the student stops coming to classes, so find a balance.
Some of them articulate themselves poorly, but that’s mostly out of shyness. They are better in pairs than in plenum. So if you want to know something about the student, take an evaluation round out in the hallway, or even better: catch them on the sofa for a chat – start by talking about your own day yourself.
Besides the usual human problems such as boyfriends, moving and children, some of them deal with big things like death and violence. The psychologists believe that just under a third of young people here have close to what is called PTSD – a result of violence, drowning accidents, suicide and other things. Around 70% of young people can be categorized as “reticent”.
Always remember this – in the Danish subject I sometimes let the students read texts about serious subjects, but have learned that they must be warned about it first, and possibly have an alternative text to work with if they wish. Show that you are aware that the individual student struggles with some things, but don’t dig into problems unless he/she wants to.
If I have noticed something about the student that I (being the soft-hearted person that I am) want to help with, then perhaps I can tell an anecdote from my own life, about that topic – but without making it personal for the student .
When all of the above has been said, it is important to remember that they are JUST LIKE DANISH STUDENTS! They also don’t always want to go to school, they do their homework at the last minute, they sometimes have a lot of absenteeism, they can easily think for themselves, they actually want to do school work if it’s just exciting, they use mobile phones all the time, computers, social media and other high technology, and thinking about boyfriends and clothes and champions league and the band they play in their spare time and their spare time job and all that teenage stuff.
The students want to have a personal relationship with you – I myself like to tell about my life (in the faint hope that they can avoid the mistakes I have made) while some of my colleagues have wondered about the students’ desire to know something about the teacher as a human being.
Greenland is a small country, with small communities. It is impossible to be private – unless you never go out and never tell anyone about your condition and thoughts. You meet the students in the supermarket and in the bar – both as a customer and as an employee. So the role of teacher/student is blurred over time – and you all become people….where you just offer them professional knowledge and judge them on that point. After you give sweet little Juaninnguaq FX/00 for her delivery task, you will sing together in chorus in the afternoon and in the evening she will serve you beer at the tavern. That’s the reality and you might as well relax and accept it. The scales are small.
What tells you whether you fit in, whether you will have a good experience in the country? I think you will have a hard time if…
..you are serious and self-congratulatory – you have to have a sense of humor and allow yourself to be laughed at.
..you have important family and a girlfriend in Denmark – If you long to be away, you cannot do a good job.
..you don’t create a network here.
…you spend energy adapting the students’ behavior to your liking – you want to offend people and push them away from you and thus cannot teach or cooperate. Instead, use the energy to gather knowledge and adapt yourself to where you are – take it all as an experience and an exercise in humility.
..you are impatient – things here have their own pace, often without logic. If you get fired up, you push people away and you get frustrated yourself.
…you use energy to change the place you come to – everything has a history and a reason, and you don’t know it. Instead, use the time to ask and learn – not to influence or criticize – you also influence through humble questions, and that in a much nicer way.
…you think that things work, or that people behave, as in Denmark – you are not in Denmark anymore.
.. you are a very direct person – you WANT to experience people criticizing you behind your back, perhaps to your boss or colleagues, but not to you.
Being a teacher in Greenland is being a student – at least it SHOULD be, because it makes you a better teacher.
My own life as a high school teacher has made me a better person: more patient, more relaxed. I’ve made a LOT of mistakes along the way, and feel humbled that the students have mostly put up with me and my crazy inventions, after all.
They haven’t always had nice teachers – and some of them have had too few stable or nice adults in their lives. So practice becoming one – because you can’t always see who is using your footsteps to follow.