Culture Clash: How Michelle Obama Annoyed One of the Happiest Countries on Earth
One week ago, Michelle Obama visited Copenhagen, Denmark as part of her European book tour promoting Becoming. While she has sold over 10 million copies worldwide, her Royal Arena appearance last Tuesday has drummed up some pointed criticism. As an American living in Denmark for over two years, I see a cultural misunderstanding with confusion on both sides. While I may not be an expert in everything Danish, I have adapted quite well to the norms of Denmark and therefore have a solid foot in Danish and American culture. Here’s where I think things went wrong for the former First Lady and how some cultural sensitivity could have prevented an awkward appearance.
Far too often, and in this situation, American-centric thinking led Mrs. Obama’s team to assume that Europeans are the same as Americans in terms of consumer attitude and preferences. The event sold tickets of up to 7500 dkk ($1150) to 11,000 people. While she certainly pleased some, there were a few big misses. Intentions were good, but a lack of cultural awareness created a situation where Mrs. Obama did not met the expectations of her Danish audience.
In the United States, the worship of celebrity makes it possible to charge $1150 for a hand shake and autograph. This is not the case in Denmark – a big reason why people were disappointed. The way Americans worship celebrities is not, on the whole, a bad thing, it’s just not the same for Danes. From what I have noticed, celebrity is not as valued in Denmark. Perhaps this is because Denmark is a small country with a smaller media market and the same faces you see on Danish television you often see in public with a greater degree of accessibility. The overall cultural misunderstanding is that Americans attending this tour in the states knew it was an appearance by a celebrity author who happened to be a former First Lady. Danes were disappointed because they were expecting a political roundtable featuring a sorely missed world leader.
Merchandise and Self Promotion
The appearance was described in Danish media as “self-promoting.” Paying a high ticket and still being bombarded with marketing images by a respected world leader is simply put – not the Danish way. Americans are accustomed to being overloaded with advertisements and offers everywhere they look, but Danes are not. This kind of thing comes off as tacky and cheap from someone as respected as Michelle Obama. Again, this is a clash of culture – American politicians are in the business of themselves and this is more covert in other political cultures. It’s something I failed to see until I went back to the states after living in Denmark for about a year and a trait magnified by the boldness of Donald Trump’s blurred line between running the country and running his businesses.
Rachael Effing Ray
The choice to have Rachael Ray moderate an event for Michelle Obama was a huge mistake. Rachael’s cookbook, My Year in Meals was ranked as the most unhealthy cookbook in 2012, the same year she met Mrs. Obama while lobbying Congress for healthier school lunches. Rachael being involved in both instances is just confusing and way off-brand. She is a TV celebrity chef and dog food spokeswoman whose niche is cooking basic, nutrition-lacking meals in 30 minutes or less. So she keeps Americans fat while maintaining an unhealthy work-life balance. This highlights a significant difference between American and Danish culture – not a great match. Bringing Rachael Ray to a city that has the most Michelin stars in Scandinavia is like bringing your cousin to prom. Sure… you’re not there alone, but it doesn’t make sense for anyone involved. My suggestion would have been to find a Danish moderator. Having someone from the host country read off questions would have won the hearts of the audience instead of causing them to wonder “who is Rachael Ray and why is she selling me a cookbook?”
90 Minutes of Fluff
One of the biggest complaints I have seen in Danish media and twitter is the lack of substance from the former First Lady. I have heard this critique of Americans many times since moving to Europe – the idea that we lack depth and substance. Danes value a closer relationship with anyone they choose to engage. Furthermore, gender-equality is stronger in Denmark than the United States and many attendees were hoping for a strong example of female leadership. Ida Auken, a member of the Danish parliament tweeted the following:
Ms. Auken followed up by explaining to Danish newspaper, B.T. “It is so stereotypical that women should be asked about chicken nuggets and children’s rooms, and that one should ask men how to change the world. I sat next to a lot of strong women from Danish business and politics, and we all agreed that it was not women worthy…”
For Danes, the discussion of political issues and divergent viewpoints is common. Civil debate of heated issues is commonplace and almost expected, especially at such an appearance. Given the current political climate in America and abroad, I understand why the lack of political questions was misunderstood. With Trump’s poor behavior dominating World News headlines, any vestige of American leadership, dignity and greatness would have been worth the $1100 for a VIP ticket.
As Aubrey, an American living in Denmark who was also in attendance put it, “I firmly believe she is a great role model and inspirational leader. However, the conversation lacked hygge.” I think hygge is something Americans struggle with altogether, I covered that in another post: Why Americans Can’t Hygge.
Aubrey went on to say:
The substance it had came from what was written in the book. I felt like it lacked the “intimate” conversation part she promised. Most of the conversation stemmed from what was written in the first chapter or two of the book. I personally felt like it focused on her as a mother and wife and less on what she took away and contributed to during her 8 years in office.
The American Explanation
While a lot of issues lie in the American-centric planning and execution of the event, there is some understanding of American politics and norms that would have tempered expectations and perhaps left the crowd feeling more satisfied with their experience.
Apolitical Figures in Denmark vs. America
In Denmark you will find the worlds oldest continuous monarchy. The Danish Royal Family is a way of life in Denmark, but sometimes when you grow up with an institution you begin to take for granted all of the roles they play in your society. In Denmark, the entire country tunes in on New Years Eve to watch a speech delivered by the Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II. I love watching the queen’s speech on New Year’s Eve and every year I understand more and more of the Danish-language address. Still, I couldn’t imagine anyone in America giving a speech that is viewed as non-political, national, universally loved and watched with respect by the entire country. Who would even give such a speech – Oprah? Ellen? Tom Hanks?h
For Americans, former Presidents and First Ladies fill this void in an unofficial capacity. We have elder statesmen and stateswomen but no monarch to act as an apolitical public entity and function as a national figurehead. In a similar nature to the Danish Royal Family, Americans look toward their former First Families to stay our of politics unless they are pursuing office themselves in the case of Hilary Clinton. Former presidents have an unofficial agreement to refrain from criticizing sitting presidents. America is so divided, that Americans crave national figures who are non-divisive. Michelle Obama checks that box. Furthermore, she has never held elected office and is not seeking to run for office, so while I understand the disappointment of Ida Auken, it’s really just a product of the American political system.
Michelle Obama’s Bland Brand
Michelle Obama is incredibly popular in America and the main reason for her popularity is her neutrality. Sure, Michelle campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, but if you ask any American what they remember about her role in that campaign it would be her famously declaring, “When they go low, we go high.” She also experienced having her words twisted and used against her as in the 2008 Democratic primary. After describing her feelings of pride, she was painted as un-American, and understandably held back after that. Once again, her style is well-known to Americans but Danes expecting a critique of the Trump administration or at least opinions on Women’s rights in the developing world were left wanting more.
Perhaps the reason that many left this event feeling frustrated is the very reason why Danes are among the happiest people on Earth and Americans rank far lower. Denmark is a country where the stresses of life are widely alleviated through a strong social program that has fostered a tight, collectivist society. In Denmark the burdens of childcare, higher education, eldercare and heathcare are gone. With civic investments in infrastructure, public works and the business sector Danes are surrounded by a beautiful well-running country that is easy to get around. Leisure time is appreciated, encouraged and work-life balance is carefully maintained. This contributes to a society where citizens have time and energy to invest deeply in relationships. They are also free to pursue their passions – if you want to study or even just experience the best in architecture or culinary arts, go to Denmark. Compare this to the rat race of America where citizens and political figures alike are perpetually working to extract money from others and not spending time to master their craft or invest in personal relationships. This juxtaposition of clashing cultures was on display last Tuesday in The Royal Arena. It resulted in a celebrity chef who loves quick, unhealthy meals awkwardly discussing Washington DC’s best restaurants with a Former First Lady who was simply pushing Danes to buy her book. This was a money-making publicity tour with an audience of a people from another culture that wanted to invest deeply in a woman they admire and thought had mastered her craft.