WCP: Fear of Hygge and Working-Class Social Capital

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The Danish concept of hygge associated with coziness, peace of mind, and communality has received much attention and scrutiny from commentators in the United States. In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, Jack Metzgar argues that hygge is quintessentially a working-class ethic that eludes Americans due to an increasingly rigid professional culture and the absence of robust social welfare.

“Hygge is wonderfully difficult to define, at least for the American and British writers I read. It is strongly associated with certain physical objects like fireplaces, cocoa, old shirts, and candles. But it is primarily an attitude of appreciating what some writers call “the small things of life,” not just a hot cup of cocoa by a fire in winter, but the “comfortable conviviality” of “relaxation with close friends or family.” Some call it “the art of creating intimacy” or “coziness of the soul.”

The panicked reaction to such an attitude is typified by The Atlantic headline: “The Danish Don’t Have the Secret to Happiness: Something Is Rotten in the State of Denmark.” The writer, Michael Booth, would not be happy in Denmark because it is too orderly and boring there – no street food or graffiti, no homeless people panhandling, and insufficient numbers of visible poor people to add spice and variety to urban wandering. (In fact, 5% of Danes are poor, including nearly 3% of children, not nearly as spicy as our double-digit rates, with 20% of American children growing up in poverty.) Booth is cagily over-the-top with this complaint, but all the writers endorse the satiric anti-individualist “Laws of Jante” as accurately describing Danish social norms. Most of the laws counsel an egalitarian ethic similar to the one I heard growing up in a working-class family a while back: “Never think you are better than anybody else or that anybody else is better than you.” Similarly, they counsel not to expect too much of yourself and to have generally modest expectations of life, while appreciating and making the best of what you have, above all, your family and friends. Most Anglo-American writers find this stifling, a recipe for mediocrity, self-satisfaction, and complacency. Life for them is a “journey,” always striving for self-improvement.

The Laws of Jante were articulated by a Danish rebel against the hygge culture, and many Danes dispute their sardonic exaggeration of Danish conformity. A more positive version of hygge is articulated by Danish philosopher/psychologist Svend Brinkmann in Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze. Without ever mentioning hygge, Brinkmann argues against individualist self-absorption and for a Stoic sense of character based on one’s obligations to others, advocating that “we forego our desperate preoccupation with the internal and self-development, and instead learn to connect in more appropriate and meaningful ways to the pre-existing relationships in our lives.”

Danish hygge in this version is not so much about coziness and relaxation as it is about centering one’s life around and giving priority to “pre-existing relationships,” what Jensen called working-class belonging in contrast to middle-class striving to become something bigger and better than you are so far. Jensen sees Robert Putnam’s distinction between a bonding social capital and a bridging social capital as a class-cultural difference. Bonding is “the kind of social capital that is at the heart of working-class communities – deep, loyal, we-are-part-of-one-another bonding.” Middle-class bridging social capital, with its skill at networking, is “less personal” and more superficial, but “it can unite many people across wide differences,” and it “invites individuals into new communities and experiences.”

As Jensen suggests, both kinds of social capital have value, with both strengths and limitations. The Economist, for example, was quick to point out that hygge, with its preference for bonding, makes it harder for strangers, like immigrants, to make friends and to feel welcome in Denmark, concluding: “If cultures are obsessed with the joys of relaxing with old friends, perhaps it is because they find it stressful to make new ones.” It likewise could be said that those “obsessed” with networking among people they hardly know and have no intention of ever knowing very well may have a fear of intimacy.

Bonding and bridging are not incompatible with each other. A person can bridge all day and then bond in the evening, as so many of us do. But the dismissive defensiveness against hygge of Anglo-American writers indicates a cultural anxiety that fears relaxation itself as threatening the constant striving to perfect one’s self and to outperform others. Hygge, I imagine, is relaxing not because of cocoa and fireplaces, but because you are with people who know you so well that you don’t have to bother with presenting yourself, with hiding what you perceive as your weaknesses and disabilities and “putting your best foot forward.” It’s relaxing because you can just be yourself, warts and all, and still be accepted, still belong. That this is seen as a threat to achievement, a dangerous siren call to complacency and self-satisfaction, suggests a professional middle-class culture that has lost confidence in itself and, as a result, is becoming more narrow, rigid, and cramped in its insistence that, in the words of Frederick Winslow Taylor, there is only one right way.”

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The Working-Class Perspectives blog (new window) is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-17 academic years, John Russo, and Georgetown University English professor, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 44 posts that were read over 128,000 times by readers in 189 countries.