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Background

I moved to Denmark a bit more than a year ago - from a Western Europe country. I originally did not plan on staying there more than 6 months. For that reason, I did not start learning the language right away. I started learning the language less than 6 months ago. I am really willing to try and am making quick progress, but it is still difficult and I struggle with it.

About two months ago, I started a internship in a local company. The majority of the employees are Danish. Therefore, most of the people-to-people interaction happens in Danish.

This is the first real work experience I have that matches my studies and my first work experience in this country. It seems like a lot of things differ from where I come from - here in Denmark it is less formal and more relaxed, from what I have seen.

I am a very shy person. I repeat every sentence in my mind a lot of times before actually saying it. I can do a bit of small talk if someone speaks to me, but I often can't bring myself to talk to someone first. Sometimes I would like to say something to a coworker - not work related, just for the sake of getting to know them as they interact a lot with each other - but simply can't bring myself to do so. When this happens, I usually end up not saying anything because it makes me feel uncomfortable. For work matters, I manage to force myself but it requires a lot of thoughts and stress.

If you exclude the fact that I am very shy, I also take a deep interest in people and really like social interaction (especially 1-to-1 conversation). I enjoy talking with anyone as long as they initiate the first talk(s).

When my coworkers talk to me, they use English. Most of the time it is work related. When it is not, I manage to continue the conversation a bit and do some small talk. All of them have a good level of English and they hired me knowing that I don't speak Danish.

My colleagues interact with each other in Danish. Our weekly meetings are in Danish - myself being the only one talking about my work in English. They have lunch all together and have conversations together at work and at the coffee machine. They sometimes have cake and coffee together, thus resulting in conversations together.

I had lunch with them a few times, but it resulted in me sitting with them and not understanding what they were talking about, which was uncomfortable. I now have lunch with other non-Danish friends in the same building. This might be a bad move from my side, but I really was feeling too uncomfortable.

When my co-workers are having a group conversation - or any conversation in Danish - I feel like I would love talking with them, but it would be rude to interrupt their conversation to switch it to English. It happened a few times that I sat for 30 minutes in a meeting without understanding more than a few words, and that I ended up leaving the meeting without a clue of what was going on.

After about two months of work, I still don't know what many of my co-workers are working on. Some days I don't speak with anyone apart from the general "good morning" and the general "have a nice evening/see you tomorrow", because no one speaks to me. One day, I did not congratulate a coworker that had birthday. The reason for that is that the person was having a conversation with 3 other people and I could not bring myself to interrupt them. After that conversation, the co-worker left. I feel bad about this since.

We are a small team - about 10-15 people - and I am worried that they might find me unfriendly, or might think that I have no interest in talking to them.

I don't know how much that would be relevant in Denmark, but all of the people in my team are from the opposite gender. Also, as I understood it, small talk with co-workers seems to be quite important here. I also got the impression that some of my colleagues were uncomfortable when I did try to have some small talk with them - the co-workers I am talking about also seem shy.

My questions

  • Is there a way to know if my concerns are valid and if my coworkers do think I am not interested in speaking to them?
  • How should I behave to make them understand that I am just shy and not ignoring them?
  • How could I have more interactions with my co-workers without making them uncomfortable?
  • i had exactly this when working in Germany. I had some German but it was still hard to join. I would turn this on its head and ask if some of the natives could each spare a few minutes a week to help you with Danish. It would improve your skills and also help them interact with you on a personal level and noting gets approval quite like trying to speak someone's own language better. – bigbadmouse Aug 14 '18 at 9:02
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Is there a way to know if my concerns are valid and if my coworkers do think I am not interested in speaking to them?

One way to find that out is by asking one of them - of whom you know is honest - directly, and also hope he is honest. Also, you could make a greater effort(I know it's difficult) and try to initiate some small-talk by yourself. Start with the persons that you feel they are OK with you( most probably all of them are, I'll explain further) and if you feel that it works, you can go even further and try to organize a mini-party and invite them all(since they are only 10-15). Then, in a joking manner you could add that "english is mandatory".

How should I behave to make them understand that I am just shy and not ignoring them?

Mostly, everybody can notice a shy person and make a difference between a shy person and one that ignores. Just be yourself. I also know how a shy person is. In some moments I am the shy person, in other moments I notice the shy person. In general, shy people don't speak much, but they are warm people and that's something your co-workers feel from your attitude. Maybe you speak only a few words a day with them. How are those words? Mean them, smile and if you're saying "Good Morning" let the person truly feel that you wish them a good morning. In my case, I can feel. I feel when the "good morning" it's not sincere(I don't mean about sleepy people, but those who'd rather say: "Ah, you again..."), I feel when a person offers me something but doesn't really want to give me, or invites me somewhere or doesn't really want me there, and so on.

If you know your attitude is the right one, the your worries are the wrong ones.

How could I have more interactions with my co-workers without making them uncomfortable?

Second part of the first answer applies here as well. Start with small steps. Maybe, after your "good morning" you could add: "How are you today?" and make a small-talk based on his answer:

-I'm fine, thanks.

-Good to hear that. How's the task going?

...

or

-Not to good today...

-Oh, what happen? You're OK?

More interactions depend on you to make them in the beginning. But be careful not to push. If you feel that the person doesn't like you(even tho sometimes it's just a feeling and the person actually didn't get know you), make a step back. You don't have to reach awkward moments and you will keep that away by starting with small things as I said previously, and growing the level of small-talk step by step, or by letting grow naturally.

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First thing: Get a Dane to teach you a Danish version of the sentence:

I am sorry, but my Danish is currently not good enough to follow. Can we switch to English please?

Then practice that sentence to pronounce it perfectly. This will function as a gesture of courtesy as you show that you made an effort. I usually do this when I go on holiday to anywhere I don´t speak the language.

Then just proceed in English. As you noticed most Danes speak English quite well. As this is a rather small country, not all media gets translated so most are used to encounter some English during their normal life.

Normally it is a matter of courtesy in any group to speak in a language all can understand. But it is also quite normal to slip into ones mother-language when addressing someone with the same language. I know this from our mix of German/English/French employees. It is neither rude nor unfriendly to remind one to switch back to English.

If you have doubts about what your colleagues think about your lack of engagement with them, you can just be open an explain yourself. Something along the lines:

Sorry if I seem disengaged from time to time. Its just that I have trouble following you in Danish right now, and I don´t want to force you to speak English all the time.

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