Editor's note: 63 percent of the graduating class of 2017 studied abroad at least once, according to the Office of International Education. The Collegian is expanding its coverage beyond Richmond and the U.S., harnessing the proximity and perspectives of an international student body. The International section will include worldwide news, opinion, interview and photo articles written by students currently studying abroad.
Hygge (pronounced HU-gah) is a Danish word with no English translation. During the word’s recent rise to somewhat international fame, you may have heard it expressed as "cozy" or "comfort." Both are correct, in a way. But thanks to my Danish professor and some culture shock, I learned very quickly after arriving in Denmark that hygge encompasses a lot more, both positive and negative.
In the positive light, hygge emblematizes the inner contentedness of being comfortable, warm, safe and happy. In a hyggeligt (meaning and pronounced “hygge-ly”) setting, you are exactly where you want to be with exactly the people you want to be with. There are no feelings of awkwardness or regret. The mood is often complemented with candles, blankets, low lighting and a warm drink but this is absolutely not required.
As my Danish professor told us, a class could be hyggeligt, a party could be hyggeligt, or you could have a hyggeligt time at an event. The expression is really about feeling as if you are with your people having a genuinely good time.
Danes constantly search for hygge.
Cafés try their hardest to entice customers with hygge decorations and lighting, products at stores are advertised as contributing to a hygge atmosphere and even Yelp reviews sometimes include a rating on how much hygge a place has.
After reading American-targeted articles and books about hygge, it might even begin to sound like a cliché. But for Danes and for Denmark, where the word has existed for decades, hygge is not a tired word or concept in the slightest. It is something that is actively part of the way Danes approach the world.
Although this pervasive attitude is excellent for keeping warm in the rainy, windy winters of Scandinavia, aspects attributed to the devotion to hygge have come under some fire as Denmark becomes a more culturally and ethnically diverse country.
A potentially more sinister aspect of hygge is the racial and economic exclusion that it can encourage.
Part of orchestrating a hyggeligt atmosphere is consciously reducing the disparities between guests as to not provoke the tension that is so antagonistic to hygge. We then can arrive at extremely homogenous, stagnant social classes that exclusively mix within themselves. And although the differences in Danish social classes are not nearly as extreme as in the US, communities such as immigrant groups (a population that increases in Denmark by the day) are left out.
A homogenous culture where uniformity and restraint are valued makes the assimilation process for many immigrants extraordinarily difficult. It also hugely reduces both opportunity and desire for socioeconomic mobility among Danes. Having also identified these problems, the Danes are slowly but surely helping change the tone about inclusion in Denmark.
As an American abroad, my tendency is to look for familiarity.
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Learning about the double-edged sword that is hygge felt reminiscent of the pros and cons that come with going to a small, elite, liberal arts university. Especially because I live in a large city abroad, I feel that recognizing the names or faces of quite a few of my fellow Spiders is a fantastic privilege. Also, feeling as though I can establish a somewhat individual, recognized identity echoes the benefits of a small college community.
I do not want to downplay what inclusiveness does thread through the Richmond community already. But it is naive to deny that the same exclusionary quality of hygge that exists in Denmark doesn’t also exist at Richmond.
I won’t reiterate these problems as they have been identified and artfully examined by countless outlets within the University: by the administration, by faculty, by students. My expectation is that you have heard, and hopefully thought critically, about them already.
This analogy is for those who continue to criticize and abstain from efforts to mitigate this exact problem on campus. In the same way that hygge in Denmark is cherished and relentlessly pursued, current campus culture is also staunchly defended by many.
Most resistance to change comes from those who have a standing invite to the dinner party. Friends, I imagine the evening will be equally as cozy and comfortable with some new faces sitting around the table.
Hygge is not going anywhere in Denmark. The same way that the things that make Richmond our home will not disappear. Candles, blankets, and coziness are universal. It’s time we all get on board with making the Richmond experience universal too.
Contributor Leah Cabo is currently studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. Contact Leah at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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