Forget hygee: samfundssind is the Danish import that should have been

In March 2020, weeks after the pandemic arrived in Denmark along with the rest of the world, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen laid out her Covid response, and along with it, she revived a word that hadn’t been used since the dark days of facist expansion and the dawn of the second world war: samfundssind. 

“As Danes, we usually seek community by being close together,” she said. “Now, we must stand together by keeping apart. We need samfundssind.” 

Samfundssind is Danish portmanteau of ‘samfund’ (society) and ‘sind’ (mind). It was last part of the popular vernacular in 1936, when then prime minister Thorvald Stauning found it to be a powerful tool in the battle for heart and minds. After the Danes were liberated and peace arrived in Western Europe, the word fell into obscurity, 

So when Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen revived the word at a press conference on 11 March, announcing she would shut down the country, she wisely reminded modern Danes of the collective responsibility and community spirit instilled in them through campfire tales told to them by a beloved great generation, and a word that only existed in those stories: samfundssind

Since then, researchers at the University of Copenhagen documented more than 250 new volunteer groups on Facebook for community aid projects between March and April, while spacious Copenhagen landmarks, including the theme park Tivoli and the Copenhagen Zoo, pivoted into temporary kindergarten and day-care centres during the worst of the outbreak to help home-bound workers cope. Posts tagged #samfundssind showed big and small acts of kindness, including the work of community volunteers, and call-outs for people to support local businesses – and also pointed out those who didn’t exhibit the spirit. “You could really see it in social media that there was this collective shaming of people who hoarded goods or didn’t practice samfundssind,” says Kongshøj

During a time when most of us commute between our beds and couches, hygge, the Danish word that describes ‘cosiness’, has taken the world by storm. But back at home, it’s samfundssind that’s come to define Denmark in the era of Covid-19. If hygge is something you do alone, samfundssind is about how you treat the people around you.

Marianne Rathje, senior researcher at the Danish Language Council, says you can think of samfundssind as putting the good of the greater society above your own personal interests. Many at home think the idea of samfundssind is a major part of Denmark’s successful response to the pandemic. As leading nations struggle to evoke a sense of collective responsibility in electorates where personal freedom has reigned supreme, samfundssind looks increasingly like the Danish import that should have been.

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