2016 seems to have been a year full of turmoil and tragedy, both on lots of micro-levels as well as nationally and internationally. A referendum and an election left Britain/Europe and The US/the world in a state of deep uncertainty and fear for the future, and countless artists and entertainers died leaving many feeling bereft and with a strong sense that we are definitely at the end of an era – one that was incredibly important for the development especially of music.
However, being a Danish ex-pat or – as some British might be more inclined to put it after Brexit – an immigrant from Denmark, I would say that there was another major casualty in 2016: HYGGE. This was the year that a Danish word – which basically means an experience of intimacy and cosyness – became commercialised and bastardized to such an extent here in Britain that I harbour strong concerns whether it can still be alive and well in Denmark.
The amount of books published about HYGGE this year makes me suspect that all the major publishers put their heads together sometime last year and decided what the next book-buying craze should be. Take note: next year it will be something else that will impel us to spend our money on advice on how to achieve that illusive foreign thing that must be why people from this nation are happier than anyone else – certainly happier than us. And as long as they can keep us chasing this hope that we can buy or bake ourselves to hygge, happiness and whatever else comes next, they will keep selling books and making a profit.
Not that I have bought any of these books. Being Danish I suppose I assume I know how to ‘hygge’ – I certainly know how to pronounce it better than most attempts I have seen. It is not pronounced hoo-gah as everyone seems to claim. But the problem for English people is that the sound/pronounciation of the first vowel – the Y – doesn’t exist in English. It exists in Scots, German and all the Scandinavian languages (and probably in countless others), but it doesn’t exist in English. It is like a sharpened ooh – you tensen your lips even more than when saying ooh. In German it’s spelt with an ű, in Danish with an y. The description on how to pronounce the second syllable is not much better, but I suppose it’s something that needs to be heard to really understand it.
According to one of the numerous lifestyle magazines around in the UK today, HYGGE is why the Danes are reportedly so happy. And its examples of hygge includes baking a cake, hot chocolate, mulled wine, making mood lighting and smørrebrød – the Danish open sandwiches on ryebread. The last one kind of baffles me – I can’t imagine any Dane equating eating smørrebrød for lunch with hygge, but hey, it’s Danish, so it must, by definition, be hygge! However, I also have to object to any of the other things being hygge at all. They most definitely are not. But they do have the potential (definitely more than smørrebrød!) of propelling a Dane into a ‘hyggelig’ mood or to describe an event as ‘hyggelig’.
To me it shows a complete lack of comprehension of what hygge is and how the human element and connection is what creates hygge, not what you do or surround yourself with. However, the trend in retail and fashion takes the bastardisation of hygge even further. According to an article in the Guardian from October, you can – along with the numerous books on the subject – also buy ‘hygge-candles’, £60 hygge slippers and apparently there is an entire ‘Hygge range’ from a luxury loungewear company. And by now I’m sure many more leading brands have jumped on the bandwagon – anything can be twisted just to increase profit it would seem.
The thing is that hygge is an experience. It may be possible to buy things like candles and to add coffee/tea/hot chocolate/cake/wine to increase your chances of having a ‘hyggelig’ time, but nothing you buy can produce it for you, it’s something you need to know how to do. Most Danish people use the word very liberally. You see two children playing contentedly in a room and you’ll say that they really ‘hygger’. You go a family gathering on a Sunday afternoon and no matter how it actually was, you would usually thank the hosts the next time you see them and say it was really ‘hyggelig’ – whether there were candles and homemade cakes or not. To ‘hygge’ with someone you need to know them fairly well – hence the notion of intimacy. You can say that a place looks ‘hyggelig’, but you wouldn’t automatically equate that with the experience you would have there – you can easily be in a ‘hyggelig’ place and have an argument. An activity is not hygge, but it can be hyggelig, depending on the people doing it and their connection.
Cosyness and intimacy exists in all cultures and all have their own unique way of relating to it and describing it. People from other cultures have baked cakes, drunk hot chocolate/coffe/wine and worn cosy slippers and socks for as long as the Danes, and I don’t think the Danes would claim that their way of doing it is superior to anybody else’s way of doing it just because there is a special word for it. You can make your house cosy and wear comfortable, snug clothes and slippers, but you can’t buy yourself to intimacy and close relations with people and in the end that’s what hygge is all about – it’s what happens between people.
I say we should leave this trend of turning human connections into a commodity in 2016 and think of it as one of the tragedies of this particularly tumultuous year. Then we can focus on how to make 2017 the year when human connections across cultures and social divides flourished and proved to the hate-mongers of all countries that our common humanity is much more important than those things that set us apart. Then we can start taking a real interest in how other cultures do things as a way of understanding others and celebrating diversity whilst still remaining connected to our own cultural heritage.
*** This post was first published on 03/01/2017 on a previous blog, which has now been replaced with this one. ***
© SARAPHIR QAA-RISHI