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'Samfundssind': How a long-forgotten word rallied a nation
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Food preparation in the JunkFood kitchen
A word buried in the history books helped Danes mobilise during the pandemic, flattening the curve and lifting community spirit.
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Danish chef Rasmus Munk shocked the culinary world last year with the opening of his audacious Copenhagen restaurant Alchemist, which offers a multisensory food and entertainment experience across 50 courses and five acts. More surprising, still, was what the Michelin-starred chef did next when the pandemic brought his marathon meals to an abrupt halt on 15 March. 

By 19 March, Munk had pivoted from serving 2,900kr ($450) worth of molecular gastronomy (think wood ants preserved in candy ‘amber’ and cherry-infused lamb brains) for 48 nightly guests to whipping up 600 daily portions of down-to-earth staples (such as pasta carbonara and chicken puff pie) for Copenhagen’s homeless and socially vulnerable residents.

“I put out a call for help on Instagram, and the next day I had nearly 1,000 emails from fellow chefs and everyday people who offered to drive the food out to the 14 shelters we now work with,” he explains. Hotels and restaurants also got in touch to donate food that would have otherwise gone to waste. Soon, Alchemist’s four kitchens were buzzing with masked volunteers, and the nascent social responsibility project JunkFood, which Munk had started as an experiment before the pandemic, took root. 

“We all could have been at home relaxing, but I think we felt like we were obligated to do something that was beyond our own needs,” he says. “Of course, it was not just us. Denmark really came together, and I think samfundssind was a big part of it.”

Chefs at Alchemist restaurant, with help from volunteers, switched from haute cuisine to providing hearty fare for the vulnerable during the pandemic (Credit: Claes Bech Poulsen)

Chefs at Alchemist restaurant, with help from volunteers, switched from haute cuisine to providing hearty fare for the vulnerable during the pandemic (Credit: Claes Bech Poulsen)

Hygge – which roughly translates to ‘a quality of cosiness’ – may be the most appropriated Danish word of the past decade, but it’s samfundssind that’s really come to define the nation in the era of Covid-19. If hygge is something you practice with people you know, samfundssind is more of a behaviour towards those you might not know. Rarely used until just a few months ago, it’s now entered the Danish vernacular in an explosive way. 

Like hygge, there’s no direct English translation of samfundssind. Marianne Rathje, senior researcher at the Danish Language Council, says you can think of it as putting the good of the greater society above your own personal interests. Danes believe this word has played a key role in the country’s successful response to the pandemic, and it may just offer clues for how the rest of the world can follow suit. 

Society in mind 

Rathje says samfundssind is a compound noun of ‘samfund’ (society) and ‘sind’ (mind). It dates back to 1936, and made an historical cameo in a call for solidarity by then prime minister Thorvald Stauning at the outbreak of World War II. Thereafter, it lay in relative dormancy until Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen revived the word at a press conference on 11 March of this year announcing the first major measures to shut down the country. She presented samfundssind to Danes as having two main pillars: collective responsibility and community spirit.

‘Samfundssind’ is a compound noun of ‘samfund’ (society) and ‘sind’ (mind). It dates back to 1936

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

According to Rathje, usage of samfundssind in the Danish media soared from 23 mentions in February to 2,855 in March. In the first six months of 2019, samfundssind appeared 611 times in Danish newspapers and magazines, compared to 9,299 times in the same period this year. 

“All Danes watched the prime minister’s press conferences, and that gave us the same vocabulary,” explains Rathje. “The word reminded us to look at corona as a joint situation where it was important not to think of your own needs, but to think about yourself as part of a bigger cause.”

The word samfundssind was revived by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen in March as she set out Denmark's response to Covid-19 (Credit: Alamy)

The word samfundssind was revived by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen in March as she set out Denmark's response to Covid-19 (Credit: Alamy)

The word was well chosen, she adds, when compared to the nearby synonym solidaritet (solidarity), which has connotations of the working class or of left-wing ideologies. “Samfundssind has been so relatively rarely used that it doesn’t have any connotations yet, except for corona[virus].” 

Once the word was re-introduced, hash-tagged and diffused on social media, researchers such as Kristian Kongshøj, of the Institute of Political Science at Aalborg University, were curious to find out how widely it would be adopted. Would younger generations really practice as much samfundssind as their parents and grandparents? 

Youth in action 

As it turns out, they did. In a survey of 1,020 citizens conducted in late March, Kongshøj found no notable differences in behaviour across generations. Men were slightly less vigilant in their social distancing and personal hygiene than their female counterparts, however the survey found that Danes, as a whole, stood broadly together to make samfundssind a form of patriotism.

Danes, as a whole, stood broadly together to make samfundssind a form of patriotism

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. He believes that the word played a crucial role in Denmark flattening the curve. 

“Suddenly, you need everyone to behave the same way, and how do you do that? Well, you need to develop new norms extremely rapidly so that those who deviate from these norms become ashamed,” he explains. “What helps in Denmark, and what we found, is that there is quite a lot of trust in politicians, but they can only do so much.” 

Samfundssind worked, he adds, because the prime minister introduced it as a new norm, and the society, which trusted her, embraced it voluntarily. It’s a model the rest of the world may seek to replicate, albeit one that’s less easily adaptable in nations as politically polarised as the US or UK, where polls show little public confidence in leadership’s handling of the pandemic.

The JunkFood project is to continue, even though Alchemist has now reopened its doors (Credit: Soren Gammelmark)

The JunkFood project is to continue, even though Alchemist has now reopened its doors (Credit: Soren Gammelmark)

Rathje says she doesn’t see samfundssind tip-toeing back into linguistic obscurity any time soon. Rather, the idea of putting aside individuality for the benefit of the community has become an even stronger pillar of Danish identity. 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. 

As for Munk, his JunkFood project will continue indefinitely, albeit out of a separate kitchen now that Alchemist has reopened its doors to the public. He may be back in action crafting sorbet lollipops shaped like seahorses, but his commitment to samfundssind, like the rest of his fellow Danes, is still going strong.

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