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'Are Swedes really more polite in English?'

11 May 2012, 13:18

Published: 11 May 2012 13:18 GMT+02:00

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I was sitting in a bar recently, observing an English-speaking bartender in an Irish pub, while he charmingly dominated some small talk with a bunch of Swedes.

Later, after I discovered that he was both proficient and educated in Swedish, I asked him why he’d chosen to speak English with the customers.

He got serious all of a sudden and glanced around the room. Checked on the Svenssons to make sure they were still having a good time. Then he leaned in close, confiding in me.

I could smell the stale chili nuts on his breath.

“The secret to getting by in Sweden isn’t learning Swedish,” he said.

“Certainly, learn it, embrace it, but the real secret is knowing when to stick to English. You see, Swedes are more polite in English.”

I was stunned. Gobsmacked even. I’d never considered this before. I’d always got better help in English, sure, but I’d put that down to the fact that Swedes understand my English better than my Swedish.

The bartender continued.

“If you need or want something from a Swede, always speak English.”

“How do you mean,” I asked.

“Well, if I’ve got the wrong train ticket, I’ll speak English. If I’m in a shop and need something a little out of the ordinary, English. Nightclub bouncers, unquestionably English. And the best secret of all, for me anyway, is that Swedes are much better tippers if the conversation has been in English.”

Almost as if on cue, a smiling Swede waved farewell from the other side of the bar, and the bartender picked up the pile of change he’d left behind.

“Goodbye,” they both yelled, very apparently in English, I noted.

I’ll admit, this whole concept was new to me, and if true, rather frustrating. I’d spent my formative Swedish-speaking months working in a bar, struggling with new Swedish words, heading home with empty pockets and a twisted tongue.

I should note that my bartending was even more questionable than my Swedish, but my pockets were still empty and I still can’t make a good martini.

Sober reflection on the bartender’s words aroused my curiosity. Are Swedes more polite in English? Is purposely speaking English the secret handshake that opens doors to unknown opportunity.

Ask a foreigner, they may agree. But what about if you ask a Swede?

I’ve since asked regular Swedes about these revelations and they’ve all been floored.

“That’s ridiculous,” they protest, “We don’t act differently… do we?”

Well, do they? Do Swedes tip more, help more, chat more just because they’re speaking the expat’s lingua franca? It’s a well-known fact that people have different personalities when speaking different languages. So is the backup Swedish personality a more polite one?

I talked to a Swedish expert on etiquette, manners and style - Magdalena Ribbing - author of 15 books on the subject and columnist for the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper.

Her response was frank and surprising.

“Well, this isn’t something I’ve noticed as I mostly talk to Swedes in Swedish. But I can say this: Swedes are not particularly polite, generally speaking,” she told me.

“Pleasantries are not a Swedish specialty. The ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me’s’ have not been needed, and not been used.”

But why not? Does this mean that Swedes are not actually more polite in English, rather, that they’re rude in Swedish?

“In short, people just aren’t accustomed to being polite while speaking Swedish,” Ribbing said.

“It’s a question of national adaptation. It’s also a cultural thing. In France, everyone is polite – provided you’re speaking French. People are always walking around saying ‘Bonjour madame, bonjour monsieur’ but you never hear a ‘Goddag min dam’ in Sweden.

“You see, this a vast country, and people have not been talking to one another for a long time. In Britain, where a much bigger population lives in a much smaller place, the English are simply forced to talk more, and a certain politeness has naturally developed.”

Interesting. So the etiquette expert reveals that the population density of Sweden makes people “less polite” than in other countries. But what about when they speak English.

“That’s a good question and I don’t really have an answer for it. We can only speculate,” she said.

Story continues below…

I went back to the bar for some more speculation. Instead of asking the bartender why he speaks English, I asked him why he thought Swedes were more polite.

He had a more concrete theory. He claimed it’s because people feel they’re back on holiday when they’re in his bar. Happier times, perhaps. I’ve asked other bartenders since, especially in Irish bars, and their stories are the same.

Others claim it might be because Swedes get caught off guard, perhaps a little nervous and eager to please – the famous “be nice to a tourist” syndrome. Perhaps it’s because they want to show-off their often impeccable talents with their back-up language (and I stress, Swedes are brilliant at English).

So, whether it’s true that Swedes are naturally “ruder” in Swedish, or whether Swedes are simply happier and thus politer in English, we’ll probably only ever be able to speculate.

But if you’re a Swede reading this, make a note to see if you act differently when speaking English, and then, more importantly – ask yourself why.

Meanwhile, if you’re a struggling bartender, Swedish or otherwise, take the next customer in English and let me know how it goes for you.

And if the tips start rolling in, grab me a martini. On you.

I’ve gotta learn sometime.

Oliver Gee

Follow Oliver on Twitter here

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Your comments about this article

14:07 May 11, 2012 by Abe L
Atleast they don't go around and adding "sh1t", "fuck1" and "h3ll".

Silly profanity filter on thelocal.
14:24 May 11, 2012 by Greysuede
There's no need to talk in english too much in Sweden to make it look like a colony of British empire!
14:25 May 11, 2012 by foxpur
I think the issue is usage in society of English.

Swedes are taught how to use 'polite' English, and don't handle conflict in English very well, (Swedes don't handle conflict very well in general). They know how to be formal in structure, even using profanity, and don't have the common usage and abbriviated structure that allow one to be disagreeable in English.
14:55 May 11, 2012 by Ade70
I get much better service if I speak to waitresses/waiters in English, they seem genuinely more interested. Though I don't really speak with much of an accent, i'm not sure if someone with a strong dialect would get the same reaction.

I think it's due to the fact that Swedes (at least the under 50's) enjoy speaking English as they don't get to do it so often.
15:22 May 11, 2012 by Tennin
I've noticed this behaviour too.
15:34 May 11, 2012 by eppie
And to agree with the barkeeps statements. Indeed you need to choose the time to speak English.

One big reason for this is that your position in a discussion is stronger if your opponent does not speak in his/her mother tongue. And Swedes are polite enough to stock to English, also in discussions of course. (the same strategy would not work in France).
15:45 May 11, 2012 by canuk
to be honest, i recently got laid telling a girl that i only spoke english. i am proficient in swedish and speak only swedish at work however i was in a nightclub and started talking in english saying i knew no swedish. i made a small mistake however on the cab ride home when the cabbie (someone from the middle east) asked which number was mine, i replied, and in swedish...she asked me if i did know swedish and i said i had assumed what he was asking as i recognized the street. was a fun night...

i dont get why the swedes are infatuated with america, england and the like, they have a much better society then either of these places.
16:04 May 11, 2012 by banuazizi
Well this is a complete contradiction to what I have always thought about Swedes being helpful. I have always noticed that if I spoke Swedish, of course they would immediately know that I'm a foreigner, I would get "out of the ordinary" things done. When I wanted to open a student bank account, my friends were told to apply and wait for a week. Same bank, I talked to the teller in Swedish and explained my situation that I didn't want to keep money at home ... and had a bank account 5 minutes later.

Speaking Swedish for me has meant that I can get things done in shorter time and sometimes if they had been impossible if I was English speaking.

There had been one time I remember when I opened a beer just outside systembolaget and half way through the bottle a vakt came towards me, keeping cool, I talked in my British English and surprisingly he let me be, just asked to "go drink it further away from systembolaget" next time :D
16:17 May 11, 2012 by tadchem
Other than the odd word or two from the Anglo-Saxons, English is really a poor language for being rude or offensive.

Do not confound a lack of knowledge of the most vulgar words with 'politeness.'

Yiddish boasts the most powerful insults, with Irish Gaelic a close second.

"Politeness" is really a matter of style rather than language.

To truly humilate someone is an art form in any language.

Why simply call someone a 'son-of-a-b*tch' when you can praise the sharpness of his mother's dewclaws?
16:21 May 11, 2012 by jack sprat
It's right enough.

The English language definitely commands respect in Sweden, though I wouldn't try to analyse the reasons why, which could be many and complex.
06:27 May 12, 2012 by Marc the Texan
I definitely notice this. A Texas accent helps even more.
06:40 May 12, 2012 by MGD123
Surprised to discover that the Irish bar tender is a significantly faster learner than your Aussie correspondent!!
15:01 May 12, 2012 by skylarkpilot
Not so sure about Swedes being more polite in English. They certainly do not understand how rude the "F" word actually is. Many of them drop it into conversations at the most inappropriate moments. I was buying paint the other day. The guy was really helpful as I did not know many of the words in Swedish (SFI doesn't teach halv blank and alkydlackerad whatever it is). At the end of a perfectly pleasant conversation he virtually shouted "and now I have a real f 'in problem because our till isn't working" I burts out laughing and he did not know why.
18:24 May 12, 2012 by MikeyV77
My wife and I live in the US, but my wife is Swedish and she agree with the story. Her theory was that Swedish people aren't as open to talking to complete strangers as Americans are.

She doesn't agree with the article saying that, Swedish don't like confrontation. My wife isn't afraid to confront people. I'm not sure if that's the way she was when she was living back in Sweden 8 years ago or if that's somethings she picked up from being over here,
06:53 May 13, 2012 by Marc the Texan

Agree with your point on F bombs as well as a whole range of other words. I think the problem is that lots of Swedes learn their language from all the terrible US movies that manage to make it to Sweden.
10:18 May 13, 2012 by Beaniebear
Wow, This is so true!!! I never really thought about it, but even though I speak Swedish very well, I do switch to English if I want better service or if I am in an upscale place.

I also use English when I want to make a point of setting an example of good manners for other Swedes. If there is a pregnant woman, or older person who cannot find a seat on the bus or subway, I always offer mine to them in English, with a smile and comment about how it's my pleasure to be helpful.

Occasionally I my path will cross with a xenophobic older person, but I just smile and tell them in fluent Swedish that I am not in the habit of biting and that seems to help most of the time.

After I first had moved to Sweden and went on my first vacation outside of Sweden I went for a walk on the beach. After only a half kilometer of walking, I was moved to tears because I realized how much I missed people looking at you, smiling and saying good morning as they passed one another.

The extreme lack of politeness among the general population of Swedes is probably the single most depressing thing about living in Sweden. Whenever I have been out of the country for a while and I return, I am so struck by the lack of manners in this country. I hate that when you pass someone, even a neighbor, they go out of their way to not look at you. I sincerely miss eye contact, a smile and a "good day".

I myself am a Swede but I really appreciate the fact that I was raised outside of Sweden where I was taught proper manners.
05:43 May 14, 2012 by SockRayBlue
I always wondered why my relatives were so polite in America.
12:41 May 14, 2012 by Eagle63
Lower population density does not mean less polite; look at Canada, a country with a much lower population density than Sweden; they're the most polite and friendly people in the known Universe...!

Although I like the Swedes very much, its much easier to make new friends in Canada (and the US) than in Sweden..
15:58 May 15, 2012 by Birger Johansson
Hmmm... yes, but Swedish teenagers adopt the worst English-language expressions they can find in films and TV. Every dialogue is full of Sh*t and F*ck. It sounds like a soundbite from "Do The Right Thing".
20:12 May 15, 2012 by Frank Arbach
I've always found that Swedes are incapable of being polite - regardless of whatever language they speak.

Its a cultural/educational quality: I don't think ANY Swedish child is told, at school, 'There are other people in this world, apart from you'. Swedish people always think their rights must come before anybody else's
04:32 May 16, 2012 by Timoteus
This has ABSOLUTELY been my experience. I speak very good Swedish, and in an old fashioned polite way. "Kan Ni vara god och..." and am met with total rudeness. When that happens, I ask my Swedish wife to speak in English, and she receives VERY polite treatment making the same request. I can think of other examples, but the premise of this article IS TRUE, at least based on my many experiences. Thanks for writing and posting this article. Hopefully, a Swede or true might learn from it. (I believe Swedes were once VERY polite. Unfortunately, that was at least two generations ago.)
12:05 May 16, 2012 by Social Hypocrisy
Wow, interesting subject posted by the Local!

I think this is definately true... to a point. Ive been here 8 years now and have definately notice this.

Thats said you have to be very carefull about where and when to use english. I'm still grappeling with this but I use this system.

If I am PAYING for something and they are providing a service I use english but only if its privately owned and not state run (basically if they are living on your custom).

If I want something (information, help, advice) and am not paying for it, I always use swedish.

As to whether swedes are ruder than brits.... hmmmmm not sure there. I think they definately dont belive in being polite just for the sake of it, that would be false in there eyes.

I think when they speak english they are genuinely appreciate for the chance to brush up on there language skills.

Im not sure how much english training they get at school but its around a few hrs a week for say 10years.

Lets say 3hr x 30wks x 10 years = 900hrs

Your average immigrant if they push themselves will have far in excess of this after 5 years.

30hrs x 52wks x 5 years = 7800hrs

As you can see a immigrants command of swedish is way better than the average swedes command of english after 5 years.

I digress... my point is after 5 years of living in another country (reguardless where and which) people who can speak two languages are in a far stronger position to control the power balance of a conversation.

Its called evolution!

But before we all get a little smug about our lingual dexterity. Remember that without wisdom power is nothing.
23:46 May 16, 2012 by Swedishmyth
There are several reasons why Swedes are more polite when speaking English. Most of them have been explored here: novelty, practice, lack of fluency, politeness toward strangers etc.

But another reason is the differences between the languages themselves. A language is a reflection of a society's culture, and so Swedish is much like Sweden: egalitarian, cynical, and unromantic. The qualities inherent in English move Swedes closer toward its cultural base when they use it, even as non-native speakers.
06:09 May 17, 2012 by TheXerox
I find this article interesting as I am an American of Swedish descent and my family, while being native American English speakers, has always had a quiet and reserved demeanor about them which is often misinterpereted as being aloof or rude by other people who aren't quite so - Swedish.

I study langagues as a hobby and I notice what many others have mentioned about English in that much of the politeness is built in both linguistically and culturally where it doesn't seem to be the case with Swedish and other Nordic languages. Although I do agree with the geographic isolation suggestion which was mentioned, it does make sense. Here in the US, one must go out of their way to not be around another person and it is perceived as being VERY rude if at least some basic form of pleasantries aren't exchanged. I have had to explain this to some of my native Swedish relatives when speaking with them about coming to the US and they notice it right away. English is a language and culture where one is all but expected to be very open with pleasantries, Swedish, not so much.
20:50 May 17, 2012 by johan rebel
"Yiddish boasts the most powerful insults, with Irish Gaelic a close second"

You should try Afrikaans.
23:02 May 17, 2012 by Swedish Meatbulls
So So true. Ive been here 28 year fluent in Swedish, but when I'm out on the town I always revert back to my own language and it gets you into the pubs and clubs and with a much better service.
04:35 May 18, 2012 by Brent Schumacher
This kind of reserved behavior reminds me of what we have here in the US state of Minnesota. It's referred to as "Minnesota Nice", and other people describe it as 'cold'. There's a strong Scandinavian heritage here, wonder if it's just a coincidence.
16:10 May 18, 2012 by scandiland
I'm Swedish and I've lived in England for thirty years. And, much as I love, and always will love Sweden, I have to say it is true, Swedes don't say hello to people if they don't already know them. In England many people love to chat with strangers, it makes life more interesting and more fun. So, come on all you lovely Swedes, next time you stand next to another person, look the person in the eye, smile and say hello, you have nothing to lose but a good chat and maybe making a new friend.
10:33 May 19, 2012 by KM2012
I'm Swedish too and I would like to point to something that might be cultural differences between countries. Most Swedish people I know are very hesitant to intrude on other peoples privacy. So that they don't talk to you right away might be because they don't want to intrude on your space. I have lived abroad for many years and I would say that Swedish people are very helpful but when it comes to language you are polite in other ways in Swedish than in English. You rephrase a question instead of tagging a polite ending to a phrase. Also a lot of the more superficial politeness might be lacking in Sweden but it actually does not mean that people are more rude. I would say Swedish people are very helpful but can come across as rude since there are cultural differences in how we express one and other. Then of course I also think the Swedes should get better and holding doors, saying hello in the street etc because it is really nice. But I think one might be over-interpreting by thinking that this is out of rudeness. Instead I would say that you will meet a lot of genuine kindness in Sweden if you don't stop at the surface but take your time to talk to people and ask for their help.
00:35 May 20, 2012 by jostein
Hm. I would be more prone to using out of place profanities in english since they dont have the same edge to my own ear.

As for the general theory of the article. Maybe. But also, a person speaking their mother tongue will be more powerfull than a person speaking a learned language. Maybe its not politeness as such but merely a shift in power? When i learned spanish i felt like i was 5 years old again and it was very frustrating and i was totally dependent on the goodwill of the spanish i met. Fortunately, the spanish are, by and large, splendidly friendly and social and accomodating people that like to communicate, no matter little deficiencies in my grammer. But still, i could not assert myself in spanish.
20:50 May 20, 2012 by AnnafromSweden
Me and my English husband are hoping to move to Sweden from France soon, and my standard reply to people who worry about how he will fit in is "Not to worry, Englishmen are like pets in Sweden". My husband agrees, people can't seem to do enough for him in Sweden! As you can understand, he's very keen to move soon, and asks if anyone wants to buy a house in Bretagne ; )
16:59 May 21, 2012 by SötTroll
Really interesting article, and it made me think :)

First and foremost I think that much have to do with upbring and how hard your parents were on "thank you" and "please". The reason why we swedes seems like more polite in english I think is because that's how we are taught the language, I remember from my own school days the importance of being polite when talking in english, "you have to be polite, you have to say please and thank you, that's how its done!" and that's something that stick with you, if you speak english, be polite.The reason why many young adults/teens use all those f-words and s-words is that well, since it isnt our mothertounge we arn't raised with the "wrongness" (Is that a word?) of saying them, the equaliant in swedish are not considered as that rude. I know my mum (working as a english teacher for year 10-12) always have to stress the point of the rudeness of those words, and that they shouldn't be used in a civil converstation.
08:56 May 22, 2012 by BackpackerKev
"I talked to a Swedish expert on etiquette, manners and style - Magdalena Ribbing - author of 15 books on the subject" - "Well, this isn't something I've noticed as I mostly talk to Swedes in Swedish"

Shes an expert, but she's has never contemplated talking english to see changes in behaviour? 15 books on one subject, i guess she couldn't fit it all into one book, or get it right first time, i wouldn't call that an expert.

For me, the swedish language is very rude and how people react during conversations can be rude and unacceptable in many cultures. I wouldnt say other cultures are much better, but we use please and thankyou alot more with less expectation that people do so as we ask, in sweden everything seems more like a command.
14:01 May 22, 2012 by lilsocks

That is utter rubbish. Unfortunately the profanity checker will stop me from showing you quite how wrong you are.
14:33 May 22, 2012 by CDNinSWE
I just had to signup to comment about this topic... one quote in particular...

"You see, this a vast country, and people have not been talking to one another for a long time. In Britain, where a much bigger population lives in a much smaller place, the English are simply forced to talk more, and a certain politeness has naturally developed."

I am a Canadian and, correct me if I'm wrong, but Canada is a much more 'vast' country than Sweden, no? And I can honestly say that Canadian are the nicest people I've interacted with. Very polite, and will often say hello to a stranger!

The size of your country has nothing to do with being rude!
09:33 May 23, 2012 by nuke
I'm from the UK and I too worked this out many years ago. I notice for many years that when I went into a shop or cafe and asked for help or ordered something in fluent Swedish then I often felt for some strange reason a little guilty for just being there. many tmes I felt invisible and quite often I got the feeling that I was being a nuicance for the people working there, just by being there. I couldn't understand it, because why should I feel awkward just going into a shop or cafe? The coffee could for example be good but the manner with which it was served left me many times wanting to leave. It was almost as if I was the one sent to serve the person behind the counter so as to make THEM happy!

When I instead spoke English, I found that the situation was reversed. Suddenly I found that people behind the counter smiled and asked me if I wanted any help. Suddenly they became not only polite but also alive and friendly.

I asked a friend who is the son of a diplomat and who had the benefit of growing up in many cultures around the world what he thought about this. His answer was very simple.

In Sweden everyone is equal, and so the concept of 'serving others' is difficult to grasp for many Swedes, because in serving others one automatically puts the person being served slightly 'higher up'. This is reflected in the way they are treated with greater respect, politness and sometimes even reverence. If you treat someone like this, he said, then obviously you are not equal any more, because if the customer us 'slightly up', then where does that put you? 'Slightly down' or 'below' of course, and this is simply unacceptable.

So, my friend explained, if you speak Swedish, then you will be treated like a Swede, as an equal, and as an equal you don't deserve more respect than anyone else, which is why you get the 'normal treatment', which is pretty blunt and impersonal, or at best just 'politely' neutral.

If you however speak English, then you could be a visitor to the country. For a Swede it then is easier to 'lower oneself' for a moment, for the benefit of the visitor, because it is only for a moment, and it will look good in everyone's eyes. We Swedes don't want to make a bad impression with foreigners, he said.

He added that some Swedes may also be more polite and friendly when others speak English because they have lived abroad and appreciate the difference.
17:51 May 23, 2012 by efm
Let me speculate.

This may be common in Sweden but also in other small countries with unique culture. Everybody knows English as the universal language of communication, travel, etc., and so if one speaks in English, it is assumed that he is a foreigner, businessman or traveller and thus, the local people will

speak in English with a certain measure of politeness and decorum. Who wants to speak in a foreign language and use rude words? But if one opens up in the local dialect, then you get the same treatment as others.
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