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‘Are Swedes really more polite in English?’

After a curious claim by a bartender about Swedes' manners, The Local's Oliver Gee looks deeper into the question of whether a whole nation may be more polite when using English instead of Swedish.

'Are Swedes really more polite in English?'

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.

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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Reader’s view: Why is it so hard for Sweden to accept English in public life?

A reader of The Local shares her story of trying to enter the Swedish job market after completing her doctoral studies.

Reader's view: Why is it so hard for Sweden to accept English in public life?
File photo of two women, not related to the article, having a conversation. Photo: mentatdgt/Pexels

Under the Swedish public eye, those put into the category of “undesirable” or “wrong-typed” migrants such as asylum seekers, refugees, and unskilled workers from poorer countries in the global South have often become the target of heated debates on governmental spending, neoliberalised administration, and moral public sentiments.

Yet, another group of migrants, those seen as a more “right” type of migrants that Sweden wants to attract – the high-skilled international researchers – remains invisible and overlooked while this group continues facing everyday exclusionary barriers and bureaucratic administrative obstacles.

In addition to the Swedish linguistic barrier that excludes foreign academics in their everyday workplace at Swedish universities, it appears as though the whole Swedish administrative system is not welcoming any foreigner, including high-skilled foreign academics, despite the government's avowed promises of hospitality.

My recent experience could be seen as an example of this bureaucratic and xenophobic logic of the New Public Management in Sweden – in which I believe that many other international researchers could have shared a similar experience.

My employment contract as a doctoral candidate at a Swedish university ended in June 2020. I was told by my union that it was imperative to register my unemployment at the Swedish Employment Agency, Arbetsförmedlingen, which I did. Yet, the whole registration process has alienated me, a non-Swedish speaker, because all the instructions were written in Swedish only.

I navigated by using Google Translate from Swedish to English, though I was not certain whether the translation was accurate. Towards the end of the online registration process at Arbetsförmedlingen, I was asked to book a mandatory interview by phone with Arbetsförmedlingen, which I complied with.

Yet, my first meeting with Arbetsförmedlingen turned out to be a failure, which irritated both me and the Arbetsförmedlingen officers.

The phone meeting abruptly ended just after a few minutes instead of a 30-minute interview as proposed. The first officer I met on phone only spoke Swedish. When I told him that I could not speak Swedish, he passed the phone to another officer who spoke English but demanded that I must speak Swedish to him. It was obvious that he could speak English but he refused to continue speaking English to me, putting me at a disadvantage.

He asked me (in English): “How long have you been living in Sweden?” I tried to explain to him that I was very keen on learning Swedish but I had not had any sufficient time and resources due to the nature of my over-stressful PhD work, which was conducted entirely in English. But the Arbetsförmedlingen officer did not seem to understand or did not want to understand, and he blamed me personally:

“It's your responsibility to learn Swedish!” he said.

I proposed that we could hold our conversation in English since he was capable of speaking English. To my surprise, he said (in English), “No, I don't understand your English. I don't speak English. You must speak Swedish. Because you don't speak Swedish, we need an authorised translator of your mother tongue.”

Then he insisted (in English) that he would book another meeting with an authorised translator of my mother tongue. I was required to speak either Swedish or my mother tongue despite the fact that my mother tongue has not been a part of my work life, daily life, and family life for over ten years – since I have been living in English-speaking countries, working in Sweden, and am married to an English-speaking partner.

This bureaucracy, this inflexibility, and insufficiency of public administration, together with its hostility against non-Swedish speakers, shocks me. In a country like Sweden where English is widely spoken, why is it so difficult to accept English as a second working language?

Seen from the cost-and-effect calculation, it is obvious that it would be more costly for the government to hire authorised translators for some far-away mother tongue languages of those who already live in English-speaking countries, obtain a Swedish PhD degree, and speak English.

If language is simply a means of communication between the government and its citizens, could it be wiser to accept English as a second official means of communication and administration so that administrative tasks could run smoothly? In terms of administrative efficiency, could it be more reasonable to accept English when the country at the current moment cannot even provide enough resources for Swedish learning?

At my workplace, for instance, there are also very limited resources and incentives for international researchers to learn Swedish (for instance, we do not get employment prolongation to learn Swedish while all the tasks carried out in English already occupy more than our full-time working hours).

Is the systematic demand on Swedish speaking while not providing enough support and resources an administrative strategy to drive out high-skilled foreigners who do not speak Swedish for some reason?

The conservative, neoliberal, nationalist and xenophobic mindset “In Sweden, we speak Swedish” and threatening proposals from opposition politicians to cut funding and restrict the rights to interpreters do not solve the Swedish problems at their root. The only thing they succeed in is creating a public fear of attack from foreigners and foreign languages, including English.

This reader's story was written by a former PhD researcher in Uppsala currently a permanent resident of Sweden, whose identity is known to The Local but who wished to remain anonymous. Do you have a story you would like to share with The Local about the highs and lows of life in Sweden? Email [email protected]
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