Why do you always speak to us Swedish learners in English?
I know you're very, very good at English, and I know my Swedish is far from perfect. But surely if I could only practise my Swedish a little then you wouldn't need to be doing me any more language favours.
I remember when I was new to Sweden and I'd prepared all night for a shopping exchange. I had my eye on some red trousers and I was going to buy them – in Swedish – from a hipster hangout in Stockholm. My accent was questionable but my grammar was flawless.
I went in and said “Hello, I'd like to buy these trousers, please”.
“Splendid choice, young man,” the shopkeeper responded in English, twirling his moustache. “They're a dashing pair indeed.”
The trousers were splendid, he was right, but why was he talking about them in English?
Upon more than three years' reflection, I've decided on three reasons why Swedes answer foreigners in English.
1: Efficiency. Why mess around when you can get to the point?
2: You like speaking English and want to practise.
3: You're showing off.
Whichever way, it's no wonder so many many foreigners in Sweden never master Swedish, or never bother trying. You Swedes sometimes don't give us a chance.
So what can we do when Swedes refuse to speak Swedish? Again, three things:
1: Be stubborn and respond in Swedish.
2: Chuckle inwardly, continue in English, and write an article about it one day.
3: If it's someone you won't see again, pretend you're Polish and say you can't speak English anyway*.
*If they can speak Polish you might be in trouble.
I decided to bring up the subject with Sweden's etiquette queen Magdalena Ribbing, who has penned 15 books on manners and writes a regular column for the Dagens Nyheter newspaper. I asked her whether Swedes were in the wrong when they answered foreigners in English.
“If they do that then they're being very rude indeed,” she responded without even a second's thought.
“Swedes think they're helping by showing off that they've done their homework, and what's more, they want to seem a little cool and 'urban' by speaking English. And we absolutely don't want to come across as being from the countryside,” she continued.
“But it's not helpful. Much more so as we don't speak half as good English as we think we do.”
The rules, she said, were simple.
“You should always use the language of the country you are in unless someone explicitly says they can't. I don't walk around London saying ursäkta,” she says. “And just the same, I shouldn't be walking around Sweden assuming people are from an English-speaking country.”
Well fancy that, I have the etiquette queen on my side.
Now what's your excuse?