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Why saying 'thanks' is often the best way to say 'please' in Swedish

Becky Waterton
Becky Waterton - [email protected]
Why saying 'thanks' is often the best way to say 'please' in Swedish
Politely ordering a coffee in Swedish can be as simple as saying 'en kaffe, tack'. Photo: Lieselotte van der Meijs/

Just because Swedes don't have a direct translation for the English word 'please' doesn't mean they're more rude than English speakers. Here are all the ways you can be polite in Swedish.


What should I avoid saying?

You may have seen the word snälla as a translation for "please", and although it is probably the closest alternative in Swedish, it's not really used in the same way.

When used at the beginning of a sentence, snälla can have a pleading or whingy tone, and you'll often hear children using it when asking for something they know they probably won't get, like snälla mamma, kan jag få godis? (please mum, can I have some sweets?).

If you were to say snälla, jag vill ha en kaffe (please, I'd like a coffee), this sounds almost like you're begging the barista to give you a coffee.

For this reason you shouldn't just swap "please" directly with snälla in order to be polite – a common mistake made by beginner Swedish learners coming from English – as it will make you sound like you're pleading for something.

Snälla can also sound quite grumpy or passive-aggressive, like in a situation where you've asked someone to do something and they are ignoring your request so you repeat yourself, adding snälla for emphasis.

One example is snälla, sluta nu, which sounds like an exasperated parent who has asked their child multiple times to stop doing something pleading for them to stop, somewhat like "please, come on, stop it now".

On the other hand, you could use snälla at the end of the sentence as an alternative to "please" without it having these whingy or begging connotations, such as in the phrases är du snäll or kan du vara snäll, literally meaning "are you nice" or "can you be nice". This is the equivalent of adding "would you?" to a question in English (as in "do this, would you?").

Beware though: är du snäll can also be passive aggressive, depending on the tone.


What's the best alternative to please?

Well, it depends on context.

Often, the best alternative to please is actually to say thank you or tack. Going back to the ordering coffee scenario, saying en kaffe, tack (one coffee, thank you) is a perfectly polite method of ordering in a cafe or restaurant.

As a general rule with most languages, more polite expressions are usually longer, so you could say something like jag skulle vilja ha/beställa en kaffe, tack (I would like to have/order a coffee, thank you) if you wanted to be even more polite, or you could go even further and add a gärna in for good measure: jag skulle gärna vilja ha en kaffe, tack


Gärna is a very useful Swedish word, which can often be literally translated as "willingly" or "gladly", but is used much more often and in more informal contexts than either of those words in English.

It doesn't just mean "please" – see this article for all the other meanings of gärna – but you can often add it to a request in order to make it more polite, or as an alternative to "yes please" if someone asks you a question.

For example, you can reply to the question vill du följa med? (would you like to come along?), with gärna!, meaning "yes please" or "I'd love to", or if someone asks vill du ha mjölk och socker? (Do you want milk and sugar?), you can answer gärna mjölk, tack (Yes, I'd like milk, please). 

Often, the way you phrase a question affects the politeness more than whether you say tack or not. Asking someone directly to do something for you is often perceived as ruder than phrasing your question more indirectly.

For example, saying flytta din väska, tack (move your bag please) to someone with their bag on the seat of a train or bus would be quite rude, but saying ursäkta, får jag sitta här (excuse me, may I sit here?) is perfectly OK, even though the message is still clear that you want them to move their bag so you can sit down.


What about in written Swedish?

The rules are slightly different in written Swedish, where shorter phrases are more acceptable. For example, you're unlikely to see a sign in a shop or restaurant reading vi skulle gärna vilja att du stänger dörren när du kommer in, tack (we would be pleased if you closed the door when you come in, thank you).

Instead, you might see var snäll och stäng dörren or vänligen stäng dörren (both roughly translated as "be nice/friendly and close the door"), or even tacksam om du stänger dörren ([we would be] thankful if you closed the door) in written Swedish.

Tack and gärna often crop up on restaurant signs, too, where you may have noticed requests like håll avstånd, tack (please keep a distance) or ta gärna handsprit (please use hand sanitiser) during the pandemic.

These alternatives only really apply to signs or one-way communication though – you'd probably be expected to use a longer, more polite way of asking someone to do something if you were writing an email or a text message to them, similar to in spoken Swedish.


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