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.