The little adverb “please” has come to symbolise politeness in English requests to the extent that it might come as a surprise to some that it can also be used to express annoyance or impatience (Oh, please, do we have to hear that again?). Another potentially shocking piece of trivia is that our Nordic languages don’t really have a word for “please” at all.

The politeness principle is probably universal across all cultures even though its practical expression in the application of good manners or etiquette varies a lot. Even without the help of “please”, the Nordic languages manage to convey politeness in requests with phrases such as “be so good” or “be so kind” and “thank you” as well as with the conditional mood of verbs. The tone of voice and body language also play their part. It should be noted, though, that cultures do differ in how they define politeness and how important its role is in the culture, in comparison to, say, openness or honesty. There is a general, albeit purely non-scientific, Nordic consensus that our cultures tend to admire the latter at the expense of the former…

Elizabeth Peterson’s fascinating study “It’s Just Different” at the University of Helsinki in 2009 mapped the emotions and observations of 68 native Finnish speakers regarding the Finnish and English languages. Many of those interviewed seemed to have a sense of inferiority and inadequacy in the area of politeness when comparing their Finnish speech to its English counterpart. The main reason perceived was the use of “please”, or the lack thereof. Some speakers mentioned what they felt was an increased penchant for politeness in their Finnish after having lived abroad. A 38-year-old woman who had lived in the United States for several years said that she constantly tried to find words like “please” when speaking in Finnish, even though she knew they did not really exist.

Many of us Nordic parents with Anglo-Saxon spouses have battled with the same feelings. Any disagreements over how to apply the politeness principle usually come to a head when raising bilingual and bicultural children. Have any of us not cringed at the British or American in-laws trying to coax the magic word out of our children? While the disapproving grandparent purses their lips, the child glowers at you, totally bewildered at discovering that there actually are real magic words in their world and you had failed to disclose this information to them.

Our Swedish translator Helena tells a great story of her resourceful daughter whom her English dad was trying to teach to say “please”. The family was sitting in a park, with Helena and her husband both enjoying a smoothie. The little girl wanted some of her dad’s smoothie, but he would not give her any “unless she said please”. No manner of crying would melt his heart. After a while, Helena saw her daughter calm down and sit back to do some serious thinking. Finally, she turned to her mother and, speaking in Swedish, asked her if she could have some of daddy’s smoothie! Since you don’t need to use magic words in Swedish, Helena was more than happy to give her some.

Icebreaker, Icebreaker November 2012, Nordic culture