How the Swedes switched to calling each other “you” – A story of Nordic equality

If you watched Downton Abbey or The Crown and feel overwhelmed by the English aristocracy and their titles, think twice. No other than the Swedes (!) used to have a long tradition and a notoriously complicated system of how to call each other.

It was not you, but “someone else”. If you wanted to ask someone you knew how they are doing, you would certainly not be entitled to use the pronoun “you”(either in singular or plural). It was always he, she or them (third person). Feeling baffled?

Brace yourself for more. You would have to know each other’s place in society (high or low?), profession, education, rank, and so on to call someone appropriately.

If you happen to know German, yes, it was something similar to “Sie”, but the norms included much more than just a polite pronoun to call people you don’t know or who were older than you.

And it’s even more peculiar how the so-called “du reformen” started and spread like fire in the Swedish society of the 1960s. Follow us for the whole story.

Who are “them”? – The rules of the old Swedish etiquette

Long story short, you could almost never call someone “you”. Even if you needed to ask them something directly, you just couldn’t do that by using the pronoun “you”. It was always “them” or “he” or “she”.

Furthermore, you had to know the exact proper way to address them, based on their society or profession ranks, age, profession, title, or rank. Making a mistake would cause inappropriate misunderstandings or even offences.

Let’s lay out the rules (roll up your sleeves, wear your glasses, ready to go!)

  • if someone were senior (in any way possible), you would have to use Herr or Fru (the equivalent Swedish words for Mr and Mrs), followed by their title or position, and then the surname. For example, Herr President Olafsson. But hey, you would use that instead of you in a question, like “Would Herr President Olafsson like a cup of coffee?”
  • if someone was less senior, you could just omit Herr or Fru and call them by their title and surname.  For example, Revisor Holms.
  • if someone were your subordinate (like part of your work team), you would call them by their surname. “Did Soderquist prepare the report?”.
  • going further down in the social rank, you could just use their name but, again, in the third person singular. For example, “How is Eric doing today?”.
  • among the lower classes, yes, using he or she would suffice. “What is he eating today?” meaning “What are you (a male) eating today?”.

Using the word “du” (singular pronoun “you”) was highly inappropriate in all situations but these:

  • between spouses and lovers. “Can you bring me the milk?”
  • between friends, but close friends, after a “du skål” was initiated. That drink actually solidified a friendship and gave each other the “right” to use (God forbid) “you”.

As if all those were not enough, there were also other person-specific appropriate ways to call someone; for example, you would have to use “mother” when addressing an older woman. “Would Mother Pernilla like a cup of coffee?”.

“Do we really want all this?” wondered the Swedes

Well, one small mistake when addressing someone would suffice to cause misunderstandings and get people offended.

But what if someone did not know the other person’s title, rank, age, seniority, etc.? Why would they be to blame for inappropriate social behaviour?

As with everything in life, people (the Swedes in particular) found a workaround. Passive voice, or, let’s say, ambiguous and cumbersome formulations.

“Would a cup of coffee be desired?” instead of “Would you like a cup of coffee?”. See? No need to use a pronoun. The focus was on the object rather than the subject. Smart, huh?

The tide has turned – Thank you, Rexed

Swedes had had enough of that complicated and meaningless system of addressing people.

It was not until the 1960s that the tide turned. The spark for the “du reformen” was initiated by the Public Health Board’s General Director, Bror Rexed.

He was the one who started an unprecedented (for that place and time) reform for a more equal and egalitarian society.

In this speech, on July 3rd, 1967, he announced in front of all the employees that he would call everyone with du from now on. And he expected the same for him (to be addressed with du).

It spread like fire in Swedish society, and soon, more public figures joined the movement.  Prime Minister Palme started addressing journalists with “you”, endorsing the new social norm.

Oddly enough, it was Rexed’s surname (instead of his first name, which would sound more egalitarian and equal) that was linked to the “du reformen”.

Your Majesty – Or how 21st-century Swedes call each other

Today, only the members of the Swedish royal family are excluded from the norm, and one must use more formal expressions to address them (“Hej Victoria!” would not sound good; it’s a no-go!).

Other than that, everyone calls each other with du, regardless of age, position, or any other characteristic. Your boss? It’s a du. People you don’t know? The same. Children calling their teachers at school? It’s “Pernilla” and du.

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This is the case in all the Nordic countries today (check Denmark’s example here). It’s about feeling and being addressed as equal. No one is better or higher than the others (blame it on the Law of Jante).

The latest debate, though, is the use of the “ni” pronoun. At some point, during the de-formalization of greetings in the early 20th century, ni was used as a polite form of du. More and more people started using it until the 1960’s “revolution”.

Nowadays, ni made a small comeback and is used by some people in some cases (e.g. in a shop perhaps, when addressing customers you don’t know).

This has not been taken lightly by many Swedes, however, who certainly don’t want a return to the old system or even to new norms that would jeopardize the famous Nordic informal and equal culture.

Why the Nordic royal families are widely accepted (+5 interesting facts about them)