How to be polite in the Nordics (and what to avoid at all costs)
This is perhaps the greatest stereotype about the people in the Nordics: that they are cold, unapproachable and look / sound rude and snob.
Again, this is the No 1 stereotype (even prejudice, we’d dare say) about the Nordic people and it doesn’t contain not even one seed of truth. Here is why.
What appears to many cultures as rude and impolite is perfectly normal and socially acceptable among the Nordic people. You see, different cultures have different social norms and this is 100% OK.
So, what is regarded as rude in Sweden may sound normal in let’s say Italy. And what is considered impolite in the US or the UK may be just fine in Denmark and their neighbours to the north.
Stereotyping is bad. For both sides. Those who suffer its consequences often have to change their behaviour in an attempt to fit in or feel the need to apologize all the time. If they don’t it, this burden of impoliteness grows even more.
On the other hand, those who do stereotype and judge people based on prejudices usually behave in an indifferent, unfriendly or even aggressive way themselves.
Impoliteness and rudeness are self-sustaining. They cause problems and these problems reinforce their power.
The same goes with the Nordic people (as well as people from any other culture, right?).
Not greeting someone on the street, for instance, is very normal in the Nordics. However, if the other person is not aware of and does not embrace these cultural differences then issues may arise.
“Why didn’t he say hi? Have I done something wrong?” or “She pretended she didn’t recognize me while we spent some time together at the office a couple of years ago. She is snob!”. These are very common reactions.
In this article, we will explore the meaning and implications of Nordic politeness, and discover the best ways to be kind, empathetic, inclusive and POLITE if you visit the Nordics or meet and interact with people from the lands of the Northern Lights.
The true meaning of Nordic politeness
So, are the people in the Nordics rude and impolite? Certainly no. What do you have to know and do to treat them fairly, without all the myths and prejudice about being cold and impolite?
The answer lies in something we can borrow from physics: spacetime. They use this term to describe the combined nature of the universe that expands in space and time.
In a similar manner, spacetime can be used to describe the mentality and psyche of the Nordic people.
If you could pick only two things to focus on with the purpose of learning how to behave in a socially acceptable way they would be:
- respect their time
- respect their space
These two are so fundamental elements of the Nordic lifestyle, society and culture that we have to dive deeper to see where they come from.
Many would argue that they stem from Janteloven (The Law of Jente) which claims all people are equal and no one is better or higher at any level than the others.
So, regardless of age, gender, profession, ethnicity, social or economic status, all Nordic people inherently believe they are equal.
Its implication is that they feel that no one has the right to invade their personal space and time, be it the neighbour next door, a colleague at work, a distant acquaintance or the King and Queen themselves.
The road to Nordic politeness and kindness runs through the gardens of discretion and privacy.
Of course, in most cultures, no one likes their privacy to be invaded, more so by people they don’t know well or even at all. But this urge is even greater (if not gigantic) in the Nordics.
If you want to treat them politely, you have to:
- respect the day’s finite hours and associated people’s errands and schedules
- respect their personal space
In other words, don’t bother them in any way, unless it’s something of major importance or urgency.
That includes among others:
- no small talk
- no talking to strangers on the bus, on the street, in the supermarket etc
- no sitting right next to others when there is ample space around
- no unnecessary talking, stick to the basics and say what you want to say in a short and to the point way
Also, expect that they will treat you in the same way, too. They most certainly won’t do any of the things above to you either. So, don’t misunderstand them or get offended.
They want their privacy and respect for their limited time, and they will strive to provide that to you as well.
Needless to say that if you really need help, they can be more than willing to step in and help. This is another Nordic trait, associated with trust and the community feeling.
They can become your best friends ever, and also help you as much as they can. You only have to ask and show them that you really need their assistance or involvement. Just don’t fool them around.
You may skip it once but the next time, they will have their hears and trust broken so you will need to work extra hard to gain it back.
Alright, now you know what the Nordic spacetime and politeness are all about.
Let’s get practical and discover the specific (verbal and non-verbal) ways you can ask for and respond to various things and situations.
Verbal communication: the power of “Please”
Yes, it’s true. There is no single word equivalent to “please” in the Nordic languages.
They use phrases meaning “can/could you be so kind / sweet to…” or “be kind and do X”. These phrases are very common and they use them a lot.
However, there is a flaw: they don’t follow the rule of effective speaking, i.e. saying the least to communicate the most.
If they can say something in many different ways, those that come on top of the list are the ones with the few and most precise words. The fewer the better. Effective communication at its best.
So, despite their Nordic politeness, it’s also very common that they just skip all these politeness phrases and get to the point directly.
“Pass me the salt!” or “Go to the side so I can walk past!” are quite common and don’t trigger anger or resentment, or even the slightest frowning.
If they don’t know someone well or at all, they may revert to a more talkative mode saying “please” etc. But even then, skipping the politeness phrases is perfectly OK.
In everyday life, you will quickly notice that they use the word “tak / tack / takk” (which means “thanks”) at the end of their request. It’s a sort of middle road, so they speak both effectively and politely.
Now, go to the next level: how to respond to “please” and say “thanks!”. Read on!
Verbal communication: when to say “Thank you!”
Basically always! If the Nordic people are always to the point and avoid unnecessary words when asking for something, they may be perceived as doing exactly the opposite when it comes to responding.
Saying “Thanks!” comes with everything.
As stated above, a pre-thanks (thanks in advance, before the other party actually does what you asked them to) can be used as a way to say “please”.
A quick tip to make you sound local and polite is to ask whatever you want to ask, followed by “tak / takk / tack”. And you’re done with the politeness thing. You can become dead to the point as of the next minute.
Other than that, you can (ahem, have to) thank others for everything else in your everyday life. They open the door, you say thanks. They give you the receipt, you say thanks. So far so good. Nothing peculiar or different from other cultures, right?
Now comes the trickier part. Social norms in the Nordics dictate that you thank other people for past things or experiences.
When you meet a friend after some time for a drink, you can say “thanks for the last time” implying something like “it was nice last time, let’s have a good time again”.
Also, when you finish your food on the table, remember to say “Tack för maten” (that’s Swedish) meaning “Thanks for the food” implying “I appreciate you feeding me and it was wonderful” (even if you don’t mean it). Failing to do so can be misunderstood so watch out.
Last but not least, when you leave, you have to say “Tak for idag!” (that’s Danish). It means “Thank you for today!”. It’s like expressing gratitude for the time you spent together that day, even if it was at work, where you should normally spend time with your colleagues and boss.
We’d say gratitude is the keyword here. It’s deeply ingrained into the Nordic DNA to hear words of gratitude. It’s part of their culture that is engulfed with trust and appreciation.
Whenever in doubt, say thanks and you’ll never find yourself in an awkward situation. Even if it sounds a little too much sometimes, it will do you good.
Showing gratitude is good for both your mental health and social interactions. Plus, it will give you extra sympathy points.
Interested in levelling further up? Read on to discover all the non-verbal communication rules & how body language plays a crucial role in communication with the people of the North.
Non-verbal communication: using your body language to signal politeness
There is plenty of research about the role of body language in communication. And everyone agrees on this: only a tiny part of communication actually takes place with words.
The vast rest of it comes from non-verbal cues. How we use our body, like our face, eyes, hands etc, plays an integral part in getting our message across.
More so in a culture like the Nordic one where effectiveness calls for using the fewest words possible (if at all) to communicate something.
After all, if you can say something without even talking in the bitter cold, that sounds a good idea for everyone.
Body language in communication with the Nordic people is ever so important. As with anything, don’t overuse it. Keep a balance, do it “lagom” like the Swedes love to say.
Lagom is a concept that calls for just the right amount of anything, not too much, not too little.
The same applies to their body language. Use it wisely! No excessive use of hand gestures and movements, nor too extreme facial expressions. Again, it’s about keeping the balance and showing you can control and contain yourself.
What you can do however is to use a smile. It’s used a looot!
Instead of saying thanks or please, you can just smile. A short but warm smile suffices. However, a short “tak!” is always much appreciated. They like to hear it. It feels good.
Nodding is also used extensively and it’s not regarded as indifferent or even impolite. Just nod if you want to say yes and if by any chance you feel like it, force a short “ja” out of your mouth, too.
Regarding hand gestures, they are OK to use but with caution. A “thumbs up” to say “OK, thanks!” is acceptable. Or putting your hand on your heart can be used to say “Thanks!” although this is more common among older generations.
Last but not least, be extra cautious if you like to wink. Instantly closing your one eye to signal “Yes, OK, thanks!” can be perceived as something different (more like a flirt or a sly and cunning sign).
Nordic politeness is about respecting each other’s space and time. And this is where all the social norms about politeness come from. Keep that in mind whenever you need to communicate with the Nordic people and it will be OK. Expect the same from their side, too. When it comes to please, yes, they use it, although they don’t have a single word for it. Being super direct and to the point is also acceptable. What might not be equally acceptable is skipping to express gratitude (for last time together, for the food, for working together at the office etc). Lastly, remember to use your body language as well, as it is an effective way to signal what you would like to say in a polite manner. Just do it wisely and keep a balance. Lagom, right?