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Being polite in your target language is often a huge challenge for learners. Swedish is definitely no exception! But is it the language itself or is it the culture that decides how we express politeness?
The truth is that language is strongly colored by culture, but culture can even be seen as a product of language. For a culture to come into existence, language may not be completely necessary – but language is what we use to communicate ideas as modern human beings. Even if the “original” human beings did not speak any language as we know it today, cultures did develop, and language has come to enrich, enhance, and even separate those cultures.
Today, there are situations in which language and culture have very similar borders (for example, Swedish) and situations where language and culture have less obvious borders (compare the US and the UK for example). In Sweden, there is a general politeness used across the country, not taking into account individual differences among people. Between American and British or Australian politeness, though, there can be quite large differences in how people express politeness, despite that all three countries speak English.
Just as in any cultural context, Sweden and its language have particular ways in which they try to seem polite. Here are some ways to say please in Swedish:
Räck mig min väska, tack. – Pass me my bag, please.
Tack can be used as both please and thank you in many cases.
Räck mig min väska är du snäll. – Be a doll and pass me my bag.
Är du snäll is not really the same as “be a doll”; it is used by all sorts of people – not just elderly women. This translation is here to show that there are more-or-less similar ways to express “please” in English.
Räcker du mig min väska? – Would you mind passing me my bag?
The literal translation here is “Do you pass me my bag?”, but in Swedish, this is a completely normal way to express that you “please” want someone to pass you your bag.
Skulle du kunna räcka mig min väska? – Could you pass me my bag?
Räck mig min väska, så [letar jag efter den]. – If you pass me my bag, [then I will look for it].
This one is a little more complicated to translate, but in short, the imperative (command!) form is used. Normally, the imperative might be interpreted as harsh, but because you explain yourself afterward (“then I will look for it”), it is not interpreted as harshly. However, as you can see, the translation doesn’t include “please”. This is an alternative specifically for informal situations. As a general tip, always avoid using the imperative (command form) with strangers or people you don’t know well!
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