When I travel to a new place, I usually try to equip myself with a few basic vocabulary words: Hello, goodbye, please, thank you, English. I’ll try to begin encounters with a greeting in the local language, and say thank you and farewell in that language too. If you can phonetically pronounce menu items, you may even be able to completely transact a restaurant order with just this bare bones vocabulary.
Denmark threw me for a loop when we recently traveled there and learned that Danish has no word for “please.” Travelers who feel very uncomfortable about this are advised to make double use of the word for “thank you,” “tak,” and insert it as they would a please (natives have more involved ways of making a request sweet). Of course I was immediately reminded of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, by Michael Booth, which I wrote about in thinking about how language shapes Finnish culture with respect to reticence. Could it be that the lack of a word for please corresponds with a different level of politeness in Danes?
In my brief experience, I would say no. I found the Danes we encountered to be extremely pleasant and what we would call polite by any definition (I suppose excepting the use of the word “please”). I would also say they seem to value efficiency. The physical city of Copenhagen reflects that, with beautifully designed bike lanes that facilitate one of the most amazingly orderly morning commutes I’ve ever witnessed. So does the Danish habit (not uncommon among other Europeans) of instantly detecting when a visitor speaks English and seamlessly transitioning into that language for the conversation. Why spend time struggling to find the right words when both parties share a common language?
We had a really interesting conversation with a bartender at the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen about this. He is Irish but recently immigrated with his Danish wife, and is trying to learn Danish in earnest. He complained that his progress was slow because his colleagues at the brewery preferred to speak English to him. Another bartender passing by leaned in to comment, “That’s because his Danish is terrible!”
All of this is to say, maybe the lack of the word “please” in Danish is more reflective of a cultural value about completing a transaction efficiently. “Please,” if you think about it, is verbal clutter that doesn’t add to the content of the conversation. It is intended to smooth a relationship and communicate deference and gratitude. You could communicate those same qualities through tone of voice, polite manner, and so forth. So maybe the Danes just don’t need that extra bit in order to get the job done in a routine transaction, such as at a restaurant. They do have ways to ask for something extra-politely, as described here, but these don’t seem to be tactics for use in everyday exchanges.
What do you think? Can you be polite without a please?