Can I say “please”, please?

I should have known there’d be trouble the minute my husband said to me:

“Well, we don’t really say ‘please’ in Norway”.

Um, pardon? I am Canadian. I have an innate need to say “please” and “sorry” and “thank you” as much as possible. Not only is this characteristic of most Canadians, but I am also the type of person who finds it essential to be liked (a lot, by everyone) and so not being overly nice just feels strange and uncomfortable. I was also raised in a family where we go out of our way to please people, to a fault. I am used to couching almost everything I say in a fluffy, padded cushion of niceness. Moving to a country in which communication is direct and succinct, is refreshing and yet completely horrifying.

Technically, there are some Norwegian words that cover the job of “please”. One such word (Vær så snill – be so kind) is used when you are really pleading your case, like a parent begging their child to “pleeeeeeease put your shoes on and get outside”: “Vær så snill ta på deg skoene dine og gå ut!” or there is the impersonal “please” (vennligst – kindly) used in situations like waiting in a queue, “Please wait”: “Vennligst vent”, or the construction sign asking you to use the other sidewalk: “Vennligst benytt andre fortauet”.

But there is no “please”, per se. And this, for me, is where the trouble starts. In a land where things are practical and to the point, these pleasantries just aren’t deemed to be necessary. But what about the long-winded, people-pleasing North American immigrant? What does this mean for me!?

Imagine an evening out at a neighbourhood restaurant. We’ve just sat down and the server approaches. Already I am terrified because I will try out my new Norwegian. He arrives and cuts straight to the matter at hand: what do we want to drink. I fumble around (mentally) trying to form my perfect sentence. I smile broadly like an idiot. I have to almost bite my tongue to avoid commencing small-talk. In the meanwhile, my husband wastes no time. He answers:

“Pils” (beer).

Not “pils, vær så snill” just “pils”. What? No “please”? Nothing. Period. Ordering done. I look around in horror. Oh God. Has anyone else noticed? Do they see how rude he is? I’m dying a slow death. I’m smiling so hard and nodding vigorously just hoping the server will assume that my husband is the a-hole but I make up for it being amazingly nice. But neither my husband nor the guy taking our order are the slightest bit phased. This is just how it’s done. Pragmatic. You want a beer, you say “beer”.

Now it’s my turn…  I could just say “et glass rødvin” (a glass of red wine). But no. It goes like this:

First I twist myself into a knot of anxiety thinking of how to say what I want to say in Norwegian. I am determined the server will think I’m lovely and polite and part of my need to be liked means I have to speak Norwegian (even though everyone speaks English). I look up with my weird, too-big smile and start with “Hi!”. More awkward smiling. The server just stares – confused. And I continue… “umm, yes, ummm… ” and I manage, finally, to say something that roughly translates as “Can I have a glass of red wine”: “Kan jeg få et glass rødvin”, but that’s as close to the “please” politesse as it’s going to get. The “can I” is supposed be my saviour. It should be enough, but it feels so wrong. The sentence just hangs there in the air… dangling in it’s curtness… waiting for something more. I stare at the server. I try with every ounce of my being to just let it go… but then it happens, every time. I eke out a quiet but determined:


I just can’t help myself. Sorry.



25 thoughts

  1. Whenever I go back home to Norway I struggle with the lack of ‘please’. 49 years of living in the UK has built please into every request. ‘Jeg vil gjerne ha…’ is probably the briefest and most satisfactory alternative.
    But the most difficult thing for me is not having a substitute for ‘Sorry’! How many times a day do we automatically say sorry when we feel we have inconvenienced someone in the most minor way? I’m afraid the habit has proved impossible to break!!


    1. Yes, it is a hard habit to break! Canadians are renown for saying sorry… even when we’ve done nothing wrong. I still say it here a lot! 🙂


  2. Your blog is great. I just discovered it today, but already read it cover-to-cover, or first page to third page. A-mazing content. Just moved to Norway and as I’m not really part of a local community I could only notice the more superficial differences. While traveling or switching countries discovering cultural differences is my main goal. Not earning money. Not getting tanned or relaxing. Learning about them. Your blog has been an invaluable resource for that. I also happened to laugh a couple of dozen times way too loud in the Espresso House this morning. By Norwegians standards at least. Or Hungarian for that matter. Thank you!

    So anyways. I’m in Oslo for a while and would love to share a cup of coffee with you. Maybe even a good laugh. We gotta switch coffee shop though.


    1. Hahaha… thanks for getting “loud” in Espresso house… glad you enjoyed it enough to do that! 😉 I am not often in Oslo, but I’ll let you know if I am, and if there’s a cafe that will have us… 🙂


  3. As a Norwegian, I use “takk” all the time at restaurants, bars, shops etc. both for “please” and “thank you”. For “thank you”, I would probably even expand it to e.g. “tusen takk skal du ha”. You could also use phrases like “skulle gjerne hatt” or “vil gjerne ha” to convey politeness (but this you probably already know…).


    1. Hei Bård, thanks for the comment! I do throw the “takk” around quite a bit. I am learning new phrases, but always happy to learn more from a Norwegian themselves! Tusen takk!


  4. After four years, I never got used to this! I still said it anyways. Most Norwegians thought it was cute and weren’t in the least offended. Now that I’m in Germany, I’m so thankful there is a ‘bitte’ in the language haha!


  5. Yeah! is great to be yourself. Being nice is nice. Just because it’s not a normal practice in places, doesn’t mean we have to change everything about what’s natural to us to live or visit that place. Politeness certainly isn’t going to hurt anyone!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. How talented you are in sharing the torture of our inculcated Canadian “please and thank you civility”. It is deemed unnecessary in other cultures, but there is no way to disguise our sincerity, no matter what the culture. Once, with my dearest world-traveled American friend, she curtly ordered food in a restaurant in Delhi, and my knee-jerk “mother” response to her was “say please”. I got her coldest glare in response. But, she is still one of my best friends.


    1. Hi Sue! Yes, I can’t let go of my “please”. There are ways to sound very polite without it but it always pops out. Very knee-jerky 🙂 Njce to hear from you!


  7. What about trying: “Jeg vil gjerne ha et glass vin, takk”? I worked as a waitress when I was a student, and actually really appreciated it when people ordered in full sentences 😊


  8. This is spot on. I found your blog through foreign friends in Norway sharing their pain on facebook. 😉 Like I noted to an American friend:

    If it helps, I want to say that if you add “takk” to everything it has the same function as “please”.

    “Kan jeg få et glass rødvin takk.”

    Another linguistic cultural thing is that the further you “detach” yourself from your request, the more polite it is (the same thing actually goes on in Japanese, which is on of the reasions why I found Japanese culture very easy to understand).

    Case in point in increasing levels of politeness:

    “Kan jeg få et glass rødvin?” – Can I have a glass of red wine
    “Kan jeg få et glass rødvin takk?” More polite
    “Kunne jeg fått et glass rødvin?” – Could I have had a glass of red wine (literal translation).
    “Kunne jeg fått et glass rødvin takk?” The most polite.

    That said … at most pubs “du, nå må jeg ha en pils!” might be the most appropriate. wink emoticon


  9. Jilly your many talents continue to amaze me. Like you I love my ‘ please and thank yous’ and could not live without them. Not a bad habit, I think!👼


  10. Kirchmann you are brilliant, at writing that is, not ordering a glass of wine In Norway 😉 On a side note, I don’t believe you need to become efficient, stick with the unbearable politeness of being.

    Liked by 1 person

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