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:
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.