6 November, 2017

Should I say ‘ni’ when talking to a superior in Swedish?


The other day I received a request for language courses. The email started off with Respected Madame. This made me laugh. At that moment, I had just locked myself in the bathroom to escape my children – and to check my email, and I was trying to shut out the banging on the door. So respected was probably the last term I would identify with. But my personal reaction aside, this is a really serious topic. Regardless if you speak Swedish or not, you cannot get away from the dilemma on what to call people.

Students are often sceptical when I tell them everyone is du, or their first name. Attempts to use ni, as inspired by French or German, are common.

So, is this common practice? Is it considered a polite thing to address superiors or elders with ni rather than du?

Well, at least historically speaking, there is not much to back this up. Common practice in Sweden, up until the 20:th century, would be to address superiors in the third person, including their title:

  • Skulle doktorn vilja ha lite kaffe? [Would the doctor like some coffee?]

Or even worse:

    • Skulle doktorinnan vilja ha lite kaffe? [Would the wife of the doctor like some coffee?]
  • Hur mår Ingenjören idag? [How is the Engineer today?]

Adding a Herr (Mr.) to the Engineer could be rude, as this would indicate that you were on intimate terms. Ni has always been used for the plural you. But for one person, ni/han/hon was used to address those lower in the hierarchy. Du was used for children, siblings, spouses and very close friends.

With urbanisation, the use of titles became an unsustainable solution. There were just too many people and titles to keep track of, and new faces showed up all the time. Instead, phrases that avoided the person were invented:

    • Hur står det till? [How are things? → How are you?]
    • Vad får det lov att vara?  [What could it be? → What would you like?]
    • Ska det vara lite kaffe? [Shall it be some coffee? → Would you like some coffee?]
  • Så det är till att resa? [So it is about to travel? → Where are you going?]

This seemed complicated too, and there was a great need to abandon this system. According to legend, things changed dramatically with dureformen  (the thou reform) as initiated in 1967, as the head of the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare declared that he would call everyone by simply du, and then everyone did.

Of course, as always, this was just one small thing in a much bigger and more gradual movement for more equality between people, reflected also in language. The use of titles disappeared, slowly, at the same time, to be replaced with first names.

At the moment, it is rather common to hear younger people, often working in the service sector, using ni as a politer form of address. It could be worth noting that this use is mainly inspired by translated works (films, TV-series, books) from continental Europe, and not so much the historical Swedish use of the term. I will not condemn this use, language is always in flux, and changes cannot be avoided.

But it is worth noting that elderly people may be offended when addressed with ni, as this signified a lower status, not to long ago.

So the safe option, for you, is to use du for whoever you meet, or their first name. And your safe card for greeting someone is always hej!. As for any attempts to show your politeness through the use of fancy words, there is always the risk (like for me in the bathroom) that the Swedes take it literally.

Sometimes when addressing others, Swedes can appear particularly blunt. The equivalent of “Du?” is not a common polite phrase in most languages.

But in Swedish, this is a perfectly acceptable way of grabbing someone’s attention. On one condition, though. It has to be pronounced with a long, rising tone. A short “Du?” without that sing-song quality to it is in fact very aggressive or rude.

I was once practising this with a group of students, on beginner’s level. I also taught them that they could ask for help in the supermarket, in a very polite (and efficient, as per Swedish standards) way, just by raising and prolonging the tone when pronouncing the product. Payback came the next day, when one of my students walked into class, bowing and exclaiming “Parmesan!”. He had mistaken the cheese for a greeting.

Written by Sofi Tegsveden Devaux

After many years of international experience, Sofi now runs her own company, Bee Swedish, specialising in Swedish language, culture and communication. She believes that Swedish culture is much more complex than most newbies, oldies – and especially Swedes themselves, realize. Her work aims to create mutual understanding and bridges for collaboration through curiosity, a critical mind-set and a sense of humour. She hopes that her blog posts can provide some useful insights into the particularities of the Swedish mind.

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