A few years ago I ate at a restaurant in Iceland that urged tourists not to tip its staff. The menu explained that tipping was not an Icelandic custom, that the waiters were paid a living wage, and that if patrons still insisted on tipping, the restaurant would donate the money. The cultural script of tipping – that one person has to work to please another in order to be rewarded – makes Icelanders uncomfortable.
These same cultural attitudes are at play in the way various languages express “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome,” at least according to a branch of linguistics called cultural pragmatics or ethnopragmatics.
Some of our politest English expressions turn out to be quite unpleasant, looked at through this lens. Please, for example, is inextricably entwined with hierarchy and debt. When you say “Could I please borrow your car?” according to ethnopragmatists, you are (1) implying that this is a big favor that not everyone would agree to and (2) humbling yourself before the person who has power to grant your request or not. Of course we don’t actually experience going into a bakery and ordering “two croissants, please” as a Shakespearean tragedy of hubris and oppressive obligation, but these are nevertheless the cultural scripts that underlie our “magic word.”
Scandinavian countries that frown on the inequalities of tipping have languages that avoid the pitfalls of please. In Swedish, according to linguist Jan Pedersen, one useful word, tack, fills in for “please,” “thank you,” and, often, “you’re welcome.” Dr. Pedersen argues that tack reflects Swedish ideals of “equality, self-sufficiency, consensus seeking and conflict avoidance, and ... [a desire] not to be indebted to other people.” With tack, there is no distinction between giver and receiver, no sense that a request is a large favor, no need for a minimizing “you’re welcome.”
Danish has no word for please at all, according to linguists Carsten Levisen and Sophia Waters. Instead it uses lige, which implies that a request is not a big deal. “Close lige the door” is thus almost the opposite of “Could you close the door, please?” English frames this as a favor; Danish as something normal one is expected to do. Lige can be tricky, though, when it is used to make requests that are not small. The linguists interviewed a Danish man who complained that his wife took advantage by asking him “Will you lige make lunchboxes?” He felt that getting lunch together for four people at 10 p.m. was not a small thing, but “there was no way out once his partner had used a lige sentence.”
I wonder, would my kids clean their rooms if I said lige rather than please? Maybe I’ll try that, or perhaps I’ll just give them a tip – I mean, allowance.