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How NOT To Offend Anyone, Anywhere, Ever – Or How To Say 'Sorry'

Last week, I wrote about LingQ’s new 1000 word Challenge and mentioned that it was inspired by a similar challenge created in England by the British Council. I also mentioned that the Council thought that people outside of the UK might think Brits are arrogant if they don’t learn to speak languages other than English.
After publishing the post, I got a long email from someone in Britain who was offended that I called British people arrogant. I didn’t – obviously – (the British Council did) but I apologized anyway. I don’t like offending anyone, even though sometimes it is impossible not to.

No Word For Please!?

First of all – I am Danish – and in Denmark THERE’S NO WORD FOR PLEASE, POR FAVOR, S’IL VOUS PLAÎT, BITTE… Can you believe that? How rude…
Secondly, as a Danish person living in Canada, people sometimes perceive me as being a little brass and cold. I try extra hard not to be and to say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’, whenever appropriate. But sometimes that Danish brashness shines through.
This guy explains Danes really well:

Let’s Talk About This.

The email from the offended Brit got me thinking, that although this is about language learning, I think it’s worth talking about how we might – at least try not to offend others – when interacting with people from other cultures. And just for good measure – and for the sake of language learning – I’ll throw in a few polite words in different languages here and there. One thing is certain, people do not get offended if you make an effort to speak their language while you’re visiting. They might even think you’re pretty cool for trying.

Greet Staff When Entering A Store

If you watch the video above, you will note that Mark from Woltersworld says that customer service in Denmark is bad. It astonishes Danes that in Sweden, which is really close by, you say a polite ‘Hallå’ and give a little nod when entering a store. Or if you happen to be in France, you say: ‘Bonjour’. Italy: ‘Ciao’. Spain: ‘Hola’ or in England/Canada/USA it is thought of as common courtesy to say ‘Hello’ to the staff.

Offend - Hello
Image by See-ming Lee

It took me a while to understand that when a Canadian cashier says: ‘How are you?’ which they all do. It is merely because it’s considered good customer service, they don’t really want my entire life story. At first I would actually tell them how I was. When I realized they didn’t care all that much, I thought to myself, then why do you ask? (And then I’d be a little offended) I have finally learned to say: ‘I am fine, how are you?’

Don’t EVER forget First Names In North America.

I am terrible with names, really bad, I don’t get terribly offended if people can’t remember mine and even less so if they can’t pronounce it. It’s a weird name to English speaking people, so why would they? And for the most part they can’t. But over here, people get strangely offended if you can’t remember theirs. So if you’re new to North America and you meet someone that you think you might come across again; REMEMBER HIS/HER NAME!
Also, when you want to pass someone on the sidewalk, say ‘Excuse me, please’ and if you bump into someone on said sidewalk, say: ‘Sorry’. Doesn’t matter whose fault it was, just say ‘sorry’.

In France, Formality Equals Politeness

In English everybody is ‘you’. It doesn’t matter how important they are. Everybody is a ‘you’. You can throw in a ‘Sir’, ‘Miss’ or ‘Madam’ to make people feel important. But when asking them how they are, the informal ‘How are YOU, sir? – is still appropriate. In France that’s not how it works. You can’t just go around calling everyone ‘Tu’, unless you have their permission.
The formal ‘Vous’ is more appropriate. I think that goes for the Francophone part of Canada too, I’m not sure, I’ll have to ask around.
The word ‘Pardon’ is considered very polite in the English language. But in France ‘Pardon’ means you better get out of the way. It means someone wants to get by you in a hurry and you’re in the way.

When In Rome (or elsewhere in Italy)

Italians produce fab wine, they love it, they’re proud of it, and so they should be. They enjoy their wine and don’t get completely hammered when they drink it, they might also get offended and think it’s inappropriate if you do. The same rule pretty much applies in all the wine producing European Mediterranean countries – Spain, France and Portugal. So remember that, if you’re a bit of a wino like me. Don’t get wasted.

Offend - Wino
Image by Maëlick

If you do get a bit of a buzz going, despite me telling you not to, and should that buzz cause you to bump into an Italian, you apologize by saying: ‘Scusi’ (Excuse me-ish). Or if you get too close to someone on the sidewalk and want to walk by them, you politely say: ‘Permesso?’ (Please allow me).

Bowing Is Big In Japan

OK, so a little confession – I have never been to Japan and I don’t know all that much about Japanese culture. I know a few things from movies, but who is to say how much of that is true? If I ever go to Japan I want to make sure I don’t offend anyone. I had seen something about bowing in the movies and wondered that, so I asked Fumiko, a lovely Japanese lady who sits next to me at the office, and she told me the following:
In Japan, it is commonplace to bow. And in Japanese culture it’s better to bow more often than not. A smile is associated with a deep nod of the head, and it is considered polite to bow when you’re being introduced to strangers. You give and receive important things with both hands, such as change at the store, tea at a tea ceremony and even when receiving business cards.
It is also polite to take your shoes off indoors and sometimes at restaurants, but don’t worry they’ll give you some indoor shoes to wear.

Offend - Japanese Lady Magazine

Overall Japanese culture is very polite, they say thank you a lot and have different expressions for thank you, ‘arigatou gozaimasu’ means ‘thank you’ while “arigatou gozaimashita” means something like “thank you for what you just did.’
And then there’s: ‘sumimasen’, which is a good word to know in Japanese as it officially means ‘Excuse me’, but it also means ‘Sorry’ and of course, ‘Thank you’.

I Don’t Mean To Offend You

I hope that if you are reading this and I haven’t mentioned your country or culture that you will write a little comment about how NOT to offend people where you’re from.
My final thought is that no matter how hard we try in life, there’ll come a time (probably more than once) when someone will get offended by something you say or do – but luckily we always have the option of apologizing, and in many different languages. Here are a few ways to say ‘sorry’ in different languages:
Danish: Undskyld
Punjabi: Māfī
Swedish: Förlåt
Finnish: Anteeksi
Thai: H̄ı̂xp̣hạy
Catalan: Perdó
Portuguese: Perdão
Filipino: Pasensya/Paumanhin
Hungarian: Bocsánat

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  • Andy
    June 16, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Your program is great, especially for those who want to learn a new language. I like languages and used to speak six of them, I mean I can speak enough to make myself understood when I travelled.
    Now I am too old to travel so I just stay home reviewing some languages that I like, at my own pace and when I feel like.
    So please don’t pay attention to my slowness or my lagging behind.
    Thank you for your time and your understanding.

    • Lykke
      June 16, 2015 at 4:03 pm

      Six – woweee that’s impressive. I don’t think anyone thinks you are lagging behind, what languages do you speak then?

  • Andy
    June 16, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    It’ excellent. now I can say Sorry in many different languages. thanks.

  • Cecelia
    June 16, 2015 at 6:55 pm

    Denmark & France seem to suit my personality well… way more than America!

    • Lykke
      June 17, 2015 at 9:50 am

      Ha ha – yes I can’t kill the European in me. I don’t always understand people over here and vice versa.

  • Graham
    June 16, 2015 at 11:54 pm

    It’s ‘apologise’ in English. Not ‘apologize’.

    • Lykke
      June 17, 2015 at 9:48 am

      That depends where you’re from 🙂 In Canada we are in the fortunate position that officially we spell like the Brits (neighbour, aluminium) but because we are so close to the States, a lot of people don’t care and spell the American way (neighbor, Aluminum).
      If you don’t believe me then check this out: http://grammarist.com/spelling/apologise-apologize/

  • Fabrice
    June 17, 2015 at 2:42 am

    Hello Lykke,
    Great and very interesting article. Some very interesting points and links. Thanks so much for sharing that.
    Do you happen to tutor on Ling q?
    Have a great week.
    Best regards from France,

    • Lykke
      June 17, 2015 at 9:52 am

      I don’t tutor on LingQ – but we can have a chat in Engliah if you’d like – just ping me in there somehow – and we can have a skypechat.

  • Lucas Souza
    June 17, 2015 at 6:20 am

    It`s cool! I like it! congratulations for this information post!

  • Lisa
    June 17, 2015 at 8:06 am

    I am an American married to a Mexican. I had to learn that when you come into a group of people, such as a gathering at someone’s house, you have to individually greet EVERY SINGLE PERSON. Also when you leave – shake hands/kiss (if you or other person are female) EVERY SINGLE PERSON. I thought I was greeting everyone when I offered a general wave, but later I realized that people get offended if you never greeted them individually and assume you intentionally slighted them. It’s time-consuming, but I’m glad I figured it out and stopped accidentally offending people.

    • Lykke
      June 17, 2015 at 9:56 am

      I am no good at that either – it’s always a little awkward in those kinds of situations. I used to have an Angolan/Portuguese boyfriend when I was very young. I was introduced to his loud family and just like you say I had to greet everyone and with face kisses to top it off. I was so shy and used to firm handshakes – it took a lot of getting used to. Glad you figured it out 🙂 I never really did…

  • Nicola
    June 17, 2015 at 11:33 am

    a small clarification:
    In Italy it’s said “scusi” not scuzi (for “excuse me” but also to “sorry”)
    And “vino” not wino

    • Lykke
      June 17, 2015 at 1:47 pm

      Thanks for the correction of scusi – I’ll change it. The wino, however, is me… That’s an English word for someone who likes their wine too much 😉 Like me

      • Nicola
        June 18, 2015 at 2:49 am

        Ok, thank you for for teaching me a new word in English! 🙂
        I’m beginner but this website help me a lot!!!

        • Lykke
          June 18, 2015 at 10:37 am

          I just returned the favour – you taught me how to spell scusi properly 🙂 Thank you 🙂

  • ColibrEve
    June 17, 2015 at 11:43 am

    Here in Quebec province which is much more of a French province http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%A9mographie_linguistique_du_Qu%C3%A9bec; we often use the ‘’thou’’ because the hierarchy here isn’t for us that important. After all, we are all human being. We also use the ‘’tu’’ to sound more friendly and to be easily able to create new friendships. Whoever, everybody that work into customer service do not have the choice to use the polite form of you which is ‘’Vous’’ like the Geman ‘’Sie’’.
    Here, if permitted by our boss, parents and grand-parents that will soon ask us to *‘’tutoyer’’ them; we can say ‘’thou’’ even to our superior. *’’Tutoyer’’ is in Quebec still a frequently used verb. TUTOYER means: to address somebody using the familiar form ‘’thou’’.
    We always do use the ‘’thou’’ form, even if we do not know the person; except if we are talking to somebody that has by default an higher class or more studies like a police officer, an attorney, a doctor or a teacher…
    We are really polite too; here politeness and an always good customer service are important.
    You are more than welcome to discover Montreal, the little Paris of America or Quebec the oldest beautiful city of America.
    Here, everywhere, people will be able to great you and serve you in your English mother tongue language.
    The world is yours to discover!
    Enjoy traveling and discovering new cultures and many other nice things!
    Lykke, keep blogging. I like all your wise articles.

  • Tara
    June 17, 2015 at 10:30 pm

    Hi Lykke, I like your blog. Another comment about Japan that I painfully learnt while on study abroad there for a year – generally, Japanese can’t say no (especially the older generations). At least not when there’s any emotion involved. I had a situation where I wanted a really honest answer from someone, even if it hurt, and the person physically couldn’t answer me. I ended up having to guess. It turned out fine at least. That was very difficult for my direct Aussie mind to understand!
    On a side note, I think my husband would fit in well with the Danes…

    • Lykke
      June 18, 2015 at 10:46 am

      Thank you for your compliment. I am having a not too great day – people on LingQ’s facebook page are being really rude, when that happens it’s always nice to come back here and find that someone wrote a nice comment 🙂
      Culture is a weird thing. What is absolutely normal to some people in one part of the world, is the weirdest thing to people in another part of the world. And sometimes you don’t even have to go too far for customs to change. I mention it in the blog, but I used to live in Copenhagen, literally a 25 minutes trainride from Malmoe in Sweden and when I went there, there was a whole different atmosphere.
      Fumiko, The Japanese lady I work with, is always smiling and happy and friendly. So I am have a feeling that you’re right about Japanese people being very overbearing.
      Your husband should visit Denmark – is it the rudeness that makes him similar to Danes? Ha ha… We are not really rude, we’re just a bit uptight at first, but get to know us and we’re quite nice. Sometimes it’s hard to tell in a person, whether they act in a certain way due to culture, or if they’re are just a bit of a weirdo 😉

  • Crislaine
    June 18, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    Hi Steve!
    Don´t worry about misunderstanding, cause it always happens even when we share the same culture. I mean here in Brazil sometimes people get offended only because you were so busy at work and couldn´t be so nice with them on the company or school`s halls.
    So, I´d really fit Danmark cultures, cause I´m always prefer go straight to the problem, and then they don´t ask polite questions as they really don´t care, but here people ask you jst to be politician (those people who is not a good student or professional always try to be politician trying to sound, I hate this kind of people, I prefer being a good professional than stay into the hall making freindship that will be usefull when needing them for some favour cause you are a empty suit). Wel I need to lear Denmark language to be able to live there!
    Thank you so much for sharing interesting culture information despite teach languages! 🙂

    • Lykke
      June 19, 2015 at 1:22 pm

      Hi Crislaine
      Denmark is a cute little place, but people there are a bit weird – even unfriendly – until they get a couple of beers in them. Then they become chatty 🙂
      I am not Steve by the way – I work for him.
      To start you off with some Danish, here’s how you say How are you? Hvordan går det?
      Have a wonderful day

  • imane
    June 23, 2015 at 12:37 am

    i am an algerian ,Algeria is an arabe country, so in arabic we say:inani assif (انني اسف) to apologize and if you get too close to someone on the sidewalk and want to walk by them :aafewan (عفو)

  • LIs
    July 3, 2015 at 11:53 pm

    I am a Malaysian. In my country, when you walk across the room in front of some elders, you must bent down and walk across the room. You don’t just walk across the room, because you would be regarded as disrespectful of the people near you.

    • Lykke
      July 6, 2015 at 1:02 pm

      Wow – thank you for that. That is a very different custom – not sure about the bending, but showing respect to your elders is definitely lacking in Western society a lot of the time.

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