Simply Jonathan

On Custom and Politeness

I love my local grocer. He’s a man probably in his late fifties, although his retainment of hair colour could indicate him being slightly younger. I believe he is of Pakistani heritage, although I have nothing to build that on; I have never talked to him about it, because it would seem quite odd to do so. And exactly where he is from is of less importance to what I want to say: the important fact is that he wasn’t born or raised in Denmark.

It is my guess that he came to Denmark some twenty years ago; he is somewhat able to engage in conversation, but not on a very high level and his pronunciation is quite bad; again, these things are only a little relevant for what I want to say: he’s not a master of the Danish language and of Danish lingual customs.

But he seems eager to learn. In Danish — as in many other languages — it is custom to reply to ‘tak’ (‘thank you’) with ‘selv tak’ (‘you’re welcome’). He has understood this but hasn’t really understood exactly when to use it. And this is where it gets interesting.

When I go there I often carry a bag with me, because I’m used to do shopping that way. However, the proud grocer he is, he often offers me a plastic bag. As I’m already carrying a bag, thus making it a waste for him to offer me one, I usually decline. (Save for the rare cases when I’m not carrying a bag, and where he seems to quite consequently not offer me a bag.) I do so in the proper manner in Danish, by saying ‘nej tak’ (‘no thank you’). To this he simply replies: ‘selv tak’.

Obviously, he has caught on to ‘selv tak’ being a proper response to ‘tak’, but he hasn’t noticed in which situations this doesn’t apply. But this is a lingual error in the sweet department. And, after all, it’s better to be polite once too many than once too few.

This is Simply Jonathan, a blog written by Jonathan Holst. It's mostly about technical topics (and mainly the Web at that), but an occasional post on clothing, sports, and general personal life topics can be found.

Jonathan Holst is a programmer, language enthusiast, sports fan, and appreciator of good design, living in Copenhagen, Denmark, Europe. He is also someone pretentious enough to call himself the 'author' of a blog. And talk about himself in the third person.