Finnish for busy people

How to be polite in Finnish

In this article, I’m addressing the different linguistic ways you can use to be polite in Finnish. Of course, you can be polite in other ways besides using certain constructions and words. Those are not part of this article!

Table of Contents
  1. The imperative – Osta kolme, maksa kaksi!
    1. The imperative can be polite
    2. Sometimes the imperative is impolite
  2. Teitittely – Olkaa hyvä!
  3. The conditional – Tulisitko?
  4. Liitepartikkelit – Suljethan oven varovasti!
  5. Imperfect tense – Ja nimi oli?
  6. Sometimes more words is more polite
  7. Polite words
  8. More polite is not always better
    1. With friends and family
    2. With older people
    3. With customers
    4. With teachers or your boss
    5. When writing to someone you don’t know

1. The imperative – Osta kolme, maksa kaksi!

1.2. The imperative can be polite

Despite what is sometimes taught in Finnish classes, the imperative is not necessarily impolite. It’s a neutral, polite way of phrasing instructions. It’s a perfectly polite way to phrase things especially in cases where the person receiving the instruction benefits from following the instructions. There is nothing impolite about, for example, instructions on how to act when there’s an emergency situation (#1). In advertisements (#2), doctor related documents (#3) and recipes (#4) you will also find a lot of imperative forms.

# Finnish English
1 Soita hätänumeroon 112. Call the emergency number 112.
1 Kerro, mitä on tapahtunut. Tell what happened.
1 Toimi annettujen ohjeiden mukaisesti. Follow the instructions given.
1 Lopeta puhelu vasta saatuasi siihen luvan. Don’t end the call until you get permission to do so.
2 Osta kolme, maksa kaksi. Buy three, pay two.
2 Tilaa uutuus heti! Order the new product now!
3 Liuota jauhe veteen. Dissolve the powder in water.
3 Ota lääke tyhjään mahaan. Take the medicine on an empty stomach.
3 Ota kaksi kapselia ruoan kanssa. Take two capsules with food.
4 Paista uunin keskiosassa 150 asteessa. Bake in the middle of the oven at 150 degrees.
4 Lisää lopuksi ruokakerma. Finally, add the cream.

Parents (#1) or teachers (#2) can also address their children with imperatives without a negative interpretation. Among friends, as well, the imperative is usually not seen as impolite (#3). In fact, using another form might sound weird and overly formal.

# Finnish English
1 Pane piposi päähän. Put your beanie on.
1 Tule tänne! Come here!
1 Pese kädet. Wash your hands.
2 Lukekaa sivut 10–15. Read pages 10–15.
2 Palauta essee tiistaihin mennessä. Turn your essay in by Tuesday.
3 Avaa ovi mulle! Open the door for me!
3 Ota vähän lisää kahvia. Take some more coffee.

1.3. Sometimes the imperative is impolite

Sometimes the imperative will be too direct. This is especially the case in situations where the recipient of the order doesn’t benefit from doing as they’re told. In these situations the recipient can be taken aback by the directness of the order.

Here are some impolite examples of the imperative:

Finnish English
Vaihda tämä seteli kolikoiksi. Change this banknote to coins. (customer to cashier)
Lähetä minulle korvaava tuote. Send me a replacement product. (customer to the manufacturer)
Tule ja korjaa vesihana. Come and fix the faucet. (resident to the plumber)
Ota paita pois. Take your shirt off. (doctor to a patient)

2. Teitittely – Olkaa hyvä!

One way to be polite is to use the second person plural of verbs to talk to a single person. Rather than saying sinä, you use te. In many countries, this is the main form you use with people you don’t know or people with a higher status or age than you. In Finnish, it is very common to just say sinä instead.

Using te is a great way to talk to the elderly because it expresses respect. This doesn’t mean the recipient necessarily has to be older than you. Using the te-form is common in situations where you talk to customers. You will find the polite te-form in regular verb conjugation (#1) and in imperative instructions (#2).

# Finnish English
1 Tarvitsetteko apua? Do you (polite) need help?
1 Haluatteko sovittaa tätä? Do you (polite) want to try this on?
1 Mitä teille saisi olla? What would you (polite) like (to order)?
1 Voinko mitenkään auttaa teitä? Can I in any way help you (polite)?
1 Voitte jättää takkinne naulakkoon. You (polite) can leave your coat on the coat rack.
2 Varatkaa aika, olkaa hyvä. Please reserve an appointment.
2 Ottakaa vuoronumero ja odottakaa. Please take a queueing number and wait.
2 Käykää istumaan, olkaa hyvä. Please go sit down.
2 Täyttäkää tämä lomake. Please fill in this form.

Sometimes teitittely can be perceived as impolite. There will be a moment in every Finn’s life where people suddenly start saying te and using the -kaa form of the imperative to address them. This can be seen as a sign that you’re getting old, which can be perceived as a negative thing.

Teitittely can also create some distance between people. Using the te-form with friends would seem very strange. Reserve this form for people you don’t know, especially the elderly.

3. The conditional

The conditional can be recognised by its marker -isi-. Compared to the regular present tense, the conditional makes sentences polite requests. We can combine the conditional with the te-form to make it even more polite when talking to a stranger or an elderly person.

# Finnish English
1 Tulisitko hetkeksi tänne? Could you come here for a moment?
1 Voisitko puhua vähän hitaammin? Could you speak a little slower?
1 Olisiko mahdollista sovittaa näitä? Would it be possible to try these on?
1 Viitsisitkö avata minulle oven? Would you mind opening the door for me?
2 Olisiko teillä hetki aikaa? Would you (polite) have a moment?
2 Olisitteko tarvinnut apua? Would you (polite) like some help?
2 Haluaisitteko maistaa? Would you (polite) like to taste?

Affirmative sentences can be used to express an implicit wish or request. The lack of an actual question can be construed as polite.

Finnish English
isin tässä pois. This is my bus stop. (“I would get off here”)
Ottaisin kolme kroisanttia. I would like three croissants. (“I would take…”)
Päivällinen olisi nyt sitten valmis. Please come eat! (“Dinner would be ready now”)
Olisin halunnut tietää, kuka hän oli. Who was that? (“I would have liked to know…”)
Olisin kiinnostunut tästä. I’d like to know more about this. (“I would be interested…”)

In affirmative second person sentences, the conditional sometimes can have a pleading tone, or sound a little exasperated.

Finnish English
Maistaisit nyt edes. I wish you’d at least taste it.
Tulisit nyt kerrankin ajoissa. I wish you’d come on time for once.
Kuuntelisitte äitiänne. I wish you (plural) would listen to your mother.
Jättäisitte minut rauhaan. I do wish you (plural/polite) would leave me alone.

4. Liitepartikkelit – Suljethan oven varovasti

The clitics -pa/-pä, -han/-hän and -s can be added to a phrase to make it more polite. You can check out those separate articles for a more complete picture of these elements.

Most often, the suffix -pa/pä (or -pas/päs) is added to imperative sentences (#1), while -han/hän is added to second person present tense requests (#2) and -ko/kö questions (#3).

# Finnish English
1 Odotapas pieni hetki. Please wait a short moment.
1 Avaapa tuo ovi minulle. Please open that door for me.
2 Tulethan huomenna ajoissa. Do come on time tomorrow, please.
2 Otattehan paidan pois. Please take your shirt off.
2 Maksattehan laskut ajoissa. Please pay the bills on time.
3 Olisikohan sinulla aikaa katsoa tätä? Would you please have time to look at this?
3 Osaattekohan sanoa, missä Lidl on? Are you able to tell me please where Lidl is?
3 Onkohan esimiehenne paikalla? Is your supervisor present, please?

5. Imperfect tense – Ja nimi oli?

Amazingly, you can also use the past tense to be polite! This way, you can politely ask someone to remind you of something. The supposition is that you should already know this information. However, it is also used when you do not know the information yet.

Finnish English
Ja nimi oli? (video) Remind me what your name is? (“And your name was?”)
Käytitkö sinä maitoa? You use milk in your coffee, don’t you? (“Did you use milk?”)
Tuliko muuta? Anything else? (“Did something else come?”)
Mihin aikaan se alkoikaan? At what time does it start? (“At what time did it start?”)

6. Sometimes more words = more polite

Adding more words to a question or request can in fact make what you’re saying more polite.

Finnish English
Olisitteko niin ystävällinen, että… Would you be so kind as to…
Olisin kiitollinen, jos… I would be grateful if…
Olisiko mitenkään mahdollista, että… Is there any way that…
Haluaisin kysyä, että… I would like to ask if…
Olisin halunnut kysyä, että… I would like to ask if…
Kysyisin sellaista asiaa, että… I would like to ask if…
Olisin kysellyt sellaista asiaa, että… I would like to ask if…
Soittelen sellaisella asialla, että… I’m calling to…
Sopisiko kysellä, että… Is it okay to ask if…
Osaisitko mitenkään sanoa, että… Is there any way you could say if…
Osaisitko mitenkään auttaa? Is there any way you could help?
Voinko jotenkin auttaa? Can I in any way help?

7. Polite words

Finnish doesn’t have a word for please, but it does have a word for “thank you”: kiitos. When added to the end of a phrase requesting something, kiitos takes on the meaning of “please” (#1).

At the end of an order or request, we use “ole hyvä” or “olkaa hyvä” to mean “please” (#2). In these types of sentences, you can also add the word ystävällisesti. However, be aware that ystävällisesti can also be used in a passive-aggressive kind of way.

# Finnish English
1 Kahvi maidolla, kiitos. One coffee with milk, please.
1 Kolme annosta jäätelöä, kiitos. Three portions of ice cream, please.
1 Saisimmeko lisää leipää, kiitos? Could we get more bread, please?
2 Ota vuoronumero, ole hyvä. Please take a queueing number.
2 Ottakaa paita pois, olkaa hyvä. Please take your (polite) shirt off.
3 Voisitteko ystävällisesti lähettää sen minulle? Could you (polite) kindly send it to me ?
3 Voisitko ystävällisesti täyttää lomakkeen? Could you kindly fill in the form?

8. More polite is not always better

While it’s of course good to be polite, little by little you should get the feeling for what level of politeness fits what circumstances. Being too polite can seem insincere or passive-aggressive.

8.1. With friends and family

A simple imperative (Tule tänne!) or a question (Tuletko hetkeksi tänne?) is perfectly fine with friends and family. The use of the suffix -pa/pä is also used with family and friends (Tulepa tänne.) You can use the conditional as well (Tulisitko tänne?) but it can be construed as too polite.

8.2. With older people

If an elderly person is someone you know very well, addressing them as sinä is plenty. If they’re strangers, the plural imperative (Olkaa hyvä ja istukaa tänne) or the second person plural (Haluatteko istua tänne?) can be more appropriate. The conditional is useful if you’re asking them something that they might not necessarily want to do (Istuisitteko hetkeksi?).

8.3. With customers

It’s a good idea to use the conditional and the second person plural when addressing customers (Olisitteko halunnut jotain muuta?). Especially with older customers, the plural imperative is also a good choice (Olkaa hyvä ja istukaa hetkeksi).

As a customer yourself, being super polite can be seen as unusual. It’s very normal to order a drink using “Kahvi, kiitos“. When asking for the check in a restaurant “Lasku, kiitos” is accepted, while something like “May I have the check please?” is unnecessary.

8.4. With teachers or your boss

In Finland, you can generally address your teacher in school and supervisor at work with sinä. Finns are quite informal in situations like this.

8.5. When writing to someone you don’t know

When reporting a leaking faucet to your landlord, writing a complaint to a restaurant or asking for a refund, being polite is preferable. You are asking for something which causes a hassle for the other party. Using the conditional and the second person plural is reasonable (e.g. Haluaisin ilmoittaa… Olisiko mahdollista… Voisitteko tulla katsomaan…).

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Regarding using te with the elderly, is it indeed something older people wish or is it just considered polite by the society in general? As you write, sometimes it can be perceived by them as a sign of getting old. Can it happen that an older person would be offended when someone uses sinä with them and actually demand to be addressed with te? Maybe the reason why te is recommended to be used with the elderly is not the age itself but the time those people were born in. I guess in the past it was not so common to use sinä with everyone in Finland. It’s probably a relatively recent thing.

As for using te with customers, I guess you mean places like shops, restaurants etc. On some occasions I was addressed with te but much more with sinä. And it seems to be not very consistent, it happened to me at least once that in the same restaurant one person addressed me with sinä and another with te.

Inge (admin)

Hei Marcin! I think you probably benefit the most from the replies your question sparked on Discord, so look at the screenshot I took for that!

The sinuttelu and teittely issue is probably very much in the process of changing, with current times making it unclear with whom and when you should use te.

2022-07-24 19_10_17-questions - Discord.png

Thank you, now I had a look at Discord too. I was there earlier so I already had an account but somehow I was not really used to Discord. It seems like a great resource though so maybe I will visit it more often!