When the Silence is Deafening

Visiting Finland is easy, living in Finland is a challenge. For years now, visitors to Finland have returned home with stories of how charming they found the people. In contrast, foreigners who have stayed for a longer time complain of the rudeness of the people on the streets, on buses, and in stores, and, in particular, the fact that neighbors barely bother to say hello to one another. Usually Finns who have lived elsewhere in the world empathize with such complaints and only add that “it is not you, it is them,” meaning that the Finns don’t talk much to each other either. Just a few days ago, the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat published an editorial by a Finn who had lived in Australia talking about how his American neighbors were returning to the States after 3 years. They complained that the other neighbors would still not greet them. The author’s question: why is a custom that is viewed as so normal in other “Western” countries so alien to Finns? In fact, questions about Finnish silence and what it means have given rise to a veritable cottage industry of articles and classes on cross-cultural communication between Finns and foreigners. I know that the day-to-day challenges of trying to talk to (or, at worst, avoid) my neighbors (especially the older Finnish men) and my complaints about it has been one of my biggest sources of frustration and culture shock. My own neurosis aside, other foreigners, especially American friends, have noticed that a certain number of Finns can get rather cagey when they enter a room and not want to talk with them. Whether this is an example of general reserve, a lack of experience with foreigners, prejudice, or something else is open for discussion.

Nonetheless, most foreign writers have adopted the word “shy” to describe Finns and treat it as a negative, as a problem, a form of low self-esteem that hinders Finns in business and in marketing the national brand, despite recent reports of Finland being such a great place to live. For all his other insights, Michael Booth in The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle (Random House, 2014) also adopts the word shy in his obligatory chapter on Finnish silence. He discusses it in relation to the rudeness epidemic and social problems plaguing urban cities throughout Scandinavia. While it was good to read that prolific swearing and anti-social public behavior are not unique to the streets of Turku, he all too easily uses the words “reticent,” “taciturn,” and “shy” to make sense of such behavior, though not before speculating on how Finns abroad who go about bumping into other people without offering a word of apology or who rather directly and abruptly state what they need without a offering a smile or hint of small-talk might leave a good number of bemused and offended people in their wake. He also offers the rather thought-provoking final insight that the silence may once again be symptomatic of the negative aspects of Finnish society — the depressiveness, the violence, the historical scars.

That said, Finns too have often contributed to this image of shyness. Finland strikes me as a bit unique among countries in that Finns make the jokes about themselves, usually pertaining to their supposed shyness and low self-esteem. Definition of a Finnish extrovert: the one looking at the other person’s shoes. Did you hear about the man from Kerimäki who loved his wife so much he almost told her?! Michael Berry, an American academic who has lived in Finland for more than 30 years and teaches at the Turku School of Economics, has gone in the other direction and claims that Finnish silence can in fact be golden, something to be treasured. He dismisses notions of low self-esteem and even use of the word “shy” to describe why Finns are more silent than others. He mentions positive and active silence, Finns demonstrating interest via the lost art of listening rather than by talking (unlike Americans). Taken to an extreme, I have even heard it said that Finns do not always greet their neighbors because they are respecting their silence and waiting to see if they seem inclined to speak. But I disagree. The lack of easy conversation between neighbors is a problem. Berry never explicitly denies this point. As a historian, he does note that Finnish silence dates back to pre-industrial times (when it was more important to get the job done than engage in idle small-talk) and has only been adapted to fit a modern urban context, albeit one that is constantly changing (as evidenced by the fact that the younger generations, influenced by Hollywood, are in general more demonstrative and talkative than older generations). Berry has received a great deal of attention for these ideas in the Finnish media and also presented his ideas at our Turku International Rotary Club last year.

But not everyone is convinced. It can also be argued that Finnish silence is linked to the urbanization process that accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s and to the fact that recent migrants from the countryside (who actually outnumbered existing urban populations) were loath to open their mouths and risk getting laughed at for their particular dialects and seemingly crude “bumpkin” ways. Rather than behaving badly or incorrectly, they chose not to behave at all. Keep your head down, put your game face on (meaning: don’t smile), and take care of business. But Finnish friends are quick to point out that not all Finns are created equal when it comes to questions of silence. People in Turku and southwest Finland have a reputation for not being particularly friendly or talkative. In contrast, people in eastern Finland (Savo and Karelia) are known for being talkative and tell that socializing was strongly valued even in pre-industrial times (Matti Sarmela, 1994). I have heard from friends that in smaller towns in Ostrobothnia, it can take upwards of 45 minutes just to run to the local store for milk because of all the small-talk. I also found the people in Lapland to be quite talkative and open. The bottom line though is that Finns are rather silent and reserved compared to people in many other cultures in the world. Some of it stems from a general sense of wanting to listen, take things in, and calmly reflect upon what they are seeing or hearing. Some of it may be because urbanization occurred relatively recently (after all, sodbusters and other settlers of the 19th century American West are not necessarily remembered in the archives for their scintillating conversation). Some of it can be chalked up to regional differences. And some of it may just be because it is easier to talk to a tourist or your summer cottage neighbor in the warm July sunshine than it is to talk to the people on your block or that you see in town during the cold and dark winter months. Regardless, discussions on and debates about Finnish silence are by no means over.