Foreigners, upon arriving in Finland, will be pretty quick to declare that Finnish people are “unusually silent”.
Because it is very evident that Finns do not engage in long conversations that are unnecessary; and it is very rare that they will take the first step to get to know strangers.
Certainly, Finns are not as talkative as people from certain cultures, especially the Anglo-Saxon and Latin countries.
It is not unusual for the English people to talk about weather with neighbours or even strangers. Weather is a good conversation starter in the English culture. It is a very neutral topic to talk about, and should be fine if you want to talk to that stranger at the bus stop.
In his book Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf, British writer Richard D Lewis writes:
This sociable discourse is even more evident in the US, Canada, and Australia, where speech is a vital tool for getting to know people and establishing a quick relationship.
In Finland, however, it is a completely different story.
You do not establish a quick relationship with Finns by talking about weather. No way.
Considering how withdrawn and melancholic Finns may appear, you will think twice before initiating a discussion on weather with them if your target is to build rapport fast.
This perceived unwillingness to make small talk makes foreigners think that Finns are reserved, anti-social, shy and introvert. Finns frequently get this unjustified criticism from “friendly” and “extrovert” foreigners.
I grew up in Bangladeshi culture in South Asia and we have a reputation for verbosity. We are big talkers. Since our childhood, we learn to be talkative.
We see that people around us are always talking — at home, in office, in market, in tea stalls, on the street — and we learn to be very good at the constant use of speech in everyday life.
Being persuasively talkative is ingrained in our psyche.
So when I first came to Finland, I was surprised to notice how Finns practice silence in communication. In the beginning, I thought the whole nation has some kind of speech problems and may be that is why they do not talk much!
I soon began to look at the Finnish conversation pattern through the lens of how Bangladeshis converse. (Now I feel like I could not have been more stupid to think that way.)
I told myself:
“Oh, these people have no idea how joyful and happier they could have been had they been talkative like Bangladeshis. They must be very miserable. They do not know that silence crushes the soul while speech fulfills it.”
But little did I know that I would be swept away by the beauty of this silence one day.
Little did I know that my love for silence would become so much greater than my urge to talk.
Little did I know that I would become very comfortable in the company of “unusually silent” Finnish people.
And little did I know that I would realise that speech is silver but silence is golden.
What the heck is Finnish silence?
A Finn is a person of few words, and the absence of small talk is a well-established cultural trait of the Finns. Meaningless, inconsequential chit-chat is not a part of Finnish conversations.
In Finland, silence does not mean muteness. It means there is really nothing to say.
When you really have nothing to say, you have 2 options:
1. You can keep your mouth shut. (I genuinely believe this is a sign of maturity.)
2. You can be a chatterbox. (I genuinely believe this is a sign of stupidity, and I honestly admit that I have this bad habit.)
If you interact with Finns, you will notice that they will subconsciously choose the first option when there is nothing important to say.
The Finnish silence can be better understood this way: Finns, during conversations, do not feel any pressure to continuously give inputs in order to show their active participation. They may say something and then become completely wordless for a while before opening their mouth again.
These tiny pauses are embedded in Finnish verbal communication and do not affect the natural flow of speech of the speaker. During conversations, Finns tend to take as many pauses as they think are necessary and talk for as long as they think is necessary to get their point across.
Foreigners who are verbally expressive have a hard time understanding this uneven pattern of speech, and thus jump to the conclusion that Finns are cold, uncommunicative, tight-lipped and even hesitant when it comes to talking.
However, in a 5-minute conversation with a colleague during lunch, a Finn may say only a few sentences, or a couple of words, or just smile and nod in agreement without uttering a single word. It is perfectly normal.
Enjoying the meal in silence is often more important than unnecessarily initiating or continuing an unnecessary conversation.
If a Finn does not speak, it is mostly because there is no need to speak, and there is nothing to say that can add value to the conversation. And when he finally speaks, it is because he has something important or meaningful to say, or because he has something funny or amusing to share. (Contrary to popular belief, Finns have wit and they can speak with humour. Not all Finns make only dry humours.)
Having silent moments during conversations is not considered awkward in Finland. Nor is it seen as a negative personality trait. It is just one of those Finnish things that makes a Finn a Finn.
Why I love silence (now)
Choose silence of all virtues, for by it you hear other men’s imperfections, and conceal your own — George Bernard Shaw
My Bangladeshi upbringing taught me to regard verbosity as a positive characteristic. As part of the culture, I have been taught that there is nothing wrong with being talkative all the time.
Here is an honest confession: I am not saying that I detest talkativeness. I do not regret my Bangladeshi upbringing as far as talkativeness is concerned. In fact, I consider it a blessing that I am talkative. It has incredibly helped me in a variety of social situations. It has made me a very social and friendly person. Also, it has helped me develop the skill of initiating a conversation, breaking the ice with strangers, practicing sarcasm and observational comedy, and so on.
However, my preference for silence in speech grew dramatically after I began socialising with Finns. I asked them questions about silence and I paid attention to what they say in reply and how they say it.
I wanted to understand what silence truly is and I was trying to learn how to get comfortable with it.
The more I interacted with Finns, the easier it became for me to understand and admire silence.
I understood that I do not need to incessantly talk all the time in order to have a sparkling conversation during socialisation.
I understood that silence should not always be defined as an uncomfortable pause in conversations and it can actually be used as a tool for effective communication.
I understood that silent moments are a good opportunity to engage in deep thinking during conversations so that I can give better and well-thought-out inputs.
I understood that silence can make me a good listener and can prevent me from jumping to a potentially wrong conclusion.
Last but not the least, I understood that talkativeness can be a big problem if I do not know when to talk and when to be silent.
Silence is a powerful force in Finland. It hit me hard. It made me think. Its influence was overwhelming. And in the end, I realised that the sound of silence can be amazing.