If you are a foreigner, you probably know about small talk.
Well, if you come to Finland (or worse still, are already here) you should know about the Finnish equivalent: the no-talk.
Let me give you an example. Living in a shared student-matchbox has brought me to contact with many students, both Finnish and exchange. Most of them have been non-not nice.
Those few others — I’ve given your number to Viagra and Fetish Magazines Telemarketeers Unlimited. You’ll never love your phone again.
Now, why non-not nice? The exchange students have been nice — clueless, but nice. Very curious and keen to know of my family history and field of study. The Finns, on the other hand, have stayed a bit of a mystery to me: thus non-not nice. I would have noticed any clearly “not nice” behavior, such as nailing a rotting goat carcass to my door at midnight. Since that hasn’t happened (though I’m still not quite sure of the present batch) I conclude they have been passing fine people. Maybe murderous serial cannibals, but passing fine when I’ve been around, and that’s what counts.
I have known these Finnish flatmates of mine only by vague body shape and the door they lived behind. These body shapes I gathered from the anthropomorphic clouds of dust left behind on seeing someone else and immediately diving at their own room, supersonically slamming the door shut.
A typical talk with a Finnish flatmate might be like this:
Me: “Hi. Moved to room D, huh?”
Then silence. We’d not see each other again, as he’d sit in his room, the door closed and locked, and probably a thick mattress propped against it to ward off all sounds of (shudder) other people.
Six months or a year later I’d notice he’d moved away, or died in his room under a suffocating cloud of dust. (A Finnish male, once away from both his mother and his army basic training, never wants to wipe dust or mop floors again.)
Anyway, there would be a crew of housing company goons in those white plastic suits with transparent visors, standing at his door and holding back technicolor yawns. (This is something you really need to practice if you want to wear an airtight plastic suit.)
Whenever that happened, I just went into my room and listened to Rammstein for a while; that stuff hides even the roar of an industrial flamethrower! A few days later there would be a new tenant in, wondering about the oily black residue on the walls.
Uh, where was I?
The exchange students, on the other hand, would say “Hi!” each time we’d see each other, they’d ask me “How’s it going?” or “How was your day today?”, and —
Sorry. I have to be Finnish now, for a small moment. What’s with these inane questions? They make me want to scream — always a moment of composing a five-second explanation of the goings of it or my day, and then just muttering a faint: “Uhjustfinebuggeroff…”; what’s wrong with the sensible and equally informative Finnish exchange that goes like this:
First person: “Grmh?” (raises an eyebrow)
Second person: “Hnrr.” (looks away)
But back to exchange students. They would be curious and friendly, and to be honest it continues to creep the excrement out of me. It seems unnatural. The Finnish way is to ignore the other guy until we absolutely have to interact or lose limbs. Calling for help if only a finger is, say, caught in the fridge grille, is unacceptable. Get an icicle and cut yourself free! You’ll lose less face that way.
In some exotic and puzzling places you can “lose face” by behaving asininely — that like, like an ass. (The animal.) One example could be bludgeoning a burglar to death and then noticing that it was, actually, just your girlfriend’s seventy-year-old blind grandmother on a surprise visit.
No, wait, that’s not “losing face”, that’s “senseless crime”. I always get those mixed up. Losing face’s the once where you don’t get locked away, even if you wish you would, right? Uh, how about standing at the podium, ready to introduce your company’s new coffee-resistant dental product to an audience of seven thousand elderly war veterans, and suddenly noticing that —
- There’s been a schedule mishap, and you’re in Alabama, not Stuttgart, and speaking the wrong language,
- Your elbow injury caused your greeting wave to be a bit unusual,
- Your brown sweater has a red ring around your bicep, and
- You really should have shaved all your mustache for this.
Uh, so that’s losing face. And, unless you’re quick, some other parts of your body, too.
Now, in Finland you lose face by talking to people. Okay? Your relatives and most intimate friends, and your spouse after ten years of marriage, are exceptions. Otherwise, every time you talk to someone, you lose a fistful of “respect points”. For every moment the conversion continues, you lose more points, at an exponentially accelerating rate.
You’ll find this explains a lot about Finland.
First person: “Hi! I want to give you free money!”
Second person: “Grnmn.” (walks away)
And since respect is hard to come by, getting money or healthcare really isn’t worth the points loss. “My arm’s green and smelly? Maybe it’ll go away. Sure ain’t gonna talk to no doctor.”
If there will ever be a place where everything is automatized, everything, from buying broccoli to eating out, from paying for car repairs to customer service — that place should be Finland. Except that’s never going to happen, since you can’t complain at machines.
About them, yes. But that’s a subject for another day.
So, what more? Most exchange students learn the Finnish way, eventually. They’ll start keeping to themselves, staying in their rooms behind locked doors. If you greet them, they just look at you blankly, with a glint of suppressed anger in their eyes, and walk away.
Or maybe that’s just cold-gangrene combined with healthcare only in Finnish.