or A Chapter of A Guide to Finland, titled “No-talk”
(will be given a proper sequential number later)
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If you are a foreigner — not a Finn, that is — you probably know all 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 a prolonged example.
Living in a shared student-matchbox has brought me to contact with many students, both Finnish and exchange. 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: not exactly nice, but rather not 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.
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. Despite frequently requesting this of the housing company, no girls have been given a part of our flat so I can’t comment on them. “Oh, the terrible injustice!”, he cried lecherously.)
Now, that would be typical social interaction with a Finn; with the exchange students, on the other hand, there would be a lot of saying “Hi!” each time we’d see each other, and asking “How’s it going?” and “How was your day today?”, and so on.
For a Finn those small social questions are terribly awkward. A Finn, hearing one, is usually trapped in a long moment of composing a five-second explanation of the goings of it or his day. After remembering that the question isn’t supposed to be really answered, he just grunts and mutters a faint: “Uhjustfinebuggeroff.”
Finnish people are bad with small talk; they’re fine with big talk. A Finn has only two settings in his mind: no-talk and big-talk.
Oh, and possibly also screaming-spitting-biting-drunken-nonsense, the good old “They’re coming through the walls!” commentary.
Also, Finns aren’t so good in talking to strangers. They will talk, when in the mood, the ears off their relatives and dearest friends, but a random yo-yo in a bus, or an unknown next to them on the bench? Not a word. Nothing is said, nothing is expected in return.
Finnish people just are comfortable with silence. I’ve heard that the urban Japanese, living in a very crowded society, have learned to carry an invisible bubble of being alone around them. Here on the other side of the world, the ancient Finns, not being equipped to handle lots of unknown people, handed down their gift of just treating other people as a variety of unaesthetic doorknobs or dull wallpapers; social stress is easier to avoid when there’s no socializing being done.
Exchange students — I’ll use them again as an example, since most foreigners I’ve met have been such — usually are curious and friendly, and to be honest that still 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, say, your finger is stuck inside a fridge, 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”, or social standing, by behaving asininely — that like, like an ass. (The animal.)
Now, my theory is that in Finland you lose face by talking to people.
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 conversation continues, you lose more points, faster and faster.
I think this is a very sensible hypothesis, and explains a lot about Finland.
First Finn: “Hi! I want to give you free money!”
Second Finn: “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 this loss-of-face hypothesis doesn’t seem sensible to you, I can also give you another, best formulated as —
A Fable About Finland
A Finnish man asks his friend whether or not he should propose to his girlfriend. The friend mumbles: “Hell, yeah. What a prime idea.”
The friend, confident that his tone was easy enough to understand, shouts for more beer and drops the subject.
Consequently, the Finn proposes and is rejected: the girlfriend’s shrill and forceful tones are, even to him, quite easy to understand. The Finn leaves, heartbroken, and after three days notices that his sorrows float, and thus cannot be drowned in alcohol. Paying the bartender, he has a sudden epiphany: people are the source of all his problems!
Thus he utilizes an axe on both his friend and girlfriend, and since drunken people are supposed to do stupid things, after some years he walks free, and thus, out of our three characters, only the one with worst communication skills survives to breed.
Indeed Finland is a vicious downward spiral, or: maybe Finns don’t talk because talking means communication, and communication always holds the seeds of misunderstanding, offense, and grisly axe-murders. It’s not a good idea to offend anyone in Finland: just think of all the sharp instruments and the blunt ones, the aggressive drunken people, and the empty places where no-one can hear you scream.
And so Finns avoid social situations, being withdrawn and introverted by nature, and having little opportunity or inclination for honing their communication skills. For them, all is fine as long as one can point at a beer bottle and grunt: the bartender will understand.
I have a hunch that I’ll be returning to the subject of axes and alcohol later on, this being after all a Guide to Finland.
There of course are many other explanations for the Finnish habit of no-talk. Since they aren’t something I’ve thought up myself they must all be both stupid and wrong.
Some say it’s a self-destructive habit, with the usual Finnish winters, to do something that often opens such a wide and ugly heat-escape as one’s mouth. Thus such habits tend to be rare, and thus Finns don’t talk.
Some say that, when the ancient Finns cohabited these woods and swamps with bears and wolves, easily irritable moose and heat-seeking mosquitoes, then talking a lot was a bad idea, since it tended to attract unwelcome critters: hungry bears and such, or mosquitoes homing on the smell of one’s breath.
Just remember, o foreigner, that Finns aren’t good with chit-chat, and that they aren’t inclined to start talking to strangers. Once you start talking to them, about something really worth talking about, you’ll get all the mangled and badly pronounced conversation you want.