Guide: No-talk

or A Chapter of A Guide to Finland, titled “No-talk”

(will be given a proper sequential number later)

* * *

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?”

He: “Yeah.”

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.

8 Responses to “Guide: No-talk”

  1. Small but loud minority Says:

    Not especially wanting to disagree with your blog post but there are also other type(s) of finns than you described here.

    First off, the behaviour you’re discussing is mostly/only limited to finnish males. Finnish females are outgoing, social, fun and nice. They usually manage their lives better than men with traditional views (as described in the post). And this is not only limited to Finland, it’s a global thing. Though here in Finland you can be proud of it, elsewhere it is usually considered bad life management.

    Being a finnish male myself, I have for awhile wondered why women are living 10 years longer, seem to have more fun and are more healthy and more in control of their lives in general. The only answer I have come to is that men have a serious attitude issue; they are resigning to negative ideas, alcohol, whining and lack of self-responsibility.

    For example, it is considered ok for a (finnish) male to fatten himself, ESPECIALLY if he is working and having too much stress. Then it is naturally ok to “relax” using excessive and absolutely silly amounts of alcohol and ruin your personal life doing that. And since you’re always too busy or too hung over, naturally you cannot do any exercise. Then you feel bad and depressed. But for a (finnish) male it is important to remember not to talk about these things, that would be a sign of weakness. Instead, the best is to blame everybody and everything else only.

    You can always choose differently. Have you ever considered any fun exercise, like aerobics? Tried to drink less or not drinking at all? Eating healthy? Thinking positive everyday, good about other people? Rising to challenge at your work, instead of griping about canteen food or coffee? Men (and even people), it is really up to us to make the change ourselves. Which of course requires courage and responsibility. But that’s really something we finns usually take high pride in but are we actually now living up to it? Think about it :

    – Which takes more courage, to drink alcohol or not to drink alcohol in (finnish) social gathering?
    – How about risking being laughed at? Think aerobics vs. floorball?
    – Whining about things at work place or really changing things there?
    – Complaining about canteen food or bringing over your stuff and making a healthy, low-fat, salad just the way you want it.
    Similar items are valid self-responsibility, where you are expected to keep yourself healthy, fit, positive, outgoing and social. Even if you don’t have positive and fun friends to spend time with, you’re responsible for getting them. That can’t be fair, you might think, but that’s the way world really works. Or actually, that’s the way to make the world work for you. The other option is always the unemployment, alcohol, axe, police, snow and the third strike :)

  2. masksoferis Says:

    To “Small but loud minority”: Yup; many Finnish males have lots of quite nasty issues, and precisely for that reason this little Finland-guide of mine tries to illustrate them a bit. And since I aim at foreign readers, a realistic and nuanced approach doesn’t quite fit.

    Thanks for the commentary, though — hearing the other side of the matter is always good.

    (Strangely enough I’m not a very good typical Finn either. Somewhat distressingly exchange students, on meeting me, usually chat for a while and then query where I am from — and I have to assure them that I indeed am a Finn. Must be because I don’t drink, and I speak without being spoken to. :) )

    And the habits of Finnish females (he chuckled obscenely) — still doing field research on that.

  3. Carlos Says:

    Well well now… since we’re talking about generalization, let’s put some dots on the “i”s, shall we?

    maskoferis, congratulations on the post, because at least on what comes to the vast majority of Finns, you’re right about most of what you said here.

    minority, I really cannot agree with you to generalize Finnish women as (first of all) fun, social, outgoing, and nice. Maybe in the big cities their behaviour is indeed more like that… but perhaps not to men. Maybe I could even dare and say the same about Finnish men, because I have actually met some very-nice-outgoing-fun-etc. and usually tend to focus on this type of people… but from time to time I’m reminded that these are exceptions (especially when I visit small towns on the countryside).

  4. alex Says:

    hello :)

    my name is alex and i am from Bali Idonesia :) and i just got married with finnish women, and im planning to move to finland and live with my wife.
    so for me i would like to know more about finnis culture and what do u think about my plan to live in finland with my wife.

    thanks :)

  5. alex Says:

    why its so long time to get my residence visa?

  6. John Cowan Says:

    What I don’t understand is how this no-talk rule is consistent with having so many cell phones you sell your excess crop of them to the whole world. Maybe it’s only talking face to face that is so disturbing?

    There are other no-talk cultures in this world, by the way: people from Alessandria in Italy, where it is taboo to so much as call anyone by name (the secret police might be listening). American men are strictly no-talk when in public toilets, but not so much otherwise, though we do have this mythology about “strong, silent types”. And New Yorkers are no-talk when on the streets, that being the only form of privacy we have.

  7. Diane Young Says:

    I am half Finnish, so I’ve longed for more anecdotal FInnish culture information. Years ago, Sixty Minutes aired an episode titled (loosely) Finland, the most depressed people in the world. My 100% FINNISH mother and her elderly, childhood Finnish friend watched it over and over laughing with tears streaming down their faces. I didnt laugh, but Ilearned why my mother wasn’t like my friends’ mothers. Thank you for your Guide; now I know why I’m a lunatic.

  8. R Arevalo Says:

    I would also say that the Finnish personality and communications are vastly different summer and winter.

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