Section 2. Encounters in Finland
Jaana Suviniitty, Aalto University
Key question: What are the differences in the Finnish communities and encounters compared to your original ones?
You enter your new university classroom with a smile on your face and say: “Hi!” to the other students already in the room. No one even nods their heads.
Are those students 1) being rude 2) deaf 3) ignoring you on purpose? None of the above. They are Finnish.
Naturally, we have to remember how human brain works – especially in more stressful situations. We have an innate tendency to categorize everything in order to make the massive flow of information easier for our brains to handle and this is also partly what’s behind stereotyping. Being aware that although stereotypes may not always be harmful, they are not necessarily an actual depiction of anyone is a good start for avoiding our brains’ tendencies.
Brown and Levinson (1987) have defined politeness as positive and negative. Since negative sounds, well, so negative, we’ll talk about distant politeness here instead, with the idea that neither one is better than the other. Finland is filled with distant politeness and together with the notion that you’re not supposed to state the obvious, nor should you impose on anyone. At Aalto University campus, however, we have a very international crowd, and you meet different people daily, which is enriching and enlightening.
Based on both student feedback as well as books on Finnish ways being comfortably quiet is seen as a compliment in Finland, that’s a sign of true friendship. Although silence may seem awkward to some, we can find positive aspects to the silence in Finland. You can hear your own thoughts when there’s no constant chatter around you and you may also recognize when someone has something to say as the silence is broken. Often people do not chit chat with each other, but there are also those of us who find meeting people and talking to strangers quite refreshing.
So, silence is tolerated well in Finland, and it certainly is seen as golden and something to strive towards. Buses, trains, trams all may seem usually very quiet, unless there are groups of younger children or teenagers in them. We’re not mourning anything, it’s the way we normally are. Quiet and not smiling. You can also see how parents may even whisper to their children in order not to fill the space with speech.
One aspect of distant politeness is not to interfere with others, i.e., not to impose on them, and it is not necessarily common to share private matters at work. It means, for example, that if someone has had a death in their family, their colleagues may not even know about it. People may also hesitate in helping others unless they are asked for help, since unsolicited help may be seen as imposing on others. This distant politeness may seem very different to those who are used to the more positive politeness.
In addition to different frameworks on politeness, there are many frameworks regarding communication. Often these are seen as dichotomies, such as direct vs. indirect, elaborate vs. succinct, personal vs. contextual, and instrumental vs. affective as well as high-context vs. low-context.
Finnish communication style is on one hand very direct - we don’t even have many politeness phrases and Finnish language doesn’t have the word “please” as such. Quite often “please” is replaced with conditional in the verb form. Finns do not beat around the bush, but most often say what they need from you, unless they feel they can’t say it (see imposing on others, above).
In addition to direct communication style, Finnish communication is also very packed, not everything is stated aloud, but it is assumed that the listener uses their brain, which is a feature of high-context communication. Low-context communication would be the opposite where everything is discussed and, consequently, silence is scarce. For further ideas on high-context and low-context communication, there is plenty of material available on this framework coined by Edward T. Hall (1976).
Additionally, in Finland the responsibility of comprehension both in spoken and written communication is with the recipient so the speaker may not explicate too much. An example of not stating the obvious combined with distant politeness as well as with high-context communication, comes from public transportation. You have sat next to a person sitting by the window in a two-seat setting. You notice how the person sitting next to you starts to gather their things, possibly putting their gloves on. They may even reach out to push the stop button, but they do not say anything. As the bus approaches their stop, they may just push past you, if you do not understand to get up to let them out. Rude, you say. Perhaps, but the fellow passenger was giving you the signals they are going to get off at the next stop. Sometimes it may seem like Finns are charged for their words.
Speaking of public transportation, do not be alarmed about your body odor or halitosis if a Finn who has been sitting next to you on an aisle seat rushes to a window seat that becomes vacant. It’s not you, it’s the Finnish desire to sit alone. Finnish requirement for personal space is quite high and being forced to sit so close to stranger takes a lot out of us.
Although you may find your Finnish peers very quiet, don’t be put off by it. Try finding something in common or ask for help. Finns are quite eager to help anyone and often go out of their way to do so.
Note that you most likely will have more contacts with Finns outside Aalto University campus. Additionally, Aalto students work with international students and staff as well as go abroad either to study or for leisure travel quite a lot. The world has become smaller during recent decades and many cultural features have become less pronounced, especially at Aalto University campus and among students. But you most likely will be invited to sauna and ice swimming – both highly recommended to be tested!
References and further reading:
Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1987) Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Brown, P. (1970) Face Saving Following Experimentally Induced Embarrassment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 6, 255-271
Finnish Nightmares (comics and blogs about being a Finn) http://finnishnightmares.blogspot.com/
Gudykunst, W.B. (1998) Bridging differences: effective intergroup communication, 3rd ed., Sage Publications.
Gudykunst, W.B. & S. Ting-Toomey. (1988) Verbal Communication Styles. In W.B. Gudygunst, S. Ting-Toomey & E. Chua (eds.), Culture and intercultural communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications. 99-117.
A guide to Finnish customs and manners - thisisFINLAND https://finland.fi/
Hall, E.T. (1976) Beyond Culture, New York: Doubleday
Jones, M. (2002) Social psychology of prejudice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kol, L., Chapkovich, V., Niemi, M., Sinijärvi, M. (2006) Missä hongat humisevat [Where the pine trees hum]. Helsinki: Yliopistokirjapaino.
Lappalainen, H. in Käkelä, K. (2016) Yhdysvalloissa ja Venäjällä on kohteliasta hokea toisen etunimeä – suomalaista tapa ahdistaa [In the United States and Russia it is polite to repeat the interlocutor’s name – this habit makes Finns anxious] https://yle.fi/a/3-8560901 (visited March 21, 2023)
Mauranen, A. (1993) Cultural Differences in Academic Rhetoric. A Textlinguistic Study. Peter Lang .
Vasko, V., Kjisik, H. & L. Salo-Lee. 1998. Culture in Finnish development cooperation. Evaluation publication of the department for international development cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland. Forssa: Forssan kirjapaino.
Walker, T. (2015) The Bad American Habits I Kicked in Finland - From to-go mugs to small talk. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/02/five-bad-american-habits-i-kicked-in-finland/385140/ (visited March 21, 2023)
Last modified: Thursday, 30 March 2023, 3:22 PM