Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Finns

We Aussies don't know much about Finland. I found this article fascinating.

9 August 2005
By Therese Catanzariti

Finns don't talk much.Finns are sparse and sparing in conversation. If they have to speak they use the minimum amount of words. Long sentences in English language movies are reduced to two or three words in the Finnish subtitles.This gets more extreme the further north you go. A friend in Oulu describes morning coffee at his office. Ten men sitting silently drinking coffee. Perhaps someone will flick through a newspaper. Every now and then, someone might say “sokkeri” (sugar). Not “can you please pass the sugar.” Too many words. He says sokkeri. Someone passes him the sugar. And then it's back to silence. There is no word for please. Think about that.

There is no small talk. One of my husband's colleagues met him near the photocopier one afternoon. “Hello, how are you today?” she said. “Fine,” he replied. He was a little surprised since he had already said hello to her that morning. “And how was your weekend?” she continued. “Great,” he said, although it was Thursday afternoon. “And how is your wife?” she asked. She had never met me and had never asked about me before. Then there was an awkward silence. “I'm studying small talk” she said. The inanity, the empty politeness of small talk is revealed by its absence. You get into a taxi. The taxi driver asks you where you want to go. And then doesn't talk again. Shop assistants and waiters don't want to be your friend. No noise, no clutter.Still, stripped down interaction can be challenging, particularly at work. There's no water cooler, and every individual is a silo.

A Brazilian postdoc at the University of Oulu shares an office with a very northern Finn. Every morning the Finn comes in at 8am. He says “huomenta” (good morning). He sits down. He goes for lunch at 11am and leaves the office at 4pm. And he doesn't say one more word all day. For the first few weeks, the Brazilian thought huomenta was the Finnish word for eight. Finns answer the exact question asked. They will not volunteer information.

We have moved to Tapiola, a suburb of Espoo, which is a commuter city just outside Helsinki. The swimming pool in Tapiola is closed for renovations. I asked at the library next door how long it would be closed. “Two months,” they said. Silence. “Where is the next closest swimming pool,” I asked. “Leppavara,” they said. Silence. “Do you know what time it opens?” I asked. “It is not open,” they said, “it is closed for the whole of July.” Silence. “Are there any open swimming pools in Espoo?” I asked. “No,” they said. Silence. “Are there any open swimming pools in Helsinki?” I asked. “I think so,” they said. “But you'll have to check in Helsinki.”If Finns don't have to speak, they don't. Finns are comfortable with silence. They don't need to fill up the space.Finns can go out for dinner in silence. Watch them in the restaurants – entrée, main meal, dessert, silence. Metros, buses, trains, silence.Silences are an important part of Finnish conversations. Sometimes you ask a Finn a question. And there's silence. And even more silence. This is especially disconcerting when you are on the phone. Did they hear the question? You ask the question again. The Finn will reply, a little annoyed “I heard you the first time.

I'm just thinking.”Finns don't ask questions. At seminars, lectures, presentations. The presentation ends and there's silence. Any questions? No hands.In Australia, I used to lecture on the Solicitors Admission Board and at UTS law school. The classes were at night and most of the students worked full-time and came to class after a very demanding day. And yet the classes were lively and spirited with lots of debate. Last year, I lectured in entertainment law at the University of Oulu. It's an interesting subject. And the students were film-makers, people who want to tell stories. I talked. The students listened. No comments. No questions.Because Finns rarely talk, when they do talk, they choose their words very carefully, and what they do say is incredibly loaded. They mean absolutely every word they say. A different word here and there is significant. Finns are also understated. If they say someone is sick, they are probably dying.Finns also listen very carefully and easily pick up subtleties and nuances. Finns put everything you say under the microscope. There's no such thing as the throwaway line, enthusiastic exaggeration or poetic licence. I once casually mentioned I was annoyed with my husband and wanted to wring his neck. A work colleague said I had only been married a short time and I should give it a chance and think seriously before separating. I said that wasn't what I meant. They asked if I didn't mean it, why did I say it. Clinical Finnish logic. Gets you every time.

Finns don't trust big talkers. Finns are suspicious of extra words and wary of passion and emotion. Finnish conversation is even and measured. Finns don't raise their voice. This suggests Finns are gentle people. Finns are not gentle. Gentle people don't play ice hockey. In Australia and many other countries, just-contained anger is an effective tactic in hostile negotiations. In Finland, anger, passion and emotion suggest you're not in control. If you raise your voice, you immediately lose authority and credibility. Finns lose respect and you lose the argument.

Cultural differences are not just amusing anecdotes, but can have a real impact with real consequences. A colleague once said if you send an email and the Americans don't reply, there's something wrong, but if the Finns don't reply, everything's OK and often implies agreement.Minor detail can become dangerous minefields. Once I was busy at work and had to reprioritise some tasks. I sent an email to some internal clients saying I was sorry I couldn't complete their work at the moment, but I hoped to get back to them soon. This surprised some of my colleagues. Why was I sorry? Why did I hope to get back to them? Didn't I like the other work that I had to do?Another asked why I sent the email. I said it was to explain that I was busy. They replied that I didn't need to explain I was busy. If I didn't get back to them, they would guess I was busy, and if this caused problems because they needed help more quickly, they would let me know. I sent the email instinctively. The Sydney legal market is a tough market. The partners drummed client service into junior lawyers – we had to keep the client informed, structure the client's expectations. But does sending such emails inform, explain, add, structure client's expectations? Or merely seek absolution?What are the client's expectations? The exercise exposed a fundamental element of the Finnish psyche that underpins the Finnish workplace. Trust. Your colleagues trust that you are doing your job properly and thoroughly, expect you to do your job properly and thoroughly. People don't check up on you, don't look over your shoulder. The result of this is not rampant fraud. The result is accepting responsibility and trying desperately to live up to the expectation – you are scared witless that everyone is relying on you and no-one is checking that you check everything twice. Your colleagues don't send emails chasing you up because they trust, they expect, that if you have not replied there must be a good reason. And you don't clutter up inboxes explaining that there is a good reason. Italian conversation is an elaborate baroque church – full of flourish, colour, and passion. English conversation is a stately home – formal and elegant, but with many hidden rooms. Australian conversation is a simple beach shack – casual, honest and laid back. And Finnish conversation is conversation is an elegant glass/steel high rise – spare, stylish and minimal.


  1. Anonymous5:25 pm

    This is so true!!!!
    btw, have you ever taken a bus from tapiola to helsinki? Its funny how the länsiväylä looks different from the bus. You see the shelters of homeless people on the seaside and near the big sandhills by the powerplant. You would`nt see them driving a BMW...

  2. Thanks for your interest. I have never been to Finland. The outside world knows there is no such thing as homelessness in Finland. ;)