Silence serves to connect in Finland

A cross-cultural case of silence:

A professor of Nordic literature at the University of Helsinki, tells a joke. How do you know if the Finn on the elevator with you is outgoing? When he’s looking at your shoes instead of at his own.

The key to the Finnish character is quietude. Finns rarely enter into conversation with strangers; words are chosen carefully; small talk is considered suspect. Instead Finns revere “sacred silence” and hold that keeping quiet is healthy and promotes thoughtfulness.

(…) Some researchers view the trademark Finnish reticence as more pathological, linking it to depression and emotional repression and citing Finns’ high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and high blood pressure. In 2004, a theater director named Turo Herala made big news in Helsinki when he began offering anger-venting classes–a true novelty. “Anger in Finland is a bigger taboo than sex,” Herala explained to a reporter.

Laughing out loud isn’t common either. Children are taught early on to resist their impulses. Bragging about personal accomplishments is the worst thing a Finn can do. “If you can’t control yourself, you are regarded as immature,” explains Keltikangas-Järvinen.

Given the right situation, though, Finns can become excited and voluble. In the familiar environment of the sauna–there’s one for every two Finns–they sometimes become embarrassingly open and candid.

And things are changing; the technical revolution has kicked the shy Finn out of the closet. They are among the most wired–and wireless–people in the world; 95 percent own a cell phone. In the remote summer cottage, the modem Finn still finds his sacred silence, but nowadays he mixes the Internet with this primitive escape.

Source: Psychology Today; Jan/Feb2007, Vol. 40 Issue 1, p28.