Something that most foreigners in Finland realize quickly is that Finns can be very, very quiet, often to the point of making non-Finns uncomfortable and left wondering if something is wrong. As a general rule Finnish men are quieter than Finnish women, and of course some Finns are actually quite talkative and animated. However, as a whole, the population is very quiet. Many reasons have been offered as to why this is, but I think it is not just one factor, but many. One of the main factors, I believe, is the Finnish language. Finnish is very complicated and very precise. There is little room for the flowery small talk that exists in English. This can lead to awkward silences during conversations in Finnish, even between two close friends. Another important factor must be cultural. Finns hate anything that can be construed as in the least bit disingenuous. When a Finn says something you can be sure that they mean it and that they will say it in the shortest, most precise way. That leads to very short, very clear conversations. Why spend five minutes beating around the bush when you can say what you mean in one sentence? For many people though, this can mean spending more time looking into your cup of tea or coffee than talking when visiting with someone at a cafe.
On my first visit to Finland I also was caught off guard by this silence, even though I had been warned in advance by a friend. After just a few days in Finland I found myself in the social setting of sitting in a livingroom with two other men while my wife and several of her acquaintances chatted in the kitchen. I was the new guy and I wasn’t sure of how comfortable the other two men were with speaking in English, so I sat waiting for them to start the conversation. And I sat and sat… for at least 10 minutes without a single word being spoken. I felt extremely awkward and as if the other two hated me and were only there because they had to be (the last part may be true). Then out of the blue one of the men told me a joke in English that was very funny. We all laughed and I thought, “alright maybe this is not so bad.” But then there was more silence interspersed with only a few more short bursts of conversation. It was stressful and awkward.
When I look back on my first experience with Finnish silence, I have to smile. I have learned to accept this silence as normal and to even embrace it. There is a certain virtue to not speaking too much and to being honest and direct with your speech. I will never be as quiet as a Finn, but I have learned from them that sometimes sitting quietly is not a bad thing and that talking just for the sake of talking is not a prerequisite for a good time.
In another more recent situation, I was at an archery range here for the first time and after an hour and a half, I had only been spoken to once by the many other Finns who were present. A man who was clearly in charge of the range approached me and my friend and told us in English that poundage limits for bows at that range was 60 pounds. We thanked him for the information and no one else spoke to me. My friend who was with me, and who was a Finn, explained this silent treatment to me. He said, “Don’t worry. They are not angry; they are just Finnish.” As I attended this range on regular basis, the Finns there eventually started to talk to me more and became more comfortable around me. Finns will never speak a lot around a stranger, but once they get to know you they can often speak quite a often, especially in English.
This familiarity factor is important. Finns are, as a rule, a very polite and friendly people. I have been told by many people that once you make a Finnish friend you will always have one. This seems to be very true. And once you are friends, Finns are more comfortable talking with you. This does not mean there are never awkward silences among friends, because those seem to never go away, but they will bother you less and less. Old friends here are comfortable sitting quietly together and enjoying each other’s company. They are not angry; they are just Finnish.