Finns - masters of silence
American academic sees positive sides to phenomenon that embarrasses many Finns
By Antti Tiainen
Being silent is a natural skill that Finns are very good at. It’s just that we have never actually talked about it much. Fortunately, Michael Berry, an American academic who has settled in Mynämäki, has clarified the phenomenon somewhat.
We could start with one example: a Finnish girl is being driven by her American friend through the Appalachian mountains. The Finn is captivated by the magnificent scenery, which she admires in silent awe.
After a moment the driver stops the car, turns to her and says in a sharp tone: “Now, you tell me what’s bothering you!”.
The American had interpreted the Finn’s silence as a sign of discontent.
Such misunderstandings are familiar to Berry, who teaches inter-cultural communication at the Turku School of Economics.
They are influenced by an imperialism of “discomfort with silence” that can be called “silence is unpleasant”, to which Finns need to respond by explaining the multiple visual messages that silence can convey.
First, it is necessary to reject an imperialist “talk vs. silent” yardstick for interpreting communication.
Silence can be interpreted and communicated as active or passive as well as positive or negative, Berry says.
It all depends on interpretation and social context.
In Berry’s English language courses, Finnish silence is often perceived as negative shyness, and even coldness.
Once an international group of students had again ended up talking about how speaking is something positive, and silence is negative.
At this point Berry asked one of the Finnish students in the group to describe a thoughtful Finn.
The answer was: the person listens and thinks while others are talking, but also talks when it is one’s turn to talk, and feels that he or she has something meaningful to share with the others.
So, the Finn is often initially silent, but in an active and positive sense.
Finns are certainly quite capable of sulking in silence and being indifferent - that is, of being silent in a negative manner.
Berry’s aim is to shake the Finns away from negative stereotypes about themselves.
He has written a book on the subject, in collaboration with four other writers, titled That’s Not Me.
“You Finns are lucky because you are able to enjoy both silence and speech”, he points out.
Berry has lived in Finland for more than 30 years, and has learned to enjoy Finnish silence.
Nowadays he can actually become uncomfortable in the company of the kinds of Americans who always try to keep conversations going at any cost.
The real challenge, according to Berry, is to make it clear to others how culturally rich our propensity for silence is.
“Finns learn already in their childhood that being quiet is acceptable behaviour. But it is taken as something that is self-evident, and Finns rarely know how to explain it to people who have not grown up in the same way”, Berry explains.
Berry has noticed that cheerful Swedish-speaking Finns and jovial South Karelians are more likely to feel awkward about silence than other Finns.
However, he feels that they also know how to interpret and enjoy Finnish taciturnity.
“Finnish silence is not silence, even if the dictionary convinces us so”, one of the students on Berry’s course once wrote.
Let us reflect on that in silence.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 17.5.2009