The Quiet Finn

There exists a stereotype about Finns--one that they are quiet, antisocial and dislike people. If you search for "Finland waiting at bus stop", one of the first results is this:

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Personal space is a very big deal over here.

And like most stereotypes, there's nugget of truth to that--for example, and I'm sure I've mentioned this before, the amount of automation in everyday life is staggering. Recycling cans? There's a machine for that in every store. Buying cigarettes at checkout? There's a machine for that, no interaction with cashier necessary*. Waiting at the post office? Take a number and watch the digital sign, no need to stand in line, and no need to call out the number of whose turn it is. In fact, there exists an entire hotel chain that has zero staff (save for cleaning staff and centralized support staff, presumably).-- you check in and out via website, and are given a keycode to allow entry. There's not even a front desk. Even their public bathrooms seem to discourage socializing, as most stalls have a sink, towel dispenser and trash can inside.

The most prominent example however, is that most Finns aren't much interested in small talk. I've been able to get through many a checkout line with nothing more than "Hello" and "Thanks", and was just fine. On the other hand, they're certainly not allergic to a little polite chit-chat. It just has to be relevant or interesting. Really, the biggest stumbling block for a foreigner over here--especially a foreign American--is one that I haven't really seen reflected in any sort of stereotype. It is the fact that conversation in Finland is a serial thing; one person talks, other people listen. You do not interrupt that person. Once they are done talking, there will be a contemplative silence where everybody thinks about what was said. After that, another person will begin speaking.

This is really really hard to respect. As a young, American male my preferred mode of conversation is to interject with a relevant anecdote or addition to whatever story a speaker is telling whenever possible. My expectation is that the rest of the group will enjoy my addition or be able to use to build upon. This is not the case with most Finns. Often, you will completely derail their train of thought and, as a bonus, be seen as very rude. Thus, the stereotype of the loud, rude American is perpetuated, and everybody walks away angry or dissatisfied. Kaisa has told me that for her, speaking to a group of Americans is incredibly stressful, because the length of lulls in conversation where a new speaker has an opportunity to take over are miniscule compared to in a group of Finns (And then you've got those people who completely dominate the conversation and allow zero dead air. I can't even imagine how they'd deal with that...). I was once forced to experience serial conversation this way when my internet connection began acting up during a Skype call with Kaisa. We started getting massive delay between speaking, and the other person hearing us (something like a 5 second delay). As a result, we just started using radio etiquette: the other person doesn't have clearance to talk until they hear you say "Over". It doesn't sound like it, but when you can see the other person talking, and they bring up a point where you can offer input, keeping your trap shut and just waiting is often much harder than it sounds. Kaisa, on the other hand, was perfectly at home.

But seriously, don't stand too close to them at the bus stops. Remember, they all carry knives.

*No longer strictly true--you have to ask the cashier for the number of the brand you'd like to buy.