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Finnish silence can be golden, says American expert

Rather than mouth empty platitudes, so-called shy and silent Finns may actually be showing respect, says Michael Berry, the latest in a line of linguists to explain the phenomenon of the stereotypically quiet Finn.

Miehen kiinni oleva suu.
Image: Sami Tammi / Yle

The American academic Michael Berry rejects silence as a reflection of low self-esteem and encourages Finns to take pride in the cultural trait.

Finnish silence is often misinterpreted when compared to cultures where people speak profusely.

”A Finn often demonstrates interest by listening, while an American asks and interrupts,” comments docent Michael Berry, who has studied Finnish speech culture and silence. He is the author of “That’s Not Me”: Learning to Cope with Sensitive Cultural Issues, published in 2009.

Berry runs intercultural communication courses at the Turku School of Economics at the University of Turku, where he is a docent. He dismisses the belief that Finnish reticence stems from low self-esteem.

”Self-esteem problems are found in all nationalities. Finnish media discussions should concentrate more on Finnish communication norms and their effects on behaviour including silence,” Berry says.

The many facets of silence

Finns rely on direct dictionary translation to describe themselves as 'shy' or 'silent' in the presence of foreigners. However, these terms often carry negative connotations. For example, in English ‘shy’ and 'silent' denotes a lack of social skills.

“It is difficult to explain concepts such as 'positive' and 'active' silence to foreigners,” muses Michael Berry.

In Finland, a positive but quietly active person may not seem talkative.

“Such an individual often listens and thinks while others talk. However, they open their mouths when it’s their turn to talk and express something relevant to the discussion. Finns are able to interpret this kind of silence, but it is difficult for other cultures to be comfortable with it,” Berry explains.   

Incorrect intercultural interpretations

A person moulded by his or her own culture will not necessarily understand an interlocutor’s background or manners. This can lead to misunderstandings, as in the case of an example given by Berry.

“An American drove a Finnish visitor into the Appalachian Mountains to show her the stunning autumn foliage. The Finn sat quietly in the car, staring at the landscape. Suddenly the American stopped the car, demanding to know what was wrong with the silent guest. Another Finn would, however, have understood that the guest was just admiring the scenery in silence, in the typically Finnish way,” he says.

Berry notes that Finnish silence dates back to pre-industrial times. Finnish urbanisation only took place around half a century ago. Before then, small talk was unnecessary -- it was more essential to find food to put on the table.

”Finns can engage in small talk when the need calls for it, but Finns see the forest as a place where one is quiet, thoughtful and relaxed," Berry observes. The sauna is also a place where Finns do not normally engage in a lot of conversation, he notes.

The good side of silence

Cultures marked by active discussion do not always appreciate the benefits of Finnish silence.

“Finnish silence is a method of preserving harmony with nature, oneself and others. It's natural for Finns to move between fluent active listening and speaking while respecting others. A Finn thinks profoundly before expressing himself on a subject of importance,” acknowledges Berry.

Nevertheless he encourages Finns not to strictly abide by inherited communication norms, especially with foreigners.

“Now's the time to stop focusing on just small talk skills and move on. Finns should be aware of the many facets of silence, especially those of a positive nature. They should explain these to people from other communication cultures,” Berry urges.   

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