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Finns shun first names to be polite

In some cultures, such as in Russia or the United States, using a person's first name often in conversation is considered polite. A Finnish language researcher says she is familiar with the phenomenon and knows why it is not easy for Finns to emulate.

Nimiä paperilla
Different strokes: Finns don't use first names because they want to be polite. Image: Susanna Pekkarinen / Yle

In the United States it is commonplace for someone to use another person's first name when speaking to them. The practice is not limited to close friends but to customer service situations, too.

For Finns this is a phenomenon that cannot be taken on board lightly. Finnish language researcher Hanna Lappalainen from the University of Helsinki says she knows why the custom may seem odd to Finns.

"There are two types of politeness, that of closeness and that of distance," she says. "Finns are more familiar with expressing politeness by literally giving other people space. It is because of this etiquette that addressing someone by first name may feel intrusive because it is an intimate act and does not count as polite."

Politeness culture-bound

Different languages express politeness differently, and no language can be called especially polite or impolite.

"In Finnish first name use is related to closeness and intimacy, and we do not use names even when directly addressing someone," Lappalainen says.

Finnish also lacks a direct equivalent for the English word please. But Finnish compensates for this by using a conditional suffix at the end of a verb to express possibility or potentiality.

"Russian customs also see a lot of first name use," Lappalainen says. "It is actually considered impolite if another person's name is not used often enough in conversation. So the phenomenon is not strictly American; Swedes use first names more often than Finns, for instance."

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