Finnish communication, or, What are you doing here?

My running routes in Indianapolis, Indiana are home to a vast range of joggers, ranging from walkers and shuffling penguins to world-class genetic anomalies.  Regardless of speed or commitment, virtually all of these runners share the trail with respect for each other.  Every once in a while, for instance, I see Bob Kennedy, the former American record holder in the 5000 meters, and despite being a former world-class runner recognizable to nearly every jogger, he invariably follows the rules of the trail and gives a nod or even says hello.  Kennedy now has a running store, so we could conclude that he is simply encouraging our consumption, but there is a universal, unspoken running code about recognizing each other’s effort against our natural impulses to sit inside.

Oulu has an astounding trail system of 550 kilometers of trails, a system claimed to be the highest number of trail kilometers per capita on the face of the planet.  In a nation that accommodates hikers, runners, cyclists, and skiers with extensive trail systems separate from the roadways, Oulu is still remarkable for the density of its ever-expanding trail system.  I have been jogging on these trails since arriving in Finland, and while Indianapolis has a truly thriving running community, it pales alongside the Finns’ commitment to fitness: the paths include tons of joggers as well as cycle commuters, Nordic walkers, and skiers are soon to follow when the snow hits.

A few meters of the 500 kilometers of trails in and around Oulu.

Yet Finnish runners are exceptionally reluctant to greet other runners, and they occasionally even appear alarmed by the little wave of respectful recognition from another jogger.  This pattern on the Oulu trails is symptomatic of Finns’ communicative style, but that style is perhaps misunderstood by Americans, and maybe even by Finns themselves.  Finns are often stereotyped as being reserved, but much of that characterization is from Americans who are exceptionally reluctant to be silent, and some of it comes from Finns who perceive themselves as “bad” communicators.  At the beginning of September I was part of a Fulbright Center orientation that included a clever analysis of Finnish social communication styles by University of Helsinki professor Saila Poutiainen (who hales from my very own alma mater, UMass-Amherst).  Much of what she suggested in that session has been proven to me in the miles I have run in Oulu and the time I have spent with Finnish colleagues.

Finns tend to respect each others’ autonomy, what Donal Carbaugh describes as “quietude” (in Finnish, hiljaisuus): that is, silence–even when you are with other people–is a form of consideration and genuine company, which is somewhat difficult for Americans to understand since we come from what Carbaugh calls a “talking culture.”  When I first met my University of Oulu colleagues at a conference, for instance, they invited me out for a drink, and I got progressively more uneasy that I was boring because they did not fill the air with their thoughts; subsequently, our incessant coffee breaks were often strangely reserved as well.  Yet as Poutiainen told the Fulbright group, Americans tend to think “out loud” and express ourselves, so the silence drinking coffee or other beverages with my Finnish friends was unsettling to me because Americans fill the room in an effort to connect with others.  In Finnish, though, silence is sometimes desirable, often appropriate, and even admirable.

A Finnish colleague soon told me that she did not comprehend what defined “small talk,” and Poutiainen underscored this very notion that Finns tend to only say something if it is worth our collective attention.  Michael Berry has argued that Americans have no similar aversion to “small talk” because it is implicitly understood as leading to discussion of substantive issues.  There is also a Finnish tendency to respect each other’s words, which is wonderful in theory but slightly disorienting in practice because it means there are routinely modest pauses of “dead air” not typical in most American speech.  When I “talk over” my Finnish colleagues’ sentence conclusions (a common American practice of literally overlapping my speech on the end of theirs), they often stop talking and allow speakers uninterrupted listening that has never been experienced in an American university faculty meeting.  In contrast to many Finns, Americans routinely overlap sentences and thoughts, leaving no smooth interactions between speakers.

Winter appears to inevitably reach Oulu.

Finns often ask what I am doing in Finland, often in circumspect ways (e.g., “When did you arrive?” and “When are you leaving?” are often part of this conversation), sometimes self-deprecating, and in others quite straightforward if not boldly.  For some of them this surprise seems to come because they comprehend the meteorological realities that will soon descend with winter, believing that somehow I have not been made aware of the chilly weather along the Arctic Circle.  Yet for others it seems to revolve around a notion of my “outsider” status and of Finland’s own complicated heritage reacting against external social and nationalist domination as a former Swedish colony (until 1808-1809) and then a Russian Grand Duchy (until independence in 1917).  The “insider/outsider” polarization is admittedly clumsy and ignores vast linguistic, cultural, and individual expressive distinction, but Finns have a certain caricature of themselves and “outsiders” alike that seems to shape intercultural communicative patterns.  Many Finns seem to be genuinely interested in knowing what others think of Finland, and much of their curiosity about America is shaped by an especially bizarre selection of television shows and popular culture (the local offerings in a month have included such priceless American fare as Predator 2, Batman and Robin, Dead Silence, Storage Wars, and South Park that even make me slightly nervous about the states).

The silent joggers along the Oulu trails are of course being respectful of my space, and the autonomy Finnish runners grant each other may be particularly distinctive.  There is a specific sort of solitude associated with running that is heightened by physical fatigue and the commonplace desire to distance oneself mentally if not physically from the day while moving through the wonderful but often-harsh Finnish landscape.  And today, as I shuffled through the steady grey drizzle and chill I have been told will apparently set in permanently, another runner did return my mute wave.  Of course, it could have been an American.

Michael Berry

2012 Respons Able: Where is the Cultural Richness in Finnish Silence and Autonomy? Unpublished online version, in press.

Donal Carbaugh and Saila Poutiainen

2005 Silence, and Third-Party Introductions: An American and Finnish Dialogue.  In Cultures in Conversation, ed. Donal Carbaugh, pp. 27-38.  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, New Jersey.

Donal Carbaugh, Michael Berry, and Marjatta Nurmurkari-Berry

2006 Coding Personhood through Cultural Terms and Practices: Silence and Quietude as a Finnish “Natural Way of Being.”  Journal of Language and Social Psychology 25(3):1-18.

Saila Poutiainen

2007 Finnish cultural discourses about the mobile phone communication. Unpublished PhD Dissertation,UMass Amherst.

2009 Do Finns Date? Cultural Interpretations of Romantic RelatingInterpersona 3(2):38-62.

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