This post was born from a comment that Hester left me on my Winter Day post. She said she’d love to read a post about Finns talking to strangers, and I’m sure she meant it as a joke. I chuckled when reading it, but at the same time my mind went, Oh yes, I do have a few ideas floating around here for that topic… and the wheels started turning.
First of all, let me start by telling you that we Finns take things quite literally. So it’s no wonder I’m writing this very post as a reply to a light-hearted comment. If you tell us something, we’ll assume you mean it – unless it’s very obvious irony. If you say, You should come to visit me in Italy, you’d better mean it because we are already creating what-to-pack lists in our minds. One day, we’ll be standing there at your door, knocking!
This is a lovely quality Finns have. We are sincere. We mean what we say. Sure, empty promises and polite words do happen, but much less so than in many other cultures. If we say It was a fun dinner, we should do it again sometime, we really mean it. You can count on Finns. If you have to generalize, as you do when speaking about a nation and a culture, we are reliable, honest, hard-working, and quite sincere.
But what happens when someone doesn’t mean it? Nothing. As in no words. If I tell someone I have a blog and they couldn’t care less, they say Oh, and nothing else. They don’t pretend to be interested and ask me what it’s about or what it’s called. They just go quiet. Which often makes for awkward conversation! We Finns are not known for our charming small talk, and it’s not just an urban myth! Finns really don’t know how to talk to strangers or acquaintances for more than a few words. (I’m Finnish, so I’m allowed to say these things!)
For example, a while ago I was standing in the lobby of my apartment building, waiting for the elevator. Through the glass door, I saw a young couple with a baby stroller: the woman was looking for her keys in her bag and the man was maneuvering the stroller into the right position for the door. I left the elevator, walked over to the door and opened it for them from inside. They both came in… and continued walking. Neither of them thanked me! Neither of them even acknowledged me in any way, by looking at me, for example. A bit baffled, I returned to the elevator. Did they think I was some kind of door man (door woman), or was I just completely invisible to them?
I’d like to say it’s just this couple who is like that. But it’s not. The whole culture is like that. Finns are introverts and don’t like to make contact with other people unless it’s absolutely necessary. I’m a bit of an introvert myself, so part of me understands (while the other part rolls her eyes in frustration). Men don’t usually hold the door open for women or give a seat to a pregnant woman on the bus unless she specifically asks. Well, some men do, like Hubby, who is very polite this way. But as a woman, I can confirm that once you leave Finland, you’ll start noticing all kinds of chivalry and nice things. You don’t have to go further than Stockholm to find that men will open the door for you. In Paris, random strangers will say hello to you on the street and in the grocery store, even children will chirp Bonjour and look you in the eye. In Finland, those kind of values aren’t passed on in the same way as in some other cultures. I was always taught to be polite, but hearing thank you and sorry aren’t that common around here.
If someone says sorry, they really, really mean it from the bottom of their heart. It’s not something you say in passing, like when you accidentally step on someone’s shoe. For that, you say Oops. Your boss probably won’t thank you for the extra hours you put in, either. For that, there are Christmas presents chosen by the company’s HR rep, in a faceless manner, and everyone gets the same, accompanied by the CEO’s greeting which was actually composed by his secretary. It might be something like a tote bag or linen for your bed with the company logo on it (I’m not kidding, this happened in one of my ex-jobs! Who wants to sleep with their employer’s logo shining in their face?!).
So when do Finns talk to strangers, then? It’s a well known fact that if someone starts talking to you at the bus stop, they are either drunk or a foreigner. If it’s a foreigner from an interesting country and the Finn isn’t too embarrassed about their language skills, they might have an actual conversation and the Finn might even end up playing tour guide. A situation where Finns might talk to other Finns who they don’t know (sober) would be one that involves children or a cute dog that licks a stranger’s hand in a crowded public place, unaware of the cultural norms. I guess they don’t apply in the dog world.