No small talk in elevators. No laughing loudly and shouting out comments in a movie theather. No asking directions from strangers. Claiming that you would rather stand the whole buss ride to avoid sitting next to the talkative stranger. Pressing the ”close the doors” –button in the elevator repeatedly so that you don’t need to ride it with your neighbour.
For someone outside the boarders of our Lady Finland, these scenarios might sound a bit odd, even unsocial and rude. But to the extent that we need to admit that some stereotypes about Finns are true, these are frequent things in the life of a Finn that don’t seem that bizarre to us. However it’s not that we want to be rude and not meet our neighbours, we just relish the silence and need a bit more personal space.
To Finns small talk is relatively new concept and we’re still learning. When the American or British ask as ”How are you?”, we might start to tell a long story about our not so great day instead of replying with a simple ”I’m fine, thanks! How about you?” as we are expected. In most cases if a Finn asks you about your day, he is usually genuinly interested and wants to know the details. We don’t ask just for fun, instead we only ask when we really want to know.
Same stands for chatting with people in trains, buss stops or the queue waiting for your coffee-to-go. We are comfortable in silence and nowadays we are basically rescued by our smartphones in these kinds of situations, we can stare at the screen while waiting, hurraay! Otherwise you might accidentally make eye contact with a stranger and that might encourage the other party to engage in a light conversation.
All in all we like our silence, but that doesn’t make us rude or unsocial. We like to give people their space and speak when we have something to say. The term describing this is negative politeness. To us, being polite is leaving people alone when no interaction is needed and not bothering them with unnecessary things. Handshake is a very nice way to introduce yourself and no more than a nod and ”hi” is needed when you’ve been introduced to a bunch of people.
And when a Finn asks about your day and smiles at you, they most certainly mean it. And you might even get an invite to their summer cottage. In the middle of nowhere, where you can hear the wind in the trees and the chirping of the birds. That’s our sanctuary of solitude.