Finland is known for being one of the happiest countries in the world. It is renowned for its world-leading education system, and green environment, it boasts many of the world’s cleanest mountains and most stunning natural lakes. However, what many people do not know is that this Scandinavian country is also often referred to as “Quiet Finland”.
According to the United Nations’ World Happiness Report 2018, Finland ranks in first place out of the 156 countries on the happiness index. Many people would be excused for finding this a curious statement given that Finland is such a cold Northern European country, which experiences lengthy periods of darkness throughout its winter. However, what you might not realize is that Finnish people have a famous maxim: “Silence is gold, talk is silver”. They are quiet people who have found solace in their country’s peace, as a result, are often happily introverted. Could this appreciation for the peace and quiet be contributing to why they feel so happy?
Don’t believe us, ask the Finns…
There is a famous story about a British man named Peter who lived in Finland for 10 years. One day, Peter’s best friend, Mark, arrived in Finland for a trip, and he brought his friend to Mount Lapland to go skiing. When skiing, Mark smiled to anyone who passed by, but no one responded to him. Feeling strange, Mark asked his best friend, and Peter said, “People climbed up to Lapland to seek quiet moments, so you’d rather not bother them.”
“Finnish people do not like to talk nonsense’ a stranger once told me in Finland,” Laura shared, recalling a conversation from a year ago, not long after she first arrived in Helsinki. She recalled feeling lost and lonely in the crowded streets because no one seemed to talk to each other.
“Quietness or calmness is one of the outstanding characteristics of the Finns. They rarely talk to strangers, in every conversation they meticulously pick communication terms. Finnish people do not go easy on cultural interactions like many other countries, for example, they do not feel the need to meet new people or make frequent exchanges,” Alina Jefremoff, an 18-year-old university student in Helsinki, recalled.
Thanks to television and movies (mainly broadcasted in English), she was used to the non-Finnish communication style.
“They are involved mostly in basic conversations,” Alina recalled, “the answer is always ready. We were taught how to answer, “I’m good, how are you?”, “How is your mother?” … Clearly, in the conversation, it is as if we do not know each other. That is very strange as if there is a correct answer to the question.”
When asked about what could be done to make Finnish society more open, Alina jokingly said that “something very silly should be done, like dropping a book on the subway or smiling alone. After that, maybe some strangers would join the conversation and comment.”
Various theories have been proposed to explain the Finnish characteristic of quietness. Some researchers argue that in a country where “all the challenges can be overcome” there is no room for “bullshit”. It all becomes meaningless before people need to act.
Another hypothesis is that the silence of Finnish society is related to the complexity of the language and geography of the regions that are far apart.
However, Professor Laura Kolbe, a professor of European history at the University of Helsinki, said that Finns do not feel like their quiet talk is negative. People have too many views on social standards, and compared to other prosperous countries, Finland is just more silent. “For example, when a Swede or a German comes to Finland, they will see the Finns as silent and they will wonder why people do not speak Swedish or German instead of being silent.”
In many countries around the world, the words “shy” or “quiet” often have negative connotations, they are used to indicate that someone has poor or inadequate communication skills. However, in Finland, these adjectives have a neutral meaning. The American scholar, Michael Berry, who taught at Turku, remarked that “Finns often express their attention by listening, while Americans often ask questions.” Interestingly so, he does not think that silence shows a lack of confidence or a lack of functioning communication skills.
When it comes to success in one area, Americans or Germans often express their satisfaction by saying positive endorsements such as “Great”. But for the Finns, the good things are so obvious that they are not worth mentioning, so they simply remain silent.
In Finland, Finnish and Swedish are the two primary languages, and all students are taught English from the age of six or seven. However, when using a third language Finns generally choose silence instead of verbal communication, in case they do not understand the whole story. And for many Finns, silence is considered the beginning of a comfortable conversation.
This is an idea raised by Dr. Anna Vatanen, a researcher at the University of Oulu. For example, the question “How are you?” is usually placed in the early part of the encounter. In English speaking countries, it is often used as a greeting and no serious answer is anticipated. However, in Finland, when asked, “Mitä kuuluu?” then it would be followed by an answer further explaining the current state of work and life of the related person.
“I think the Finnish people value privacy,” said Karoliina Korhonen, a writer. “If they do not know someone, they will not want to bother him/her. Even if they find it comfortable to talk openly, everyone is polite to keep distance and privacy.”
However, there is an active but small group of Finns on the opposite end of the trend. Jussi Salonen, CEO of Chocolate Company Finland, who lived in Los Angeles for 2 years, wishes he could bring the sense of openness in American culture to his country.
In addition to assumptions about the silent culture of the Finns, it can be said that in a country with such a large area of forest land, and fully preserved natural resources, the Finnish silence could be a reflection on how they respond to their untouched nature. How they blend in with nature, connect with other people and discover themselves and their position in this world.