The Finns I’ve met, on the other hand, embrace the awkward silence. They understand that it’s a part of the natural rhythm of human interaction. Sure, Finns know how to have conversations, but they’re not driven by a compulsion to fill time and space with needless chatter.
On a recent school day, as I dug into a lunch of fish sticks and steamed potatoes at the teachers’ table in the cafeteria, I was joined by a Finnish colleague. We exchanged hellos (since, you know, we hadn’t yet greeted each other that day), and then ate our meals in complete silence. We had been teaching all morning, and those fleeting moments of quiet were like a rest for our souls. After 10 minutes, I glanced up at the clock and, seeing that my next lesson was about to begin, broke the calm by saying goodbye. Even though we had just given each other “the silent treatment,” no harm was done. Quite the opposite, actually. I pushed in my chair feeling refreshed.
On the morning commute to my toddler’s daycare, the subway is often so packed that we can’t find a spot to sit. And yet it’s remarkably quiet. On the rare occasions when someone speaks—whether to bid farewell to a friend or make a quick phone call—my son Misaiel asks me, “Why they talkin’, Dada?” He is just two years old, but he already understands the culture of comfortable silence here.
2. I don’t say things I don’t mean.
Before we moved to Finland, my Finnish wife Johanna and I would visit Helsinki for two to three weeks at a time. I enjoyed these trips, but they were always jam-packed with get-togethers with friends and family. As a result, we could only realistically see a given friend or relative once while visiting Finland.
Even though I understood our time crunch, I couldn’t keep myself from saying “I would love to meet up again” at the end of each visit.
The Americans I know are in the habit of saying things like “Come on over anytime!” or “Keep in touch!” when we know it will be difficult to follow through on such sentiments. But to refrain from using these warm words would almost seem impolite. So, on one visit to Finland, I wielded this strategy—and it backfired, leading to the following exchange with my wife:
“Tim, I just spoke with my mom. Her friend is still waiting to hear back from us. Did you really say that you wanted to meet up again? You know we don’t have the time.”
“I never said I wanted to meet up,” I explained. “I just said ‘I’d love to meet up again.’ It’s like an expression.”
Johanna was not satisfied with that. “Tim,” she said, “you can’t speak like that here. In Finland, people take you at your word.”
Since that day, I’ve endeavored to say only what I mean.
3. I don’t leave food on my plate.
After returning to school from Christmas break this year, I found an official announcement on the whiteboard of my teachers’ lounge. Its message was straightforward: “No bio waste.”