Global Psyche: No Need for Words

Finnish people are defined by silence. Is that healthy?

By Maria Carling, published January 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Merete Mazzarella, a professor of Nordic literature at the University of Helsinki, tells a joke: How do you know if the Finn on the elevator with you is outgoing? When he's looking at your shoes instead of at his own.

The key to the Finnish character is quietude. Finns rarely enter into conversation with strangers; words are chosen carefully; small talk is considered suspect. Instead Finns revere "sacred silence" and hold that keeping quiet is healthy and promotes thoughtfulness. In his book Cultures in Conversation, author Donal Carbaugh quotes a young Finn who admits, "I never realized that people in other cultures might regard the word 'shy' as a negative word... 'Ujo' or 'shy' in Finnish has a neutral or positive meaning."

Sisu, meaning "guts, grit, determination," is another valued hallmark of the Finnish character. Finland is no place for complainers, and long, dark Arctic winters have shaped some of the hardiest—and most stoic—human beings on Earth.

Yet Finns are reserved even by Nordic standards. From the Middle Ages until the 20th century, the country was occupied by Sweden and Russia, and the native Finns had great incentive to avoid trouble. Living next door to the Soviet Union during the Cold War provided further impetus to keep their mouths shut. But Finns have steadfastly maintained their identity, evidenced by the phrase, "Swedes no more; never Russians; let us be Finns."

"In Swedish they say 'great' all the time," says Liisa Keltikangas-Järvinen, a psychologist at the University of Helsinki. "In Finnish we don't say that things are great. We just don't. Things are OK or maybe good."

Some researchers view the trademark Finnish reticence as more pathological, linking it to depression and emotional repression and citing Finns' high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and high blood pressure. In 2004, a theater director named Turo Herala made big news in Helsinki when he began offering anger-venting classes—a true novelty. "Anger in Finland is a bigger taboo than sex," Herala explained to a reporter.

Laughing out loud isn't common either. Children are taught early on to resist their impulses. Bragging about personal accomplishments is the worst thing a Finn can do. "If you can't control yourself, you are regarded as immature," explains Keltikangas-Järvinen.

Given the right situation, though, Finns can become excited and voluble. In the familiar environment of the sauna—there's one for every two Finns—they sometimes become embarrassingly open and candid.

And things are changing; the technical revolution has kicked the shy Finn out of the closet. They are among the most wired—and wireless—people in the world; 95 percent owned a cell phone as of 2007. In the remote summer cottage, the modern Finn still finds his sacred silence, but nowadays he mixes the Internet with this primitive escape.

Words To Live By

Omissa oloissaan: \adj\

Undisturbed in one's thoughts

Sisu: \n\

Resilience, stoicism?

Mietiskele: \n\