Axes to break the ice in Finland – Introduction to small talk

I recently came across a picture of a stark naked Finnish man standing in an ice hole in a frozen lake. As the man was swinging his axe to break some more ice, the caption read: “In Finland we have developed more advanced tools than small talk to break the ice.”

Indeed many foreigners consider Finnish as untalkative and taciturn, concise at their very best. And let’s face it, being considered as the second most difficult language in the world, only beaten by Japanese, such silent communication is not necessarily taken as bad news.

Unlike many other cultures, among Finns different types of silences aren’t considered as awkward or frightening but rather, along with maintaining personal space, as appreciated social rule. The national obsession with celebrating the silence has been taken so far that nowadays in any decent long-distance train you will find a specifically designed soundproof room to make phone calls. The worst thing that can happen to a Finnish train passenger is to find his/her seat in the same wagon with the children’s playground.

Therefore it might come as no surprise that in your typical Finnish conversation rather minimalistic rules apply. The shorter the greeting, the better. Especially with strangers, saying “Hei” or “Moi”, hi or hey, is only very rarely followed by the question: “Mitä kuuluu?” How are you? Finns are literal people: small talk means ‘small’, that is, little as opposite to ‘lot of’ talk.

However, while Finns would do anything to stick up for their right to enjoy the silence, this doesn’t mean they don’t like to talk. In fact, the rule of keeping it short might be so pervasive precisely because some Finns like to talk too much. So, remember the rule to be literal and be warned. If you dare to enquire with someone how s/he has been, don’t get taken aback if as an answer you get a 15-minutes monologue about why this person is not feeling well at all. Once you’ve given him/her the chance s/he will spill out every horrible sensation s/he has been suffering from during the past weeks, any conflict s/he’s been having with his/her family, perhe, relatives, sukulaiset, friends, ystävät, neighbors, naapurit, co-workers, työkaverit, and boss, pomo, any possible changes his/her doctor has made to his/her medication and an in-depth analysis on how this change has worked out in practice, any difficulties s/he’s been having with scheduling a new doctor’s appointment, lääkäriaika, and all the antipathies s/he now has towards the degrading public health care, voi surkeutta – oh, the misery.

The number one lesson: don’t ask if you really don’t care to know. Just keep in mind that usually the only people enquiring about Finns’ well-being are the doctors.

The rule to be literal works the other way around as well. It is inappropriate to say you’re “fine”, kuuluu hyvää, if you’re actually not feeling fine. That would be considered as lying.

And here comes lesson number two: just get straight to the point. It all boils down to time-efficiency which will eventually save you from repeating the same question twice.

By putting aside the initial greetings, the basic small talk rules aren’t so different than anywhere else in the world. You start the conversation from whatever topic that concerns both of you at that moment.

One thing Finnish and British have in common is that this commonality is usually the weather – most of the time miserable and dismal – which provides people their topical safe haven any time of the day and year. When the weather is actually nice, be sure to know that this will be the only serious topic concerning people or the local newspapers on that particular day. Either way, you can always start the conversation by saying: “Onpa hieno ilma tänään!” “What nice weather it is today!” In the former case, you say the words sarcastically, in the latter with a delighted tone in the voice.

If you aren’t Finnish or British you might find it boring to talk about the weather. In that case you can start a conversation about anything else you both share in common in that situation. So if you have a dog, koira, you will talk about the dog with the other dog-owners you pass on the street. If you don’t have one, then you just complain about the dog mess on the sidewalk. And so forth.

Then there are the neighbors. This is the easiest target group for small talk, as every building in Finland is always undergoing some renovation work, remontti. Even if there isn’t any renovation work going on in your building, you can still talk about it. “Onkohan tänne tulossa remonttia lähiaikoina?” “I wonder if there will be any renovations here in the near future?” you can wonder. As a good rule of thumb, pessimism and complaining, closely considered as national sports in Finland, usually work well.

So here are some good conversation openers with neighbors and some key words to look for in the tenant agreement before you move in: julkisivuremontti, façade renovation, putkiremontti, pipe repair, lattiaremontti, floor repair, and home, mold.

Lesson number three: Finnish people you meet aren’t necessarily aloof, although they might as well be. Breaking the ice in Finland isn’t that hopeless, although at first glance it might seem that way.

In fact, as Finland gets more and more international, the Finns find themselves more and more worried about the fact they don’t know how to small talk. Today you will find an ever-growing body of courses organized in larger towns that aim to teach Finns how to talk in a pleasant and not-depressive manner.

Therefore, I encourage all of you to approach Finnish strangers and start talking. Some of them will be happy that someone else has noticed their existence. Some won’t. But even if the responses are murmurs and crusty looks, don’t be discouraged into thinking that all Finns will be the same. We are all individuals after all.

Onnea ja tervetuloa Suomeen! Good luck and welcome to Finland!


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