For Finns, silence seems to be golden as the proverb says. Images of Finns standing meters apart at a bus stop have circulated the web for years. Even one of the most famous Finns in the world, Formula One driver Kimi Räikkönen has built his iconic image around his lack of talking.
Stereotype of the silent Finn comes up repeatedly in everyday life, in the media but also in academic discourses as well. In academia, the concept of Finnish silence has found its place. Scholars tend to explain how silence is related to being shy or to the communicator’s low self image.
But it might be that the concept of silence does not ring true at all, as it could be just a myth.
Marko Siitonen, associate professor of Communication Studies in University of Jyväskylä, has explored the anatomy of the stereotype in his co-authored publication Finnish silence. He was curious about the underpinnings of the stereotype and where the whole idea originated in the first place.
According to Siitonen, the wide circulation of the so-called Finnish silence in academia may be due to a lack of fact checking. In one widely cited article on the topic, for example, the authors made claims based on their ”intuitive data”, that is, gut feeling and anecdotal experience.
”In the studies referring back to this text, however, references to ”intuitive data” is left out and the characterization is presented as an empirically proven fact”, Siitonen said.
Stereotypical thinking shapes the way we see the reality and the way we act.
Stereotypes are sometimes based on ”truth”, and often they’re not. Our mind sorts information at least in two ways: automatic thinking and hard effort thinking. Automatic thinking receives, decodes, and files information quickly. Stereotypes are connected to this type of thinking.
Stereotypes shape our social reality because they teach us to notice certain things about certain people. Focusing on a person’s profession, gender, or nationality makes it very easy for us to fall victim to the confirmation bias.
”Thus, we notice certain things that fit our stereotypes and brush over those that do not. Stereotypical thinking shapes the way we see the reality and the way we act’’, Siitonen said.
He also pointed out how people lean on myths as a means to differentiate themselves from other cultural groups. Some social experiments have shown Siitonen that if a person holds a certain stereotype dear and that idea is challenged, it may be taken as an attack on their identity.
”This mechanism of the myth living a life of its own is truly fascinating. It seems we really like having these easy explanations of the nature of reality and therefore we recirculate them”, Siitonen said.
Where did the idea of Finnish silence come from? The answer lies in history.
The idea of silence has been especially prevalent when Finns were seen from the eyes of close neighbors. For example, when Swedish- and German-speaking people came to Finland in the past, they saw Finns as some kind of forest savages, wondering why the people didn’t speak any Swedish or German and rather remained silent among their guests.
“It was inviting to see national character in what may have been simply a lack of language skills. Similarly, a person coming to Finland from the US today saying ’Hey, I am speaking here and why aren’t you responding to me in a way that I am used to in my native environment’, is setting themselves up for a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding the silence” , said Siitonen.
Even though the stereotype of silent Finns might be just a case of poor fact checking, it has become an integral part of nation branding.
A recent example of this is the popular comic book Finnish Nightmares by Karoliina Korhonen. The comic, which satirizes the awkwardness of Finns in social situations, has become one of Finland’s main cultural exports. It has also inspired introverted people in China to identify as jingfen, ”Finnish in mind”.
Siitonen has found in his research some instances where Finns are mystified in a manner similar to some native American tribes or characterized as lone wolves. This kind of rhetoric is very commonplace even today.
Google gives around 14 million results for ‘Finnish silence’. Checking through the first 20 links, one can see self-replicating texts on how silence is a unique and inevitable part of Finnish communication culture.
”The myth is a good example of a story that started from odd remarks in the history, has stood the test of time, and is now a key ingredient in defining a nation – that is fascinating.”
This myth is alive and spreading. It is evolving and gaining new grounds.
While the myth is popular, not everyone wants to enforce it. Visit Finland, an organization that promotes travelling in Finland, tries to attract tourists by shedding the stereotype of silent Finns. On their website they claim that Finns are actually talkative, hospitable and like to crack jokes.
Siitonen thinks it’s unlikely that the myth will go away anytime soon though, even though he wants to do his own little part in challenging it as a talkative Finn.
“What I have learned as well is that this is a futile fight. It is like Don Quixote fighting the windmills. This myth is alive and spreading. It is evolving and gaining new grounds.”