As a part of the IMPDET Cross-Cultural Research Group, we have started a “Reflection Wiki” that allows us to post situations in cross-cultural interactions that we wish we had more perspective on – to check if our initial interpretations of the situation were accurate or misleading.

The hypothesis behind it is this: In most interactions we probably make too many assumptions about the meaning behind what people say or do. Cross-cultural interactions magnify this. So the hypothesis is that perhaps more meta-communication tools can help us learn more about what others really mean, and also more about ourselves.

I wanted to cross-post one of my first entries here, in case anyone else reading it (especially anyone from Finland) might have some insight into the phenomenon I describe.

  1. Situation:
    In Finland I notice how no one really smiles at each other in public places. On the street, on the bus, in the halls of the University – quite often people don’t even make eye contact, much less smile at me or say hi. My Finnish friends are extremely welcoming, kind, hospitable and friendly, but it is just strangers and new acquaintances that are more stand-offish than I am used to.
  2. Expectations:
    I didn’t even realize I had this expectation, but I guess from growing up in the US I did have the expectation that if people are nice and friendly then they smile and say hi, even to strangers. (My subliminal expectation: nice + friendly = smile at others, or at least acknowledge their presence with a nod or something)
  3. Interpretation:
    My gut level interpretation and emotional reaction is that, in general, people are not as friendly, nice, happy, etc… with strangers here, and that they are less interested (at least initially) in becoming friends with me or letting me get to know them. But cognitively I tell myself that might be more of my emotional reaction, when I don’t really know what is going on in their minds, or what the meaning is behind the unwritten rules of public conduct.
  4. Response:
    I talk less to strangers than I otherwise would.
  5. Questions:

To anyone else who has been to Finland – Did you feel the same when you first spent time in Finland, or is it more like what you are used to in South Africa, Sweeden, Spain, etc.?
How did you see it? How did you respond?

To anyone from Finland – From the Finnish point of view, what do you think might be the deeper meaning/reasons why behavior is like this in public in Finland? What might I be missing in my gut-level interpretation from my cultural expectations?

To anyone – Any other insightful thoughts (or funny comments)?