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.
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.
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)
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.
I talk less to strangers than I otherwise would.
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)?
The US definitely has its own set of circumstances in which social interaction is frowned upon. You’re expected to stay silent and avoid eye contact in a restroom. The rules are pretty much the same in an elevator. I take the bus to and from the University each day, and there’s an odd mix of philosophies. Most people also adhere to the norm of silent non-interaction. However, a handful greet you and strike up conversation.
I remember walking down a street in Portugal with an American colleague and a recent Portuguese acquaintance. As was our habit, my companion and I greeted nearly everyone we passed. Finally, our acquaintance pointed out that no one was answering us and he thought we were being sort of odd. I don’t remember my reply, but I remember him saying that when he greets someone, they greet him back, because he greets people that he knows.
Those are good points. I might have made it sound too much like every stranger in the US smiles and talks to you and wants to be your BFF. But really, there is appropriate distance and expectations of silence in many circumstances. I had a friend who once did his own “social experiments” in elevators (e.g. standing right next to people instead of on the other side of the elevator, telling people they had nice socks, etc…) – it was pretty funny to listen to him talk about it. I guess talking to other men in the bathroom is usually awkward as well, huh?
I really enjoyed these two comments: one from Javier (living in Finland as well, originally from Spain), and one from Sabine (living in the US, originally from France).
I can only talk from my own experience. My very first days here were living within a spies movie. People did not look at you straight into the eyes but… sideways. I talked to myself “something must be going on here”. Later, I thought that I had to learn a new social etiquette. I noticed – like Clint – that people do not smile to each other or even look at each other, for instance, in the bus. But as soon as they know you and you get – let’s say – part of the landscape, you can sense some friendliness and confidence (although most of the time is not expressed with smiles).
However, the finn’s sense of trust is quite developed. Very often they really mean what they say, for instance, when they offer themselves for help once the ice is broken. And they remember everything what they have said (it’s like smalltalk does not exist for them) and even better, what YOU have said…..
Once you get used to the unwritten rules, it’s not a problem.
About being nice and say hello to strangers. I have to say that where I live in Spain, Madrid, people can be very mean and impolite (“Madrid kills me” we often to say) and may treat you as if you owe them a favour.
I have never been to Finland, nor met anyone from Finland, so I would not be able to guess their social behaviors. However, I can share my first reaction to the smiles, hellos, offers of help and friendship when I first came to the United States (Iowa 15 years ago): disappointment. Everyone was so friendly, and yet no one ever answered their phone when I’d call the number a day after they gave it to me, no one had time to help as they had offered. I reasoned that the concept of friendship was quite superficial to what I was used to in France.
People do not smile to each other in French streets. In France, people might offer help but not friendship. Friendship is not something to be offered. It is understood as simply developing from an acquaintance relationship. It also entails certain responsibilities from both parties. So some relationships might not develop into friendship because of individual preferences to avoid those responsibilities toward each other.
So my first months in America were spent figuring out the different layers of “acquaintances.” When I discussed my first reactions with other foreign students on campus, they seemed to share the same confusion about these “American social norms.” The most accepted explanation among these foreign students were that the American culture had developed so quickly based on its immigrant-always-on-the-move history, that their social norm was to make quick acquaintances to create a pool of relations for “survival” (or nowadays, for networking). As the years passed, I’ve also realized that campus life and off-campus America are quite different.
However, 15 years later, I have to admit that nothing has much changed. Now maybe it is because I am in a region of the States reputed for superficiality (southern California’s Orange County)…I am trying hard not to sound cynical, here. I have eventually developed some wonderful friendships in the Midwest, still surviving my cross-country relocation today. However, I certainly feel like I do not belong here, as much as I do not belong anymore in France (15 years will apparently do that to you).
And yes, I’ve been “americanized” enough to not hesitate to stop people in the streets anywhere in the world (France, Bosnia, Croatia, Spain, or US) for a question or a comment (usually to the astonishment of my very French parents). But I still do not smile that easily to strangers on or off-campus.
This reminds me about something I read years ago. I can’t remember the source exactly but it might have been one Finnish researcher who has studied cross-cultural issues.
Anyway, she had one explanation for the differences between, e.g., American and Finnish people in this kind of situations. She argued that meeting unknown people is always seen as a potential threat, but in different cultures they have different ways to deal with this threat: American people pretend that they actually know you – and Finnish people pretend that you do not exist.
So Clint, after being in Finland for a while, what do you think are the reasons behind your observations?
Thanks for the question Roman. I think I have already learned a few things about little stuff that I do which doesn’t communicate the same thing here as I am used to assuming they do.
As for why it is different? I like many of the suggestions by comments people have left here. I think there is just a different attitude (not better or worse) toward personal space and public interactions. I think there is also a greater acceptance of silence (even seeking it), less need to talk unless you have something specific to say – and those things might tie in to this issue as well.
I’m curious if you found a difference when you originally came here when compared to the Czech Republic? Do you have any more ideas about why the differences?
I’d have a question for you: in your opinion, how well do Finns know the art Networking (face to face? Have you made any personal experiences regarding it?
Thanks and greetings from Helsinki,
You know, it depends on which Finn. A few I know are great at it — but maybe that is why I know them, because they met me.
In general though, I think the world loves the Finnish way, or feels safe with it at least, — modest yet hard working. Curious, can be creative, and not full of an ego.
Hi Clint! I’m from Finland and I can tell you’re right. We don’t smile or say hi to strangers. But I think it’s just a part of our manners. As you know, we really respect our privacy and expect to other people do that, too. It’s polite to leave people alone and let them do whatever they are doing without “disturbing” them. I guess that we are so used to hide our emotions in public that even a friendly smile can be very confusing. Moreover we are quite simple in a social situations; we don’t actually use small talk or say things that we don’t mean. So in Finland, smiling to a stranger is the same as “Hi! How are you?”. Then we look at back thinking: “Who the hell are you? Do we know each other?” Then we go home and tell that this creepy stranger smiled us today. 😀
Just came across this website and I thought I’d post my impression.
I’m of Finnish and German decent living in Northern Minnesota. Most comments I’ve seen regarding how the Finnish people are (like quite and reserved, standoffish, cold etc.) remind me of my Finnish relatives. I moved to Wyoming recently, and asked about a sauna and I had to explain to people out here what one was. All the health clubs in my area in MN had saunas, and so did all of my relatives houses. Heck, even all of the summer camps I went to had a sauna house.
And I busted up laughing at Fia’s comment…since I’ve often thought the same thing when I moved to other parts of the US…”Why are these people smiling at me? I don’t know them. What do they want from me?” “Why are they standing so close?” “Why are they so loud?” “Why are they touching me when they talk to me?” I’ve had lot’s of what I thought were ‘creepy stranger moments’, but realized it was just a difference in how I grew up and what the social norms in my area of the country were compared to others.
In Finland, if you want to be polite and show respect towards Finnish people, the most polite thing to do is to give the other person space (physical and mental space). That means that you are not supposed to come too near physically or mentally (= no touching, no staring, not even an eye contact unless you have a reason for it) So this is why people avoid eye contact: The way to be polite in Finland and to show respect is to keep distance and avoid contact until you are shown that it’s ok to make a contact. Unless they are having a conversation or try to engage a conversation this basically means that polite thing to do is to avoid eye contact and ignore strange people in public places.
Especially if you don’t know the person in question well, it is very important to respect his or hers personal space. Some Finns are more familiar with other cultures and understand that you are just acting according to your own politeness rules if you try to hug and kiss them on the cheeks, and they understand that you might not know that in Finland the politeness rules are quite different when compared to other countries. In Finland hugging and kissing someone you don’t personally know very well is actually considered rude because people want to safe that kind of touching to their loved ones.
So you can really make some Finnish people feel very uncomfortable if you don’t act according to this basic Finnish politeness rule (keeping distance = showing respect) as they might think you are being disrespectful against them and you are trying to make them feel uncomfortable which is a big NO NO in Finland.(So you should allways give space, avoid touching/hugging/kissing UNLESS you allready know the person and you know that he/she is fine with it. You also shouldn’t stare anyone. It’s considered rude and intrusive behaviour. Staring is fine only if you a) engage an actual conversation after reaching an eye contact (you have a reason to stare) or b) you a allready having a conversation with the person. An intense stare during a conversation is very common in Finland. It’s a sign that you are listening to the person who is speaking.
Obviously when you are having a discussion with someone, you are supposed to look into their eyes. Actually if you don’t, Finnish people consider that you might have something to hide. I’ve heard that some non-Finns find this very odd that at first Finns tend to avoid the eye contact (but this is because of the politeness factor; you have to let the other person have his personal space on a mental level as well as on a physical level), but then when talking to them, they tend to stare quite intensively. Don’t assume that this intensive stare while having a conversion is flirting. It’s not! It’s just common in Finland that you show with this intensive look that you are listening the person who is talking (because we don’t use those little comments such as aha, yes, really, oh yes etc. or other interruptions like in other cultures people do) so this is our way to show that we are interested in what you are saying. Again, when in other cultures interrupting the speaker with questions is a way to show interest, in Finland it’s the other way round: If you respect the speaker, you won’t interrupt. You let him say his opinions in his own time and then you start asking questions and speak out your own opinions and he in turn will listen to you without interrupting.
Basically, avoiding the eye contact if you don’t know the person is just another way to show respect, just like avoiding touching (because most people consider it private). If in many other countries you show politeness by giving cheek kisses and by hugging people, in Finland touching and hugging and giving kisses are saved for only your closest friends, family members and your boy/girlfriends ect. And for example adults don’t give each other cheek kisses in Finland, that’s very very uncommon. Cheek kisses are usually used only between parents and their little kids in the Finnish culture. Therefore that kind of touching which is polite in other countries is actually considered intrusive in Finland and the polite thing would be to avoid it.
But like I wrote earlier, most Finns do know that if you are not a Finn, you might not know anything about our politeness rules and therefore they don’t get so easily insulted if you do come too close or you manage accidently disrespect their personal space. But you might notice that they feel a bit uncomfortable and can’t react quite naturally to a gesture that is so natural for your own culture. They just don’t want to say it out loud because they don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable about the situation as well because they understand you didn’t mean no harm.