The image of the taciturn Finns is a much-repeated stereotype that is still common. At the same time, Finns are automatically subject to being compared with other nationalities.
“However, no one has actually studied the nature of this taciturnity,” says Anna Vatanen, who is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. “In what situations are Finns reticent and compared to whom?” Vatanen decided to take on the task herself.
Vatanen looks at how people who are acquainted with each other behave in natural interaction situations. She studies how they react to moments of silence during a conversation and how they create such moments: what marks the beginning and the end of silence and what happens in between. Is the silence natural or awkward? Do the persons involved feel the need to busy themselves with something else during the silence? Vatanen bases her analysis on videotaped conversations.
Vatanen looks for pauses and repetitive patterns in the pauses. Her aim is to find any general strategies and relate them to the common suppositions about Finnish taciturnity and findings from studies in other languages.
Moments of silence
Although it is early days, Vatanen already suspects that there is something unique to the way Finns relate to silence. Earlier research has shown that pauses occur even among English-speakers. However, during these pauses, the parties typically focus on something else, like petting a dog or fetching a book. In conversations between Finns, there are moments when nothing happens at all.
“They just remain there, quite relaxed,” Vatanen explains.
“The most interesting thing is not necessarily how long the pause is, but what happens during it.”
Vatanen’s research material includes discussions while eating breakfast, driving in a car, playing board games and visiting a friend. Naturally, some pauses occur when a speaker focuses on something else, such as the next move in the game. But, as Vatanen points out, such situations do not always require everybody else to stop talking.
“Even a couple of seconds of silence may feel like a long time. If there are many such moments and they don’t seem awkward, it probably means that the people involved are alright with them.”
What is silence?
“As a matter of fact, ‘silence’ only means that nobody is speaking in a situation,” says Vatanen. “But there are other kinds of interaction, such as nods and looks, which makes silence slightly misleading.”
It is also a matter of how people manifest their connections. Words are not always required; just being there is sometimes enough.
“Maybe it’s characteristic of Finnish-speakers to refrain from saying anything at all. It may be a normal way of being together. On the other hand, even if Finns have a different attitude to silence than other nationalities, it does not mean that Finns are always, or in general, ‘taciturn’. Furthermore, you mustn’t treat ‘Finns’ as a homogeneous group with just one, common way of doing things.”
In spring, Vatanen will travel to Australia to work with her colleagues there. She is eager to learn about the Australian researchers’ views on the subject and if they see it as something strange or anomalous.
“I don’t think I will be able to establish where the notion of the taciturn Finns originates, but I hope and believe I will be able to reveal something about the reality behind the stereotype.”