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How to Embrace the Finnish Art of Silence

Our writer learns the value of silence in Helsinki, Finland.

Finnish silences

Last fall, I rented an apartment in central Helsinki, decorated with what seemed like a “best of” list of Finnish design: Alvar Aalto tables and chairs, Marimekko bedding and a colourful cupboard full of Iittala glasses. A Finnish friend came over on my first day, bearing a warm welcome and salmon soup. We chatted about the city and my plans, though I was bleary-eyed from the flight, and then silence fell. A hint she was ready to go? I was enjoying her company, but I wouldn’t have minded, struggling as I was to stay awake and make conversation. But she didn’t leave. The lunch, and the silence, continued.

Later, I met up with an e-mail acquaintance at the high-ceilinged Design Museum Café, among a clientele dressed in grey and black and carrying designer organic cotton tote bags. We caught up, then… silence. Rested up and game to go, I strained to fill it, with some stating of the obvious – “What a beautiful building!” – and then, when that failed, celebrity babble – “So, Meghan Markle… .” I even tried that Canadian go-to, the weather. Nothing. I blubbered – he sat there, untroubled.

Finnish silences

If you want to watch a Canadian squirm, let 30 seconds of silence hang in the air; at 60, we really start to freak out. Sweat begins to form behind our knees as our preternatural need to fill the space takes over. For Finns, things are different. Their affinity for pensive silence goes beyond them coming from a long line of isolated woodsmen. Finnish is an honest language, and a straightforward one. (With a lexicon that contains words like kalsarikännit, which roughly means “that feeling when you are going to get drunk home alone in your underwear with no desire to go out,” a streamlined approach makes sense.) Active silences are a part of the natural rhythm of communication, not to be feared or filled, and an act of consideration for the speaker; by carving out an interlude, you give the other person the space to think.

Once I got over the initial paranoia of dead air – Oh my God, what have I said? How have I offended this lovely human? – I came to appreciate the value of a moment to ponder, and I happily relinquished the instinct to jump in with the first half-baked thought to trundle through my consciousness. Back home, chitchat felt like fast food. But when I tried adopting the serene silence with chatty Canadian friends (scrolling through your phone, by the way, does not count), I always capitulated. So I’m taking it slow, dropping linguistic lubricants like okay, wow and, yes, eh. We’ll see how that goes. And if that’s an idea that gives you pause, take it.

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FINLAND     HELSINKI