Culture, Language, Chicken, Egg: Finnish Reticence

Culture (1)It’s fascinating to me how language both shapes and is shaped by culture. I recently came across another example, this time about the people of Finland. Apparently Finns have a reputation, even among other Scandinavians, of being tight-lipped and brusque. Two theories offered for the Finnish reticence are the geographical/meteorological (people live far apart in a terrain described as “forest wilderness” where winter temperatures routinely dip well below zero), and the cultural homogeneity (fewer than 3% of Finnish residents are immigrants):

In such high-context societies as Finland and Norway, it is generally easy to predict what kind of people you are dealing with, how they are thinking, how they will act and react. The Finns barely need to speak to each other at all . . . though the Finns’ taciturnity may work among themselves, problems arise with they travel or have to work with foreigners. The men, in particular, can be simply too frank, too direct, sometimes to the point of rudeness. They find it especially challenging to engage in the social lubricant of small talk.

This quote comes from a fascinating little book called The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, by Michael Booth, who is British but lives in Denmark. What this example demonstrates is that the way a culture forms can shape the language. People in Finland share common backgrounds and customs, reducing the need to share details with each other via conversation. They also have fewer (comfortable) opportunities to interact on a day-to-day basis if they live in remote areas or encounter each other outdoors on a frigid day, so may have become accustomed to talking less.

On the other hand, there are other cultures with geographically distributed people and extreme temperatures who are known to be a bit chattier (Australia comes to mind). And cultural homogeneity doesn’t necessarily seem to require taciturnity either, perhaps because it’s just one of many dimensions along which people can vary. In the case of Finland and its strong-and-silent citizens, the culture and the language developed together in such a way that verbosity is verboten.

*Booth notes that the structure of the Finnish language might have one other effect on the Finnish experience: Their schoolchildren test exceptionally well in language competency, perhaps because Finnish is relatively grammatically simple. One has to wonder, though: Long term, wouldn’t a more complex grammar lead to more sophisticated learners?