When in Finland do not say fantastic even if you are really excited about something– Finns do not talk like that, I am told.
Oh and don’t say please either… please.
Last Thursday I attended orientation at the Fulbright Center in Helsinki. Fulbright Finland, is my home base organization and Tehri Mölsa, executive director, gave us a warm welcome and a set of tips on the Finnish language.
“The word for fantastic,” she said, “is hienoa. But don’t say it like that. We are known more for being understated.” In fact, she followed, last year the Finnish president used the word in a speech and became a national laughingstock for several days.
Okay, well as a foreigner in a foreign land, I am going to be an occasional laughingstock anyway, so I will avoid the word.
How about responding to a casual phrase like “Mitä kuuluu?” (Think how are you? or what’s up?)
Well, to be more Finnish just say “fine” or “nothing” or to be really Finnish say, “Ei tässä kurjuutta kummempaa” which roughly translates to “Nothing much but misery.”
Likewise, in my weekly Finnish class, I asked Heta, the teacher, what the word for please was, as I had incorrectly thought it was ole hyvä.
Ole hyvä, it turns out, is actually used more like you’re welcome. Well, the please question stumped her.
“Hmm,” she said, “please… yes, we don’t really have that word. And what does it really mean anyway?”
“So is there a different word to ask for something in a polite way?” I inquired, earnest in my attempt to be the polite American (some of you are chuckling at this seemingly oxymoronic phrase… would it have been less oxymoronic if I had used the phrase “polite Jersey girl”?).
“No,” she said, laughing. “We just don’t think we need to be polite when we say things.”
Now pause here. Merely because Finns do not think they need a word to indicate politeness when requesting something does not mean that they are acting rude when requesting something without it. It is just the way it is in this strikingly unique and difficult language. Finns are extremely straightforward and do not need to participate in a dog-and-pony show of manners every time they order a kahvi. Moreover, most Finns seem to avoid eye contact on the street. Now part of this may be because their eyeballs are frozen into place in extreme winter temperatures (I have, after all, only been here for three cold winter weeks) but instead, I think, it is a testament to the value of privacy and trust in a civilized society. Finns do not feel like every person walking by them on the street is a potential threat so they do not expend the effort of looking at all people as they walk by, sizing them up, making threats with their eyes.
And, what I am finding is that avoiding the word please and avoiding constant eye contact with strangers is a great energy-saver and leaves more time for the fun stuff like eating, taking in the sights, and reading.
Lou digs the library
Last week in Helsinki