Prior to our arrival in Finland I’d heard that Finns were a quiet bunch. Or that no one ever talked. Or that they all preferred silence over noise. I wondered if it was true and what it would be like. And, really, all of them? Maybe nearly 18 hours a day without sunlight in December and January robs them all of their desire to ask for more salmiakki. But surely not… as a teacher I spend half my time debunking stereotypes and blanket generalizations so I knew it couldn’t be the case everywhere.
There are many places where silence indeed prevails. Saunas have an air of sanctity to them and to disrupt the calm with a panicked, unintentional butchering of “Sauna on liian kuuma! Tarvitsen vettä!” (“Sauna is too hot! I need water!”) would get nary a verbal response but, instead, a laser-like, stone-faced stare. Libraries are surprisingly tranquil attributed to the fact that most people are actually sitting and reading books. (Side note: Finns love, love, love their libraries and books… check it out! Pun times for all.) The bus is quiet except for when people say “Kiitos!” to the driver (just like in Steamboat!). Even places that are typically more noisy seem to do the noise in a quieter fashion than to which I am accustomed. The university lunchroom has lots of people making their way down the line, chatting with friends, and clearing and cleaning their own plates (yes, you read that right) but it all is done at a seemingly more tranquil volume level.
So is Finland really a more quiet land? Has all of the snow and darkness permanently muffled the sounds of daily life? Has the northern latitude and proximity to the Arctic Circle frozen the vocal chords of the five-and-a-half million Finns? Maybe a few of them.
Increasingly, though, I am realizing that the Finns are not necessarily quiet but, instead, they are not uncomfortable with silence. They do not get an awkward look on their faces when there is a brief lull in conversation. They appear comfortable in their own skin when they are thinking through a thought before articulating it out loud. They are at ease sitting down across from a stranger at a shared table in a restaurant and not talking. They head out into the forests for a walk or a ski embracing the quietude of the pine trees.
Perhaps the silence seems louder to me because I am the stranger in the strange land. I lack the words to carry on the chitchat with the kind, aging bartender who has just helped me pick out a beer. I run out of ways to (try to) say to my elderly neighbor that I hope she had a nice sauna and that I really am taking a Finnish language class for beginners. It is I who catches part of the total the grocery cashier tells me and then proceeds to give her the wrong amount. Yes the silence feels more palpable to these ears which miss the nuance of the a and the aa and the ä and the ää (and really, English would be way harder to learn because at least in Finnish, every letter is pronounced exactly one way as opposed to the English tomorrow, for example, which gives the speaker the opportunity to pronounce an o three, count ’em, three different ways!).
Also, though, the silence helps preserve my energy. Not constantly listening to noise for the sake of noise is a calming phenomenon. Not hearing car horns on the streets makes walks more pleasant. Not hearing everyone jabbering into their phones at all hours keeps my blood pressure low. And appreciating the silence makes the joy of the noise, and the music, and the laughter all that much better when it does happen even if I can’t tell you that, yet, in Finnish.