Nordic Conversations Are Different

Silence. It is something Americans hate. In your typical American conversation you’ll rarely find such a thing as a comfortable silence, a reflective silence, or a natural silence.  For the average American in a normal conversation there’s really only one type of silence and that is awkward silence. A type of silence that we’re taught from childhood to avoid at all costs. This stems in large part from the American conversational approach which I think can best be described as conversational layering with each person quickly layering on new overlapping information in rapid succession. Add in the fast-paced rapid-fire approach to speaking common among most Americans and you’ve got a recipe for frustration and perceived arrogance when talking to Nordics / Scandinavians (and other internationals). 

Strolling Norrebro

Unlike Americans, Nordics/Scandinavians have a conversational culture which treasures the silences. This comes from a significantly increased comfort with silence compared to their American counterparts. Nordics/Scandinavians have a very turn-based structure and style. While the Finnish are notorious for the slow pacing of their conversations and their extreme comfort with what would otherwise be considered painfully uncomfortable periods of silence, it is a trend present to a lesser extent across all of the Nordic countries.  The result is a conversational practice which is heavily turn based with definite gaps to signify the closure of a point. In this way a traditional Nordic conversation much more closely resembles the structure of formal debate than a round table free-for-all discussion.

Due to the near bilingualism of most Nordic citizens and the fact that many also speak American English with very mild accents, it is very easy for non-native speakers to forget that the Nordics are still not quite native speakers.  This means that when the conversational silences occur during the natural flow of a conversation, they are amplified because of the added need to process, digest, and periodically search for missing words. Something confounded when talking with native English speakers due to our heavy use of regional slang and provincial idioms.

Relaxing on Dronning Louises Bro

In discussions with Danish friends and by closely exploring my own conversations, I’ve come to realize that this translates into a certain level of frustration among Nordics when talking with native speakers. It can often translate into the perception that the American (or other native speaker) is arrogant, dismissive, not paying attention, and/or rude.  Keeping in mind the two conversational styles I mentioned previously, here are a few areas where I’ve watched issues arise.

Affirmation behavior

A common American practice to show continued engagement with a conversation is to give constant positive feedback.  This can either be gestural (movement) or verbal (spoken) and comes in a variety of forms but usually includes movements such as head nods, finger pointing, and shoulder shrugs while the verbal includes words like “uhhumm”, “yup, yup, ya”, or “definitely”.  While these are intended and expressed by Americans as a way of confirming engagement with the conversation, filling small gaps, and expressing agreement, interest or sympathy, I’ve found they often confuse non-native speakers who see them either as an interruption, inquiry, or dismissive attempt to speed the person up.

Interruptions

Because we don’t employ nearly the same type of strictly turn-based conversation flow, as soon as there’s a brief pause it is viewed as an opening for responding.  While this can be a challenge even among native speakers, it is a much larger issue when speaking with Nordics who often feel interrupted, ignored, or talked over.  This is where the two conversational styles clash the most dramatically as the Nordic is often pausing to collect their thoughts, breathe, and then continue their point at what feels like a comfortably rapid pace with the expectation that their conversational partner will similarly understand that they’re still expressing their whole thought before advancing the conversation.  For Americans, particularly if they’re highly engaged in a conversation, they’ll endeavor to keep it moving at a fast pace in a rush to share ideas and thoughts. This means that anything more than the briefest pause to breathe will be viewed as either an opportunity or outright invitation to speak with longer gaps viewed as uncomfortable pauses.  There is also a difficult to express set of rules for when you can interrupt for more clarification, disagreement, or to add details. Which in turn sometimes leads to conversational processes that override these acceptable interruption such as,  “No, no, no, let me finish…” and other statements which, while still present, seem to be radically less common among Nordics.

Longer Sentences and Tangents

Nordics take pride in saying something simply and are famous for their directness.  I think this is partially cultural, but also comes from the nature of the Nordic languages which are often highly contextual and descriptive but tend not to have the same depth and breadth of synonyms as English. The lack of a word for ‘please’ in Danish is one such example of this in action. Nordics in general tend towards a more direct way of interacting with each other conversationally, particularly in the workplace, which can be quite shocking to Americans, particularly those from the Midwest and western part of the US where politically correct politeness is taken to an extreme. The end result is that not only do native speakers opt for longer and more complex sentences that may be necessary or popular among their Nordic counterparts, we will also use these subconsciously to fill or outright avoid uncomfortable silences. Where a simple “yes” might do, you’ll find ample situations where a long explanation or carefully framed answer is delivered instead.

Perceived Unhappiness

The Nordic inclination towards increased levels of silence and more complete but less common responses can lead to perceptions of unhappiness, boredom, and discontent.  Since these attributes are often associated with conversational discomfort or disengagement among Americans, it is entirely possible for a fully engaged Dane to come across as upset or disconnected from the conversation.  Which in turn tends to leave Americans feeling inclined to fill any silences that exist, change topics, or ask outright what’s wrong – often to the complete confusion of the Nordic in question.

We’ll Help

Out of our aversion to silence or disruption to the conversational flow and pacing when another individual (Dane, Nordic or American) is struggling with recalling a word or over a word’s pronunciation it is common practice among many Americans to jump in and provide that word. This is in part an extension of the affirmation behavior I mentioned earlier – showing we’re paying attention and invested in the conversation – as much as it has to do with preventing an uncomfortable silence. However, to non-native speakers it can also come across as disrespectful by being seen as a reminder of the individual’s lack of native fluency or linguistic/conversational competence. It’s important to note that this ‘helpful behavior’ is something that native speakers do with each other all the time. Theyoffer it as an act of general politeness not from a position of judgement or superiority.

It’s Not A Perfect Science

While I’ve drawn these insights primarily from my time spent here in Denmark engaged inc conversations with Danes, they’re based on more widespread trends which can be traced throughout the Nordics/Scandinavia. I think many of these behavioral and conversational characteristics are also relevant when considering conversations with other non-native speaker from other cultures and regions globally.  I’d love to hear what your thoughts are, particularly if you’re a non-native English speaker.

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Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

207 Comments

  1. Hi Alex,

    As a non-native non-Nordic English speaker who lived in Finland, then moved to the States, and now lives in Copenhagen, I must say that I have finally found my comfort zone in terms of conversational flows. I find myself in most of the depictions you made about how Danes engage in conversations. Both Finland and the States (I lived in San Fran) were just too much for me. In the former case it felt like I was talking by myself, in the latter like what I had to say was never important enough for the person I was talking to. That positive feedback you mentioned is really confusing for me, as that is exactly the kind of behavior I adopt when I am not truly engaged in a conversation, but it would be very rude to get out of it. At the same time, I love talking to someone who is more loquacious than myself because it creates conversational balance in a way. And don’t get me wrong, positive feedback is fantastic, but it needs to be specific, generic words won’t do. For example asking a question about what I said, or shortly rephrasing something or pointing out something. Then I know that you are both listening to me and interested.

    • Very interesting – thanks Larisa! It is a really interesting thing to explore and then to be aware of in our own interactions – especially as we shift through cultures. Forces a quirky balance at times which overall I think is really good for communication.

  2. Fascinating write up. I do agree that American English feels rushed, with it’s frequent interruptions and fast, almost nervous pacing. I always enjoy talking to non native English speakers because conversations tend to feel more focused and more relaxed. It’s very interesting to read some of the “why” behind that.
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    • Thanks Ed! Yeah, I also find that I speak a very different type of native-hybrid English while abroad for extended periods/when speaking to a blend of non-natives and natives.

  3. Christiansays:

    As a Dane travelling abroad, it’s interesting to find out how the whole thing seems when it’s turned around.

    I can identify with many of your comments on the conversational conventions that I have been so used to.

    In terms of actions such as affirmations (nodding etc.) and helping with finding the right words, I think that has a great deal to do with fluency and pace – as these actions are, in my view, quite common in Danish as well. In relation to what you mention about the pace of conversations, I think that as a non-native speaker we might at times feel that the native listener seems impatient, when expecting us to speak faster than we are either used to or able to…

    • That was one of the things I was the most curious and concerned about when writing this. I found myself wondering, will this resonate with Danes as well? Great to hear that it did.

      The concern about language fluency when talking to native English speakers is definitely an interesting and common concern. I also wonder if it is in part magnified compared to other cultures (it is always a concern) by the fact that many Danes are quite particular about how Danish is spoken.

  4. Thanks Alex, for the very intelligent post on this subject. Conversations between people from different cultures are such a fascinating study subject. Talking to each other might seem simple but it especially shows its complexity when people get in contact with speakers from different countries/cultures. It is easy to feel awkward, confused or irritated, while there is actually nothing wrong.

    I am from the Netherlands, and there we also make an effort to avoid awkward silences. I did not travel to Scandinavian countries yet, but I traveled and lived in Asia for long periods. In the beginning, the conversational part was a real challenge. When I stayed in Japan, people often said nothing to me for long periods. I quickly felt uneasy but for them it was normal to be silent. What was happening in their mind was often about to stay there. I sometimes irritated them by asking if there was something wrong. It can be a really interesting challenge to find a conversational balance when your are in close contact with foreign people for a long time.
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    • I’ve yet to make it to Asia, but I’ve heard similar stories from a number of people. Very interesting to see some of the parallels. It is without question important (but often quite difficult) to be very aware of the cultural differences in approaches to conversation and to then work to incorporate those or allow from them. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve seen disagreements arise because one group/person is convinced the others are mad/angry/ignoring them when in reality it’s just basic differences in cultural conversational protocol.

      • Liensays:

        Hello Alex,

        I come from Vietnam and have been living in Finland for three years. Coming from an Asian country, I also agree with your sharp observations, at least from my experiences with Finns. My conversational culture is quite similar to America, as you described above. Therefore, I was at discomfort at the beginning when having conversations with Finns. I felt awkward with their silence, long pause, lack of excitement in their expressions. I perceived them as cold, too rational, and emotionless in dialogs. Many of my Finnish friends also admit the differences. However as you said, foreign language amplifies the effect. When I talk to Finns in their native language, they are more excited and smooth although silence is still common. After three years I have adapted to Finnish culture. I see more positive aspects in their conversational culture. Their long contemplation helps form more objective, accurate descriptions, and less emotional. That creates a reliable and trustworthy atmosphere.

        • That definitely makes a lot of sense. Also very interesting to hear about it from the Asian perspective. It would be a fascinating area to study in more-depth with to really get into from many different cultural perspectives.

          • Sepposays:

            Hi Alex!
            As a born Finn, have to add that English is to many Finnish speakers – not the second but – the THIRD language, as is inmy case.
            Studying and working (as teacher) in US mid-west this was sometimes considered as ‘miraculous’ since many Americand do not have ‘a third language’ to speak and write.
            This THIRD thing means for us more efforts in using English and, of course, it takes time to learn a fluent vocabulary in different conversational contexts.
            Hope you could find the nature of this problem practical or perhaps even exotic!
            We live very close to narure, and thus we have learned to listen to the lnaguage of forests and lakes… :D

  5. I, an American, lived in Denmark for nearly 30 years, and visit often, because my daughter considers herself a Dane. My non-Danish 2nd husband, who spent a year in Denmark years ago, love Denmark, and we sometimes talk about retiring in Denmark for various reasons.
    I remember how I often could not figure out the rhythm of a conversation. As a teacher, I could not figure out how to break into colleagues’ conversations to ask about something I needed to know during our 15 breaks (certainly unknown in the US!) I felt like I was constantly interrupting conversations, which is basically what you describe.
    However, in the other direction, if you are speaking Danish (or trying to, as in the case of my husband or English grandchildren) Danes are often too quick to come to their aide by speaking English, instead of giving them time to find the right words. Back when I was learning the language (which I now speaking pretty fluently) I felt that colleagues would sometimes get impatient that my Danish wasn’t perfect! I don’t think they know what to do with foreigners who are learning THEIR language!

    • Bonnie, very interesting about the cultural conversational dynamic. Definitely a prime example of how just knowing the language itself isn’t enough. The challenge with Danes having a very inflexible ear and low tolerance for butchered Danish is definitely something that a lot of internationals voice frustration about. It does seem to build a certain level of frustration and resentment among non-fluent Danish speakers.

      • Kathrinesays:

        Hi
        I’m a Dane, and for me it’s not about impatience or low tolerance for “butchered” Danish; ) I’m just aware/thinking, that Denmark is a small country and dosn’t expect or “demand” others to speak the language. Most foreign people I have met, is in Denmark for a shorter period of time, so why should they learn to speak the language (and how much can they learn in that short amount of time?). I’ve had English in school, as most Danes have, so I’m actually just trying to be polite and make the conversation easier, if I switch to English (although I’m not perfect at it), because I think, it’s natural, that I then should be the one to adapt to the situation.
        Some of our American friends tried to learn a little Danish, but they said, it is a very difficult language, so they gave up, since they wouldn’t stay for that long, which I think is fair. But if the person says, it’s fine in Danish, I just think it’s great, and feel kind of honored, that they want to put the effort into it
        : )

  6. John Caulkinssays:

    Thanks for this interesting topic. I have lived for many years in the Czech Republic. Unlike Denmark, English was not the second language for most people when I moved here in 1990. Conversations would stall and die sometimes because I just didn’t know Czech well enough and the other person didn’t know English. But, years later- still not proficient in Czech, I also remember wishing to keep other (group) conversations moving in English and I certainly exhibited those same American habits of speaking during pauses. The reason was because once the conversation would switch back to Czech I would be lost and simply could not participate the way I wanted to. It was uncomfortable, embarrassing and unfair but I feel like our American upbringing never encouraged us to listen and learn. It’s as though we were brainwashed to believe that all the other languages are too difficult for us to learn- and so we should just talk more- to “gift” our language to others. I have since learned Czech (and German living for a bit in Hamburg) and enjoy speaking with near fluency. But I do notice my old habits and try to keep myself aware of others and understand that I may be acting arrogant when I “hog” conversations. When I speak in other languages I am almost never jokey or use slang, whereas in English I do love using idioms and playing with slang.

    • Very interesting! Yeah, slang usage is definitely a huge challenge, especially for native English speakers as so much of our daily vocabulary is based heavily in slang or obscure cultural sayings. You’re definitely right about the native-English arrogance. From what I’ve read it isn’t just something we suffer from as Americans but tends to be true for the Brits, Irish and Aussies as well.

  7. This is fun to read! I agree on most things (as a dane with a lot of connections to the US), but one – The affirmative listening is in my opinion a completely common thing in danish as well.

    The article make it sound like we sit listening, like lumps of passive nordic rock, while others talk. Just not true :-)

    • Juliosays:

      Hej Liselotte,

      Helt enig. I spent 5 years in Denmark and one of the first traits and noticed was that funny quick breath Danes do when affirming to a sentence, as if they had got a fright :-) It is kind of shocking for the novel inpat. I often thought “Have I scared this guy??”

  8. Lindasays:

    While I haven’t got any conclusions, let me share a couple of anecdotes on the subject. I am a Finn who has lived abroad and also have had extended contact with Danes as I lived with one for about 8 years.

    First, I work in tourism at summers and have often had conversations with native Americans and I am aware of the cultural differences. This summer I well remember a conversation which was (for me) very fast paced, often both of us talking simultaneously, well perhaps I saw it this way and he saw it as affirming and listening? While my workmates said they’d perceived the gentleman as very intense and found conversing with him rather difficult, I rather enjoyed the conversation despite it leaving me rather exhausted after just 15 minutes.

    And a second one about the Danes. Within the years I’ve started to understand Danish enough to know what they are talking about, but I still don’t know when to “interrupt” a conversation to come with my own lines. It’s especially difficult as I don’t feel like I speak Danish well enough and would interrupt in English mostly. There’s no pause in their conversation that would in Finnish signal that the speaking turn is up for grabs, so I just have no idea how to get a turn. When I tried, I really ended up interrupting it all.

    And lastly, I might come over as somewhat nettled here even though it’s not my intention, but I wonder what you base the observation of lack of depth and broadness of synonyms on? In my experience a lot of people perceive their own language as very rich and descriptive, while other languages are perceived as less so. My theory is that it’s due solely to a lack of indepth skill. Hence, out of interest, I wonder if there’s some research on the subject you can refer to or even just shed some more light on your experiences with this?

    Finally. Thank you for a very interesting article that explains some of conversational turn taking and cultural differences relating to it in terms most people can understand.

    • Hi Linda, the rules and protocol for interjecting a comment or comfortable turn taking protocols is definitely a huge challenge. We even have issues with it when combining people from the east and west coast of the US. Appreciate the thoughts!

      As far as the depth – I base it largely on the age of the language, general usage, and geographic diversity. None of which is scientifically based (I’m a communication guy, not a linguistic research). But, what I find is that older languages tend to have fewer words and that these are often also much more contextually oriented languages (eg: Danish). Add to that, languages either tend to acquire words from other languages, or create their own. Danish has been quite slow over the last few years when it comes to creating new words, opting instead of co-opt existing words from English (etc.). These words are incorporated into the vocabulary but still viewed as non-Danish for general usage. While the Danes traveled extensively historically, over the last few hundred years Danes have been somewhat geographically focused. English on the other hand is a somewhat newer language that has evolved radically and has a very heavy basis in co-opted words from a number of other older languages (norse, nordic languages, germanic languages, French, etc.). The geographic dispersion of English has also, I believe, forced English speakers to develop and co-opt new words on a much wider scale since you’re talking about vocabulary evolving in parallel within the same language across a plethora of regions that range across just about every climate imaginable.

      I have no idea how credible it is, but in doing a casual search I found an estimate that placed the Danish vocabulary at somewhere under 150,000 words compared to an estimated max of 500,000 in Russian and 1,500,000 in English (though another listing I saw from Merriam-Webster suggested roughly 1 million with about 470,000 entries in the dictionary). I think this is also reflected in the high level of redundancy (what is it – 66%?) in English vs. some other languages.

      All of which means that there will be a larger pool of synonyms to draw from (presumably). But, again, this is really just based on my observation, and not in any properly vetted or scientific fact.

      • Vera Wilhelmsensays:

        Those numbers are really off and unscientific. It is in principle impossible to list how many words different languages have, and how many entries a certain dictionary has, is quite irrelevant. Danish has of course just as many nuances and synonyms as English, or at least that is not a deciding factor in the matter.

        • Vera Wilhelmsensays:

          Also, Danish has several way of expressing the sentiment of ‘please’, it is just not the same word in each instance. Just because there is no direct translation/one word, does not mean it does not exist. I think your general observations are true, but these inaccuracies are unfortunate.

          • Steven Gyslersays:

            Ya. I’m no Norwegian or Danish speaker, but don’t they, in Danish say “Vaer so godt” and in Norwegian say, “Vaer so snill” for please? Just memories from a week in Denmark nearly 50 years ago, and from my youth remembering what my Norwegian Grandmother said in Norwegian. Of course, her Norwegian was a little mixed because my Grandfather was a Swede. She was from Austevoll, and he from Savsjo.

      • Per Ahlstromsays:

        I am Swedish, and I write professionally in both Swedish and English. I want to challenge your conception of English. First of all: English is a much younger language than the Scandinavian languages (and most other languages), as it has been created after the Danish conquest of England 1000 years ago and is a mix of Saxon and French. The idea that there are more English words than there are words in other languages probably comes from one of the natural consequences of having a language made up from two languages (and in addition to that one gothic and one latin language), as English sometimes has both a Saxon and a French word for the same thing.
        But the Scandinavian (and many other languages) have a feature that does exist in English (probably because of the Saxon influence), but not in a systematic way (probably because of the French influence) – and that is that we create an endless number of words by simply combining two other words. E.g. there is no English word to describe the inside of the elbow – at least no English speaker has been able to provide one so far – while in Swedish we take the words for arm (same as English) and fold (veck) and combine them into “armveck”. I don’t even know how a lexicographer would be able to count these words, as you are free to create new ones whenever you need them.
        This makes for a fairly compact language (texts get shorter when translated from English to Swedish – not to speak of how much shorter a text gets when translated from French to Swedish).
        And why, we Scandinavians ask, doesn’t the English language distinguish between paternal and maternal grandparents? In spite of the 1.5 million words you boast about having.
        Sometimes Scandinavians find themselves searching for English words they feel should be there, but they cannot be found. This means that sometimes we have to make up a whole sentence to describe a simple thing that is easily described in one word. It does slow things down when you have to first pause to realize that there is no English word for “farmor” and then come up with “my paternal grandmother”.
        But don’t feel bad about the lack of English words. The French have to use even more words to describe things that in the Scandinavian languages are described by a simple word combination.
        Otherwise I think your observations on cultural differences are correct. But let me add that the individual variations probably are more important than the cultural differences, as are individual experiences from different conversations. And the American conversation culture is not one culture. As always, you can find all kinds of Americans, with different cultural backgrounds. There is greater difference between a stressed out New Yorker and a laid back guy from the South than it is between someone from Detroit and a person raised in a small Swedish steel town.

        • Petersays:

          I don’t agree with your “armveck” example. The difference between English and Swedish is that the English language does not write word combinations together like is done in Swedish. Your example “armveck” can easily be created in English too: “arm fold” or (arguably better) “fold of the arm”. Just like writing “arm veck” (särskrivning) is wrong in Swedish, writing “armfold” is wrong in English.

          And certainly, there’s no lack of English words. That statement is ridiculous. Just because there’s no specific word for “farmor” and “mormor” does not mean this is the rule. Then you may just as easily say that for example Finnish (!) has a lack of words (“isoisä” and “isoäiti”).

          ‘nuf said!

          • Meanwhile, in Finnish, we have an actual word for that. Kyynärtaive.

            Also, I’m still missing a language that has a proper, widely used everyday word for that small triangle shaped area between your thumb and index finger. I’ve heard a medical term for it in English, which is “thenar space” and the additional skin is called “webbing”, apparently, but is there an everyday term for it?

        • Ivanasays:

          As an American born in Denmark, who grew up bilingual, I would agree with Alex Berger. I find English to be a more elaborate language, with a broader range synonyms and phrases, precisely because it is a bastardized language. This allows concepts and ideas to be communicated with more varied and more long-winded phrasing. That does not mean that English has more depth, but that Danish can communicate deep concepts with more simple language. I think of Danish as a concise language. It has words that can embody concepts, that in English, would require an entire sentence, a favorite word being ‘hygge’ or in your example ‘farmor’ instead of my father’s mother. Of course English has such words as well, but I find Danish to have more of them, and with this, there is a certain brevity in the language compared to English.

    • I haven’t yet been part of a circle of Danes and tried to join in the conversation, but with other languages and cultures, my approach is to first be silent (even though I enjoy talking, I also really love being around people who know I don’t speak their language well enough to join in the conversation, and when I’m silent it’s just because of that), and to watch every speaker as I listen to the conversation, so I can not only understand what they are talking about, but also see their non-verbal interaction with the rest of the group. I think that after a while I notice the pattern with which turn taking is communicated. It’s a bit like a game, I watch the group and try to guess when somebody’s turn is over, and who will speak next. And when I start guessing mostly right, I try out the things I think were the ones that signal ‘I have a contribution to make’ and see if they work, when there’s something I have to say or a question to ask.

      (And then I get all embarrassed because I suddenly have to speak … :’D)

  9. As a Dane who has lived in the US for 30-odd years, I recognize much of what you say here, except “in reverse.” Even after 30 years here, I still find that I wait for “natural gaps” in conversations before feeling inclined to speak, and many of them never happen… making me realize that I have said nothing, and the “good idea” I had has been left 15 minutes and three topic changes behind. Because somewhere inside my remaining cultural core “it’s rude” to just “insert myself” when there hasn’t been a natural conclusion to someone’s words.

    Similarly, I often feel “talked over” when someone starts talking while I am still going. It took me better than a decade to understand that this was not rudeness, but cultural conversational conventions. To this day, I am perfectly comfortable with silence while in the company of others, and feel blessed that my American wife is also OK with silence.
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    • Peter – very interesting to hear. I’m fascinated by identity, and the way language shapes interactions among long-term internationals/expats. It is definitely very challenging and frustrating when you’ve got a very timely piece to add or a question to ask and then the conversation races past it. Thanks for the insight!

    • Steven Gyslersays:

      I am of Norwegian and Swedish heritage, and believe me, that cultural aspect was never bred out of our family. It was rude to interrupt. It was proper to give time to the other speaker so that he could think and formulate a clear answer. There was a “taking of turns”. Now, whenever I am interrupted in the middle of a sentence, I get angry because I sense the other person is rude, not thinking that what I have to say is important; and, in fact, they tell me that they knew what I was going to say, and that they finished my sentence for me in their minds. In fact, many times, they are quite wrong about what they thought I intended to say. They don’t like my deliberate way of expressing myself when I make sure that what I’m saying is exactly what I want to say. I want to be precise, and so I want to say it correctly. This was taught to me very conciously by my Mother and Father as a form of etiquette of speech, and it sometimes results in misunderstandings with other American conversation partners. We always wait until another person is seen to be finished expressing themselves. In our family it was equivalent to the no-no of speaking at the table with your mouth full. It just wasn’t done. Now, was it just my family, or is it the Scandinavian heritage which we inherited? I don’t really know.

  10. A great read :)

    It’s true the pronunciation may and will cause extra breaks and slow down the pace. Many Finns try to pronounce perfectly, not quite sure why but it’s a hostile scene here when it comes to proper pronunciation of English language for a Finn.

    As a recording artist I’ve often run into negative feedback of vocalists having a “bad accent”, and it mostly occurs only when the public knows the artist is Finnish. At the same time Finns are totally fine with music from i.e. Romania with a hard Romanian-English accent and no-one bothers about it. Learning through public pressure the self-criticism is way too high on how to speak English and it often leads to either slow pace and/or over-trying which sounds ridiculous (for a Finn).

    After a day or few it doesn’t matter for me if I’m talking a bit in “rally English” (Finglish) and it’s relieving. Personally I enjoy deep one-on-one conversations on interesting topics, where each subject is carefully talked through all around. But I may be a little bit of an introvert.

    PS. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orVBkI0m9ZY

    • And this one, check out especially the bonfire part ;D

      • Mallasays:

        Thanks Joel, this was totally fun. Kiitos!!

      • Hah, those were a good laugh. Thanks Joel!

        Yeah, the accent is definitely an interesting factor that a lot of people are aware of (music definitely magnifies it – and it is perhaps one of the few times when I think native English speakers start to get extra picky).

      • Stephaniesays:

        Loved this clip…the fire-pit conversation is quite funny.

  11. David Louhivuorisays:

    This explains a lot, I am Mexican and lived in Canada during my childhood. My father is Finish and we now live in the Los Cabos Mexico area. When we have family come to visit us we always have Americans,Canadians and Mexicans around, but always the quiet ones are the Fins.

    • That’s a really cool cultural blend. Next time the family comes to visit, it will be fun to see how these added insights change the dynamic – especially if you guys talk about it and work it into your interactions.

  12. Ulla Lehtonensays:

    I am a Finn and have lived in the states for several years. I think in English you can be very vague if you so wish but that is impossible in Finnish, the language just does not support it and it is also almost considered lying.
    I get a lot of grief for being “so direct”; the comment I most often hear is:”Tell us what you REALLY think.” as if that were a bad thing.
    Americans like to overstate and over describe everything and beat around the bush endlessly. This I find very frustrating. Just say your piece and let is speak for itself.
    I liked this article very much.

    • That’s a very interesting point. I’d definitely agree and go so far as to say that English can be used to be highly evasive, and often is when trying to be politically correct. If Finnish is much more direct, and not conducive to that, it definitely would have interesting ramifications for conversation. I’m actually considering doing a follow up piece discussing Nordic directness as a source for the high level of efficiency when compared to other groups. Keep an eye open ;)

    • Steven Gyslersays:

      Yes, I get that too. I think sometimes that I sound rather ‘blunt’ to others when I’m just telling it like it is. Why couch it? You want honesty, right? (Maybe not).

  13. Mallasays:

    Hi, I’m from Finland, but been living in California for past 18 years. I don’t think Finns are as quiet as people think. They might be in the beginning, but when you get to know them, they talk a lot. At least all the Finns I know. I talk a lot and I talk with everyone and every where, no matter what country people are from. The younger generation of Finns travels a lot, so they are more comfortable talking, when the older generation is afraid of saying something incorrectly as you pointed out. I noticed from myself that, when I have visitors from Finland, I always try to take over when they are trying to do/say something, kind of like protecting them not to say it wrong. I have to change that, since its the only way to learn, just talk, no matter how bad it goes. Thanks for your article!

    • Cool, thanks Malla! It would definitely be interesting to explore if the internet, and increased ease of travel is making a big difference in how various generations socialize and relate!

  14. G Novakysays:

    For those interested in typical Finish (male) dialogues I would recommend the movie “The Steam of Life”.

    Trailer (NSFW)
    .https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5HfmtU25ww

    • Very interesting. Just a heads up for any readers not from the Nordics, that link is NSFW – I’ll make an edited note, hope you don’t mind.

      That’s another topic that has fascinated me (the approach to nudity, especially compared to ultra-conservative Arizona). It has really grown on me, but taken some getting used to – I haven’t experienced it too much in a Nordic context, but did talk about it within a German/Austrian context in a couple videos which you might find interesting (http://youtu.be/ET81h6H5NjM?list=PLYhfDSDaZurAEVwjry_XyA4474PJsvygw).

      Anyhow, back to the topic – that movie looks really good. Will have to check it out. Thanks for the tip!

  15. Helenasays:

    Nice post, I can agree with most of it. I am a Finn living in Central Europe and married to an Englishman. Me and my husband often discuss the differences between the Finnish and English styles of communicating. After several years of living abroad I feel like I can tolerate silence less than most Finns now, whereas my husband says he is quite comfortable with longer pauses and less rushed conversation. Personally I experienced a little culture shock this spring when I was visiting Finland after a long time – I found it very rude how people didn’t respond to me or just walked off when I opened a conversation with someone I didn’t know. And this was in Helsinki!

    With English people I often have the feeling that the conversation is very quick and that topics change very fast, whereas in Finland topics are usually discussed for much longer until everyone has had a chance to say what they want. And I have made a lot of effort to learn how to give also audible feedback to other people when they are speaking (aha, oh really?, wow, is that so…) – in Finland it is quite normal just to look at the person who is speaking without saying anything and quietly wait until they have finished talking. But it doesn’t mean that Finns aren’t interested in what you’re saying. If a conversation is rushed, it makes me feel that what I said wasn’t that interesting.

    I can also see differences between the Nordic countries. In my view Swedes and Danes are more direct and Danes tend to be louder and chattier. But that’s just my experience and of course personal differences exist as well.

    • Absolutely, I would suggest that the layered approach used by most native English speakers also leads to many more tangents and that faster progression from topic to topic, back to the original topic, and then off on another tangent. Mostly because with each interjection it is more stream of thought and much more likely new related ideas are voiced. Personally I like this as it tends to make for more dynamic conversation, but I do think that in some cases a more turn-based and complete approach is much more rewarding and leads to less miscommunication etc.

      The Danes definitely do seem to be the most boisterous and gregarious of the lot!

  16. Katjasays:

    Thanks for a great post, Alex. I find most of what you say very familiar from my experiences both in the States and in the Nordic countries. I teach at university level and interact with international scholars and students on a daily basis. Your point (and some commentators) about slang and richness of language can also be a way of showing or faking interest in whoever you are speaking to. In my experience, what I’ve also perceived as arrogance and ignorance of Americans, may simply be there way of speaking to you about their culture not having another reference point. Nordics take similar pride in their culture, and like to educate foreigners on e.g. social democracy etc. My point is that many people regardless of culture, like to speak, fewer like to listen or engage in a conversation. Those non-natives that may want to engage simply may never get there, if the speaker is not conscious of talking to a non-native.

    Many try humor, but translated jokes will not work, if you don’t recognize that the listener may need some background (rules of “insert favorite sport”, domestic politicians or tv shows) to understand your play on words. I’ve heard Finns trying to translate Finnish lyrics while the song is playing trying to convey the emotion. I’ve heard American’s referring to favorite local politicians or semi-celebs in a room full of internationals who never set foot on American soil, much less the local soil. Neither led to more than awkward smiles and silence. Knowing and respecting your audience doesn’t have to restrict what you are saying, only how you are saying it. Humor is universal and something really funny is the greatest way to connect, but you either build a bridge to whoever you are talking to or find yourself in a monologue. We may all be a bit shaky, when going beyond our comfort zone, but most people willl appreciate the effort of inclusion.
    While group conversations may be fun, most non-natives feel self-conscious in “taking the floor” even in their own langugage. Nordics tend to be chattier one-on-one (or smaller group) than they are in a group, and many group dynamics (in native langugage) rest on a few speakers, and many listeners (non-verbal or sound support). A clue for native-speakers is not to assume that group chatter will work in a one-on-one conversation. The Nordic that seeks out to speak with you, tends to do so because of interest in you, your culture or country (or anything foreign), but also wants to talk to you and share differences. They want more than what you gave to the group and may find you shallow, if you use a general way of speaking or skirt around the issue (yes, politics). You don’t have to take sides (or give opinions) if you are uncomfortable with it, but you may benefit from engaging at the same level of detail with the Nordic. You can talk of your culture and how it makes sense to you without taking sides. That’s much better than what anyone can read in the media.

    It might help also to pick up on non-verbal (or transition words) communciation in other cultures, which will help you read conversations better. All cultures and languages have clues for conversations. Finnish (nii-i, non-ni) Swedish (aarå) and Norweigan (ackurat) have a linguistic meaning, but also a cultural meaning as to where the listener is in the conversation. Many Nordics will unconsciously use the same (sound or odd translation) when speaking English, not realizing that the listener is not picking up on the cultural meaning. Many native English speakers run into conversational trouble, when assuming that their cultural clues are being picked up, because the listener speaks the language well. If worrying about interrupting a group, you can identify a (non-crucial) listener, or address your apology to the speaker (not the room), for your brief stealing of one listener thus signaling that the others can go on. 65 % of our communication is non-verbal and much of it is universal. By observing non-verbal communication in a group, you get a feel for the cultural clues, and you may understand them faster than you understand the language. They may help you in understanding the blanks in your conversations with non-natives and may even be a topic of conversation “deep” and “genuine” enough on most Nordic scales that will keep you away from American politics.
    Thanks also to all the commentators, I’ve felt the same (and myself change) in different settings (home/abroad) often being called American at home, and “alien” in the States. I learn more about my own culture every time I go abroad, and when I come home again. But I’m all the richer for all the conversations I’ve had with people, because it stretches your mind beyond your comfort zone and beyond what you’ve known before. It gives you a peek outside your own world and into another.

    • The American mentality is definitely its own unique blend of arrogance, confidence, and ? I absolutely love how Stephen Fry breaks down the difference between British Humor/heroes and American ones. I think it perfectly illustrates some of the differences in conditioning which then carry over into other aspects of how we communicate.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8k2AbqTBxao

      Another challenge that complicates conversations for many Americans tends to be that much of the world has co-opted key parts of our culture and has a fairly involved familiarity with most aspects of our day-to-day lives from politics to pop culture. However, that familiarity is widely different from person to person, and we never really know what to expect. Add to that, that we often lack the same familiarity with the other cultures we interact with both because of general egocentrism, and also the reality that the country’s local pop culture or politics may be much less accessible/less visible on the international stage. Extreme examples are of course American’s notorious difficulty with the concept of Scandinavia (is it a country? Is it a city? is Denmark the capital of Sweden?) but on a more micro level it is somewhat more difficult for us to contextualize topics and discussions we have with non-Americans.

      “Finnish (nii-i, non-ni) Swedish (aarå) and Norweigan (ackurat) have a linguistic meaning, but also a cultural meaning as to where the listener is in the conversation. Many Nordics will unconsciously use the same (sound or odd translation) when speaking English, not realizing that the listener is not picking up on the cultural meaning.”

      This is a really interesting point and something I’ll have to pay close attention to moving forward. I’ve noticed some of it, but hadn’t really fully realized that they signify where in the statement the individual is. Very cool! Thanks for the excellent comment.

  17. Thank you for the text. I must admit (as a Finn) that I do agree to a certain point. However there are geographical differences within Finland as well. The eastern Finns are more talkative than the western Finns. I have struggled with the awkward silence also among ourselves, Finns. But then on the other hand, I have had hard time trying to keep up with the conversation and not being silent with the US-Americans. There are some other countries I have found the awkward silence “okay”, now looking at Eastern Europe, France, some South American countries and some East-Asian Countries.

    • Yup, makes perfect sense. We have huge differences in conversational behavior between the various regions within the US. I believe that they say there are about six different “groups” though the most commonly discussed is the difference between east and west coasters (and that difference can be quite significant). I’ve seen some similar parallels in discussions here in Denmark between Zealanders and Jutlanders. Only makes sense they’d also be pronounced in Finland!

  18. Kirsisays:

    A very interesting piece, as Danes are probably the most talkative of the people in the Nordics. To a Finn they all talk too much, the Swedes, Norwegians and Danes.

    The silence of the Finns is also reflected on other behaviour, like preferring to sit alone at a cafe or a restaurant and not accepting company of strangers. The strangers are often offended when their offer to join is not welcomed, and the Finn is confused why someone is feeling sorry for him or her for sitting alone.

    • Kirsi, please read my response below :)

      Danes, Norwegians, Swedes talking too much? No, not at all! And this is from a fellow Finn.

      • Kirsisays:

        Oh I definitely beg to differ.

        The average Swedes, Danes and Norwegians are much more inclined to fill silence with words and complete your sentences, if you falter, than the average Finn usually is. Of course Finns have much more in common with the other Nordics than with the average American so those gaps aren’t that big and noticeable, but they are there. It’s easy to notice when all the four nationalities are sitting together, which I’ve had the privilege to observe on many occasions.

        Also Finns are not as fluffy as the Swedes and not as loud as the Danes or Norwegians unless the Finns are drunk, which they often are as most of the awkward gaps can be narrowed with “suojakänni” (protective intoxication).

        I also have both recurring personal and anecdotal evidence of the fact that culturally at least the Finns are more confortable “on their own” in some matters and don’t need company in the same way as the Americans. For instance in Finland it’s totally normal to dine alone by choice. In an American restaurant it is not uncommon to not be properly waited on if you are alone, especially if you are a woman. They often automatically think you just arrived first and are waiting for someone. You quickly learn to state clearly from the start that you are dining alone.

        Which earns you hushed “poor dear” remarks from elderly couples in neigbouring tables.

        • “… unless the Finns are drunk, which they often are as most of the awkward gaps can be narrowed with “suojakänni” (protective intoxication).”

          Wow, Kirsi, do you feel good now that you have repeated this stereotype once more? As if it hasn’t been heard enough already!

          No, I’m not “often drunk”. Neither are most other decent fellow Finns I know. Does that mean I’m not a Finn? Last time I checked, I was.

    • Good ol’ cultural protocol!

  19. Lindasays:

    Hi Alex,

    Thank you for your reply and explanation. The massive vocabulary of English vs. many other languages certainly makes sense when considering that English is used as the primary language across a plethora of cultures while f.e. Danish or Finnish is the primary language of a much smaller cultural group. It is something I didn’t think about at all when typing my post. I agree that going deeper into the subject certainly is more in the field of linguistics than communication, even though there is considerable overlap between the two. Both are equally interesting though.

    Again thanks for an excellent article. (That I found because it was shared somewhere on facebook.) And thanks to all the commentators, there are fascinating thoughts and stories in the comments as well.

  20. Great post and discussion…. thank you all for provoking some serious reflection on the part of this overly loquacious Irishman….

  21. Mariasays:

    Hi Alex,

    thanks for this post. It was so good for me to read it, as I recently moved to the States.
    I was reading your post to a friend of mine and noticed that it has very long sentences. I had difficulties with the rythm and breathing and reading at the same time. It was so funny. As a Finn I guess we even write shorter?

    • Well, Maria, it wasn’t entirely you. I have to admit that I have two bad habits from my academic days – I tend to use passive voice, and I also tend to favor rather long convoluted sentences. I recently listened to this Edge talk with Steven Pinker which I found really interesting, in that it provided a number of insights into some of my writing quirks: http://edge.org/video/writing-in-the-21st-century.

  22. Juha Tuunainensays:

    You might be interested in this thesis by Alina Lemak: https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/33661/1/lemak_alina_201211_MA_thesis.pdf. See especially pp. 18-26 about the functions of silence in interaction. As a Finn, I can recognize many of these in my daily communication.

    • Ahh, that looks spot on! Would definitely be great to dive into it and to see more literature. Thanks for the link and suggested area of focus.

  23. Valeriosays:

    I am Italian. Despite any popular stereotype about our conversational approach, what you may find in Italy is an extremely wide range of behaviours when talking (in fact Italy is actually many Italies). This somewhat trains you to deal with several conversational approaches from all over the world. I have lived in 5 European countries (Albania, Romania, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands) and have never experienced any insurmuntable issue which could make me feel not at ease. Perhaps the Dutch are the ones who are closer to what is described in the article, although I think they are very far from being as slow-paced as Danes and Finns may be.

    • Definitely – the left over impact of the old city states in Italy is deeply fascinating. As is the difference between north, central, and south – even to a non-Italian casual observer.

  24. Anderssays:

    “Something confounded when talking with native English speakers”

    I’m a Swede and a non-native English speaker, but don’t you mean “compounded”?

    • I could have worded it better, but in this case either could work depending on which part was being referenced. For this though, it is as intended. “process, digest, and periodically search for missing words” is what is being confounded by slang and idioms. More specifically, the processing, digesting, and mental search for missing words is being disrupted. Hope that clarifies and makes sense =)

  25. Interesting read… and the American vs Nordic countries bit is familiar from a course in international negotiation I took many years ago. Then, it was news to me that Americans tend to talk more and more when they get nervous (e.g. if they are afraid in a tough negotiation situation), because the reaction here in the Nordic countries (Finland, in my case) is pretty much the opposite.

    What I don’t like is this typical habit of fellow Finns to constantly emphasize this tired stereotype of us being the most quiet of all people. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy just because everyone keeps repeating it. No, Finns from some parts of Finland are NOT quiet but much more talkative than, say, people from Helsinki! Personally, I’m not comfortable with a lot of silence either! We are all individuals. I wish we Finns would simply stop spoon-feeding this stereotype to all foreigners.

    • Kristiinasays:

      Thank you, TH, I am also rather tired of Finns humbly accepting the stereotype of slow, quiet but honest people almost straight from the forest. :D

      Firstly: English is a foreign language to almost all of us. Although many of us can carry a conversation in rather well pronounced English, it doesn’t mean that the vocabulary is nearly as good as that of a native. One can survive with a rather small vocabulary even in their native language – depending on the environment, such as work, education, the number of people one meets etc. But in foreign language it may happen quite often that you don’t get all the words and miss the meaning of the sentence and fall from conversation.

      Secondly: even Finns are individuals. Some of us are more talkative. It’s easier to spot, if one speaks Finnish. There are cultural differences and differences in families – some favour talk, some silence and not “idle chatter”. I moved to Hanko some years ago and noticed people here much more eager to chat with strangers, if there’s a reason for it. Partly it’s because of the bilingual culture. 44 % have Swedish as their first language but practically everyone speaks both Finnish and Swedish so well that I still don’t know about some of my friends’ real first language. And partly it’s because there has always been people coming and going: tourists, sailors, emigrants…

      Still, an interesting article. I had to check the amount of Finnish words to see, if this really is such a poor language. One article claimed, that Finnish has an infinite amount of words, because of the structure. But the amount of core words isn’t that big. We just use them efficiently;: kirja-book, kirjasto-library, kirje-letter (the kind you send), kirjain-letter (like A), kirjasin-font, kirjoittaa-to write, kirjailija-author, kirjoittaja-writer etc.

    • Yeah, there’s a lot of great business-based cross-cultural analysis stuff out there. I find it all very fascinating, though it also often doesn’t quite go far enough or take an exhaustive enough look at what is actually going on and how those differences translate into overall perception.

      Americans speeding up while nervous definitely sounds accurate to me.

      I think there is a place for stereotypes with the expectation that they only mark general trends or behaviors within which there are lots of subtle differences and exceptions. I always operate on the assumption that even within certain trends (eg: the comfort with silence scale mentioned in this article) there is a complete range within the country or group in question, which then is nestled within an even larger range. There is, however, also something to be said for self fulfilling prophecy. Though at the same time, I tend to think that the issue isn’t so much with that, but more with the perception that one style is bad compared to another. Is comfort with silence a bad thing? I don’t think so, but it is quite different and something to be understood and incorporated into the narrative.

  26. Brettsays:

    Fascinating post, Alex! And the comment thread has been quite interesting as well. Perhaps surprisingly, even as an American I can sympathize with many of the sentiments that Nordic folk express about conversations with english speakers — especially difficulties with conversational ‘layering’ and lack of pauses. I myself do not always find these ‘rules of conversation’ so easy to stomach. Pauses are highly underrated in American English.

    I suspect I would fit in quite well in Scandinavia!

    • Thanks Brett! Yeah, it is definitely something we still fiddle with quite a bit ehh? I always think of the discussions about Obama’s oratory style when he first came to office.

  27. I’ve always been comfortable with silence. I can enjoy somebody’s company happily, but other people always say “You should talk more. You’re so quiet.” and they need to be talking all the time. I’ve had to learn to talk more just because I know they feel uncomfortable even though I feel just fine. I’m American, though I am of part Finnish and Norwegian decent. But where I live almost everybody is of Finnish decent and they just wont stop talking. I’ve always thought I was weird, but reading about Nordic countries I’ve found all my weird things are normal there. I really feel like I’d fit in better there.

    • Very interesting April. I’ve definitely observed and heard that the Nordic/Scandinavian influence is still quite strong in the areas initially settled heavily my Nordics/Scandinavians a hundred (or more) years ago. Particularly in the US mid-west.

  28. Erikasays:

    Hey Alex!
    This was a very interesting post to read indeed. I am a Finn, and have a lot of international friends – so these differences are very familiar to me. I have to agree with the “frustration” you wrote about. There is nothing more infuriating than being interrupted while taking a breath in the middle of a longer thought.
    Then, something my american friends have complained about: apparently, when they talk, I just sit there listening silently, looking directly at them. They say it creeps them out. I am just showing I really pay attention. :D

  29. Nicola Timmermansays:

    I remember visiting Texas from Canada and everyone said I spoke way too fast while I got bored waiting for Texans to finish speaking they were so slow. I always thought it was because it is so cold here in the long winter that we learn to speak quickly and shut our mouths fast.

  30. I am a swedish finn we are a few living in Finland,My self have been working in many countries inc. Us and Germany. I have noticed that finns never try to correct you and they never have fun at you doestn matter how bad you speak their language. Swedish natives can correct and even a small smile. But in my experience are germans about the same as finns they never correct and they never smile doesnt matter how stupid things you say as long as yoy try speak their language. And according to your very good article I have never been feeling that I have been interrupted by native english but thats maybe because I was young when I first was in US visiting my sister.

    • Very interesting. I’ve got a couple friends from the Swedish side of the border, and they’ve definitely got different mannerisms than some of the other Finns I’ve met.

  31. Hello Alex,

    I come from Finland and I’m pretty much used to the silence. We speak english and other foreign languages quite slow usually, but actually some of us (native speakers) speak Finnish really fast. Still we don’t talk a lot and we Finns like to be left alone and in peace. Of course people are different etc. but that’s just the most of us.

  32. There is far too much talking in this thread. I need more time to reflect on it all.

  33. Edgarsays:

    Hey Dude,

    I am an American living in Boston, Massachusetts.

    On Affirmation behavior you stated that A common American practice to show continued engagement with a conversation is to give constant positive feedback. This can either be gestural (movement) or verbal (spoken) and comes in a variety of forms but usually includes movements such as head nods, finger pointing, and shoulder shrugs while the verbal includes words like “uhhumm”, “yup, yup, ya”, or “definitely”.

    Since I live in the Northeast of the US here is Boston we do not use finger poitning, shoulder shrugs or “uhumm” we talk direct and wait for a response.

    On Interruptions – you stated ” There is also a difficult to express set of rules for when you can interrupt for more clarification, disagreement, or to add details. Which in turn sometimes leads to conversational processes that override these acceptable interruption such as, “No, no, no, let me finish…” and other statements which, while still present, seem to be radically less common among Nordics.”

    This varies from coast to coast. Here in Boston I have rarely heard someone say No,no,no,let me finish” unless this is an argument about who is right and who is wrong. This is again is a departure from what is being stated and how it’s being quoted and in what context. It is situation based.

    I recently visited Stockholm. As an American my conversations with Swedes was direct and clear for some Swedes they tend to think and pause a lot to respond back and sometimes response is delivered out of context.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love Stockholm its my kind of big city and I will thrive.

    Edgar

    • Christinesays:

      I, too, am from Boston, and I will be heading to Finland in January. I am so glad to be reading this post as we always hear about the Ugly American for traveling abroad, that I now know to keep my mouth shut! I have found that we have many cultural differences here in the US, just driving from New England down to Florida. Our language usage, temperament, food, and in general, the pace of life, is so different from one area to the other.

      I have traveled to many European countries, on holiday, and have always tried to learn a few of the common courtesy words. I must admit, I do not do silence very well, but I will be aware of myself!

  34. Thanks for the great post!

    As Finn, I can confirm many of those things what you said. I haven’t had many face to face discussion whit Amreicans. But the few I had I’ve noticed that it’s really annoying to have anyone to talk with who doesn’t respect those silent moments.

    I’m just wondering how does it feel to be an American surrounded by silent scandis. :D

    • Well, it depends on my mood. Depending on the day I traumatize more than a few. Especially on things like public transit or when waiting in lines where I start conversations ;) luckily the Danes are good sports about it.

      As far as being on the other end of the silences – well, they make us a bit uncomfortable sometimes. Other-times we just feel like it is an open invitation to really share everything we’re thinking out loud without interruption, or breaks…so, that can be quite enjoyable in an ego-centric sort of way.

  35. Attesays:

    I’m quite average Finn, who enjoys the slow paced conversation. I lived few years in California and I think that when I was speaking English I adopted the more fast paced approach to the conversations and when speaking Finnish I was slowed down to this turn based conversation mode. I feel more social when I speak English and I feel I can express myself better when speaking Finnish.

    • Very cool, definitely makes sense. I know I find that when I’m here in Denmark for extended periods of time even my English pacing, and conversational flow changes to fit a more Danish-format. Then when I’m back in the US or spend a lot of time with someone recently arrived from the US things accelerate again. What is also very interesting, is that I don’t feel this is reflected in my writing which stays very consistent.

  36. What an interesting read!

    I’m often interviewed live or partake in public live Hangouts, in English. I’ve found that I often apologize beforehand my slow speech as a Finn: Searching for words happens often especially when on technical topics. :-)

    The bluntness or directness is a bigger problem: When interacting with Americans one doesn’t always remember to be “fluffy” enough. Especially criticizing anything or anyone is a big no-no: One should camouflage any negative feedback. But sometimes the fluency in English is not enough to convey the honest meaning especially in written text and comes out very much worse than intended.

    Still, Finns are known for calling a shovel a spade. :-)

    I shared this post on Google+, some interesting comments:
    https://plus.google.com/+JaanaNyström/posts/deUJnnaSSM7

    Thanks for a good read!
    Jaana Nyström recently posted..How to deal with Trolls

  37. Jeffrey Fuentessays:

    Fascinating article. Interesting to see how much culture affects conversational style and in turn intercultural perceptions of one another. As an American native speaker I feel like I must touch on the fact that different regions of the country have different conversational styles. As another commenter from Boston pointed out, people there tend to be more direct in the that part of the country. The West Coast has a much more rambling, laid back style. The South, a third style altogether. This has lead to many people in the US perceiving those from other regions as rude, disingenuous or stupid, respectively. It would be interesting to see what Finnish speakers would think of the speaking styles of someone from a beach town in California, versus a New Yorker, versus a someone from rural Mississippi.

    • Yes, huge differences. Roughly six different meta-groups within the US I believe. If memory serves you can also trace a lot of those traits back to the immigrant groups which settled the areas initially though that combines with and seems heavily influenced by natural climate factors. You also get massive differences from urban to rural.

  38. Anittasays:

    Thanks for the interesting article.
    What caught my eye were (in the comments) the couple of “accusations” about Finns spoon-feeding a certain stereotype to foreigners. I have to disagree with that.
    Finns are quite talkative, within their own social grouping. The perceived quietness only occurs when we are taken out of our own circles. When that happens, we like to take a step back, and assess and evaluate the new situation, and the persons in it. We don’t engage before we feel comfortable enough about the new group dynamic.
    That said, I have no problem being in room with someone for hours, and not saying one word.

    • Yeah definitely. I elaborated a bit on this in another comment above, but it is definitely an interesting challenge defining what/when/where these stereotypes are accurate, beneficial, or harmful.

  39. Sorry, but you just simply nailed it. Can’t add anything to what you wrote. Nailed it.

  40. Anna V.says:

    Thanks for an interesting post!
    I don’t have any Finnish blood in me but I have lived 99% of my life in Finland. So I consider myself as a Finn.
    People from other countries, not only America, concider Finns as unsocial, lazy, awkward, dumb and not interested. But of course there are different kinds of people. Some Finns are super duper shy and quiet but some are really outgoing and loud. When we meet new people we act carefully because we don’t know anything about the person… Some people need privacy and like to be alone, so we are caution of those kind of people. Especially in Finland because we’ve got outpatient care, so you can meet different kinds of people on the streets.

    I’m usually quiet and even finns say that I’m shy but I keep the silence so the other person in the conversation can finish his/her thoughts about the subject. So, the silence is just respectful gesture. Or the comment just came to my mind too late and it would be really awkward if I said it too late. Mentioning that, you’re right that we like to digest our thoughts and comments…
    To say the truth, I’m extremely lazy person so sometimes i just don’t feel like talking to anybody or do any facial expressions. Communicating isn’t my human duty… Or is it?
    So, don’t get it wrong if we look like we are angry and not interested, we love you as much as you do :)
    Have a good day!

    • haha, thanks for the comment!

    • jadefinnsays:

      Unsocial, silent, dumb, not interested, lazy…

      When in fact in general most Finns are pretty bright and intelligent, many have higher education and speak at least 3-4 different languages, are extremely hard-working (but we tend to hate to pretend working – when we work, we do work thus not spending hours at the office just pretending to be hard-wording and busy; if the job is done or can be done in 6-8 hours, that’s it and then we’re out).

      We are not even blunt, not in finnish at least. Sometimes a bit inpolite, especially in a hurry. It has more to do with certain kind efficacy. If a thing has to be done or a decision to be made, well, then we do it. There’s no extra chit-chat, but everyone gets to say what’s on his/her mind. If we have a bad day, we can show it some extent without being inpolite and even say it aloud when someone asks how things are (and shock e.g. an american by doing this). But because there is no social pressure to smile all the time in Finland, Finns may seem cold, rude and angry – even when they’re not. We may stare a wall or gaze the sky when talking, but most often it means that we are actually thinking and still engaged in the conversation. And if you do not know the Finn, don’t ever never touch them during a conversation (unless your drinking in a bar, when Finns can act pretty atypically, but then follow how they’re acting and hang along…). We value our personal space that is large in comparison to many other countries. A Finn can get nervous and anxious only because you’re standing too near.

      Finns can be interested in most surprising things and well-informed. But we are not boasting with it, humblesness and certain humility are still considered as virtues. A typical Finn is not the one praising him-/herself. The typical motivation letters needed in US system (e.g. at the Uni) are pure pain to write for us, we’d like to give it to someone else to write and then blush while reading it.

      Especially in Eastern Finland (especially in Savo, Carelie etc), people can be very social and talkative. And loud while talking. We are reserved with new people, it takes time before we start talking (and then there may not be an end to it). If there’s nothing to say, we stay silent. We don’t have the urge to fill in every gap in the conversation instantly.

      I’ve lived in the States for a while. And talked to many english-natives from different corners of the english-speaking world. Some of them do not tolerate the slower pace and time required in searching for words etc that non-natives need.Some of them can be pretty rude, since you do not speak the language with the same speed and fluency, while you still can speak it pretty fluently. One reason for this might be, that many americans, australians etc don’t live in an environment where speaking different languages with different fluency is kind of expected (compare to Europe with its many languages and many officially multilingual countries). They do not have to go through the trouble and effort in learning another language, and thus not really understanding what it requires , especially when you suddenly have to speak that language day-in, day-out. It can be extremely tiring, and after a day you can collapse to your bed and sleep 10hours due to exhaustion.

      • Excellent points! That reminds me of the difference between Finnish introvert and extrovert: When talking to you the introvert stares at his shoes, the extrovert stares at your shoes. :D
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  41. Ainosays:

    Hi Alex!

    I come from Finland.
    I think that some people in Finland are quiet but not all finnish.
    Usually Finnish people speak fast to each other.
    Immigrants who have come from other countries where people speak really much think that we are quiet people here in Finland. But it is really much differet people here.

    • Yes, always big differences – and there are definitely very different behaviors when speaking with other native speakers in your home country. The same can be said of certain American behaviors, including things like word choice, pacing, etc.

      Thanks for the comment!

  42. Hi, Alex!
    Thank you for your interesting text. I am from Finland and I can’t actually imagine other types of conversations as we Finns have. I have got used to silence-parts in conversations but sometimes it’s really frustrating when you simply can’t figure out anything to say. But I have noticed that the Americans and others English-speakers are used to make quick conversations and they are good in small-talk. When you speak with a American it’s more like he asks you questions and you just answer shortly. So I guess I’m just trying to say that I’m quite jealous for English people because of their small-talk skills. Could small-talk be a schoolsubject? Maybe then even Finns wouldn’t be so slow in conversations ;)

    • Thanks Juhiss. Well, it depends – one thing that is quite challenging even for Americans is very short answers to questions. It can be a challenge when talking across cultural boundaries sometimes because you ask this big long question, which is prepared for the other person to provide a lot of information and then they just say, “yes” or “no”. Of course, I think this happens everywhere, but it is definitely particularly noticeable in cases like the one you mentioned above. While we have people that often do the same thing in the US as well, it can also mean the other person is upset or wants you to leave, which is why many Americans think they’ve somehow aggravated the Nordic they’re speaking to.

  43. In general I must admit that people in Nordic are people with few words. Here in Finnish we are somewhat ashamed of our lack of words but personally I prefer silence more than constant flow of words.
    As you mentioned, Nordic people do say things more straight. There are not so many “empty phrases” to keep the conversation up as there is no need. These phrases could be something like “How are you?” or “interesting”. A person asking “How are you?” doesn’t really want to know how you are.
    In my experience Finnish people do not speak so much to strangers but when you become a friend of a Finn, they can be as talkative as an American. I must say that I know people in Finland who never seem to stop talking. Ofcoarse people are different…
    I liked a lot from your genius examples. It really feels sometimes that a native speaker just speaks over me. When there is a silence I’m kind of trying to find a right place to say something and before I get an opportunity the native is already talking. xD Such occasions kind of make the conversation akward but you get used to it. This just points out how different our talking cultures are.

    • The more I get to understand Nordics, the more I view the passion for precision in language and conversation like I view the strong traditions for excellent craftsmanship in other aspects of life.

  44. Elsasays:

    Hi Alex!
    Thanks for an interesting post!
    For me as a foreign english speaker and as a finn, I feel like the stereotypes are kind of old and being taken too far. I know there used to be and still is a lot of finns who are quiet and not bothered by a rather long silence, but as the globalisation keeps growing, I feel like more and more people are being affected by other cultures’ ways of communicating in here too. I know many finns who talk a LOT, to the point where I’m being interrupted between my sentences and they find the silent moments really bothering. I also find a difference between finns from the South an the ones from the North, where as for me, the finns from the South seem to be more talkative and bothered by the “awkward silence”, as they have been interacting with more foreign people, who mostly come to the South.
    So maybe as the world is “getting smaller” also the differences in our ways of communication are decreasing too?

    • Absolutely. Not just in-person geographic relocation, but also over skype/digital voice, etc. – I think a few earlier posts have mentioned that they have interacted quite a bit with non-Nodics via gaming, or work. Though at the same time, I do think that these changes are relatively small and gradual as the core components that are responsible for them are tied deeply into our individual cultural world view. The fact that even after several generations many of the Nordics living in the midwestern US still have inclinations towards Nordic conversational styles is something I think might be a great example.

  45. Viivi M.says:

    Hi Alex!
    It was interesting to read your post. I, as a Finn, agree with many of the things you told about in this post. Though I think that the term “comfortable silence” is a bit misleading, because not all of us Finns are comfortable with silence in conversations. For example, for me when talking to new people I think the silence can be really awkward and uncomfortable.

    I agree that in many non-Nordic cultures silence is seen uncomfortable, but here in Finland it’s seen also rude to talk over other people and I think that’s one reason for the long pauses in our conversations. I noticed this differnce as well while I was in France living in a french family. My host family thought it was weird for me to just listen to them quietly and not to interrupt them as they spoke. I thought I was just being polite and focused on the conversation, but I guess I gave an other kind of an image of me to them. :D

    So yeah, I think we Finns have to work a bit harder when talking to native English speakers and other non-Nordic people. :)

    • Yeah, it is definitely challenging because in some cases I think you can even argue that it is more than not being silent. It is also a question of how pro-active you are in your responses (it sounds like your French family was a perfect example of this).

      I also think it is a two-way process. I don’t think either way is bad, rather that both have major benefits and the key part is just that we be aware of what is going on and keep it in the back of our minds.

  46. Hello Alex!

    I’m a young Finn and I found your text very interesting and I agreed with most of your thoughts.

    I do think that Finns are more comfortable with silence than others but we have akward silences too. And I think that older people aren’t so used to conversations in foreign languages and they are a bit afraid of mistakes so they need more time in conversations to think.
    As a younger person I feel more confident to speak in English than for example my parents and I don’t like the long periods of silence. But I do listen to the other person and try not to interrupt because in Finland it’s concidered as a polite behaviour.

    I think that younger people are more chattier than older ones. But it’s hard to change every habit we have. Who knows, perhaps after twenty years the new generation of Finns have conversations just like the Americans.

    • It will definitely be fascinating to see how things progress. Especially as bilingualism continues to become common place across an increasingly wider cross-section of the Nordic populations. The influence of American culture, the reality that we’re a very active, large, and visible population, and the close relationships between our countries is definitely having an impact. I suspect though that while some things will change and they’ll come closer together, core elements of the Finnish conversational approach will remain the same, which is great =)

  47. Violasays:

    In Finland We are not alwayse shy. In Finland there is lots of different kind of people. Someone is really shy and someone is loud. Maybe thats true that Finnish people don’t do as much talking as US people do. There is alwayse some quiet point in a conversation, but it is normal because always we can’t full every quiet point. We are not taking quiet points as a awkward moments.
    Sometimes maybe its depend on what situation you are. Cause when you are with your friends we talk a lot, but if you are in serious situation we don’t talk as much.

  48. Sannasays:

    Thanks for your post, I’m a Finn and it got me thinking about the way we speak.
    I agree with some of the things you wrote, but not all. Firstable, there is a huge difference between a Finn speaking English and a Finn speaking Finnish. It may seem to a person who only speaks English with Nordic people that we speak slowly, but I think it’s quite natural. Sometimes we have to pause and try to remember a certain word or a phrase, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we speak Finnish the same way.
    Of course there are people who speak Finnish slowly, but I think there are as many styles of speaking as there are speakers. To say that all Finns or even all Nordic people speak the same way sounds a bit ignorant to me. But I would like to say that this is just my opinion, maybe I’m just surrounded by people who rather interrupt a conversation than stay silent :D

    • Hi Sanna,

      Absolutely. But also, keep in mind that what I’m discussing in this post is the cross-cultural communication patterns that we have. Equally, the way Americans discuss with other Americans is quite different from how we engage with non-Americans. This has been a re-occurring point of discussion though, some great points in some of the earlier comments if you haven’t seen them yet.

      I’m in no way saying all Nordics or all Finns speak the same way. Just that there are certain cultural trends and characteristics which are more prevalent within certain cultural/geographic/national areas and that when we account for these, other issues that might arise can be avoided or better understood.

  49. Hi Alex!

    It was very interesting to read your post during class and we got an assignment to comment on it, so here it is.

    I myself am a finn, but I was born in England and still to this date visit there every once in a while. Our family also has some friends and relatives living there, so I know what it is like to speak to native english speakers.

    For the most part, I would agree with your post. We finns usually try to keep things simple and talk in short sentences. Also, interrupting a person while they are speaking is considered very rude and if you do so, make sure you apologize. The one thing I would slightly disagree about, are the pauses and silent moments. In my opinion, the pauses are OK when you are talking with a friend or relative. When talking to a stranger, it is the complete opposite. The silences can get very awkward and the two people often try to avoid eye contact.

    In conclusion, I would agree with your post for the most part. The cultures are very different and speaking to a native speaker as a non-native speaker makes us finns feel quite uncomfortable, mostly because of the differences you told in your blog and the general shyness of finns.

    • Hi Leo – used in class? Very cool. Thanks for sharing that.

      Interesting differentiation on the various types of silences. It definitely matters on what type of conversation you’re having and if it is moving along organically, or being forced.

  50. Emmi S.says:

    Hello Alex!

    That was such an interesting writing. I actually don’t get excited about articles especially when I don’t understand every single details of it because of my English skills.
    I still became interested in this one because it pertains to me alot.

    On my part those things you wrote are totally true. I’m a Finn and not so good at English. If I try to speak English I usually think too much even though I shouldn’t. Then I struggle with the words and I’m afraid of if I say someting wrong or pronounce wrong. That’s why I don’t even want to open my mouth when I could speak English.

    I was very amused when I read that Americans can’t stand silence in conversations. I actually enjoy it sometimes because then I can assess my thoughts and take a breathe. It’s fun to see the differences between Americans’ and Scandinavians’ ways of talking and having conversations. That helps me alot to understand why other people act a bit different in conversations.

    We study Swedish at school here in Finland. It’s okay if you say or pronounce something wrong in the Swedish lessons because we have studied it only few years. But when English lessons starts everybody seems to think that it’s very embarrasing when you say something wrong.
    That’s because we have studied English all the way from the elementary school and everybody thinks that then you should know every words and know how to pronounce right. That causes a lot of pressure.

    I think what encourages us non-native speakers to use more English is -just what you wrote- that listeners help with the words. I agree that too much affirmation behaviour is a bit confusing so people should just be quiet and especially not to interrupt. On the other hand little movements such as nodding is encouraging.

    People who are not native speakers should practise their language skills also. You can never develope as an English speaker if you don’t get into different situations where you just have to use English. I have decided that I will get courage and use English alot more. It’s helpful to think that the main point is not that you say everything perfectly right, it’s that people understand you.
    Thanks for the interesting article! :D

    • Emmi,

      Thank you so much! That is awesome to hear that it resonated so strongly with you!

      It is also very interesting to hear (repeatedly) that there seems to be an added pressure to speak and understand English at a very high level. Especially since I don’t think it is really a concern among native English speakers (with a few exceptions such as musicians which was discussed in an earlier comment). I do see the same thing here in Denmark where Danes are often very sensitive or apologetic for their “bad” English, despite that English being highly proficient and at times at a level that could easily be accepted as near-native in parts of the US and other native English countries.

  51. Karitasays:

    Hello Alex!

    Thank you for this interesting article. I’m a Finn and I agree with what you said about Nordic conversations and how they are different compared to American. But one thing I want to say is when Nordic people talk in their mother tongue I don’t think the difference is that big. First of all, not everyone here is shy or untalkative and I know many people who are not “typical” Finns and could talk for hours straight. Of course those things like silences are still there but they aren’t as visible as talking in English (or in another language) and I think that’s because people are more confident talking in their mother tongue. But as I said we have to remember that everyone is different.

    I personally prefer slow pace conversations because I like to be able to think what I want to say properly without someone interrupting constanty. Even though I’m in that sense a “typical” Finn, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind if Finnish talking culture took some things from the Americans.

    • Yes, definitely very different when talking within your native language to other native speakers vs. across cultural barriers. I won’t elaborate too much here, as I’ve talked a bit about it in other comments, but you’re spot on =)

  52. It is curious to note that the absolute majority of commenters here are Finnish people commenting on the stereotype about quiet Finns. It seems to be a running joke on many boards and forums about how Finns seem to be extremely active in writing-based communication. Maybe it works so well because it is similar to how conversations are built in Finnish – every sentence is carefully thought of to avoid misunderstandings. Conversations are almost always had with a purpose in mind, less so just for the sake of conversation (though that happens too, especially with friends and family when people are already comfortable with each other).

    As a Finn, I don’t think I could hold my own in a real-life conversation with an American. My culture has taught me that it is incredibly rude to interrupt someone while they’re talking, so I could never talk over someone even if I was supposed to, which would lead to my conversational partner to keep on talking to fill the silence I’d need to gather my thoughts…

    • Hi Lauri,
      Interesting food for thought, and it has been very interesting (and cool) to see how this post has resonated with and been shared so widely among Finns.

      I was recently asked why I thought Twitter was so slow to take off here in Denmark. After a few conversations, the answer that I ultimately gave basically focused on just that – that while Facebook or blog comments allow you to share a complete comment, Twitter is all about sharing fragments. Though of course, in Denmark’s case, the role of Jentlov also factored in.

      That concept of rudeness/social protocol seems to be a key part of the cultural difference. It definitely goes a long ways towards explaining other secondary aspects such as the silences or delays.

  53. Richardsays:

    I find it a bit strange to group all the Nordic countries together. Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian are very similar languages, and the same goes for the cultures in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. As a consequence our way (I am Norwegian and have lived in both Denmark and Sweden) of communicating is also very similar. Finnish on the other hand is a _totally_ different language, not even part of the indo-european language family, and culturally the Finns are also very different from the other Scandinavian countries. As a consequence the way Finns have conversations

    • Richard,
      It was definitely a factor I took into consideration when writing and structuring the post. But, behaviorally, despite the language differences (eg: Finland, and to a lesser extent Iceland), the core behavioral traits I was discussing were constant across all cultures which is why I felt it fit to expand it to all Nordics. I think this has been re-affirmed by the responses to this post, particularly because the group I have the most experience with and which most directly led to these observations were the Danes. So, within that (Danes and Finns), I’d say you have two ends of the Nordic spectrum – and that these observations seem to resonate equally across the breadth of that spectrum.

  54. Hi Alex!

    Another Finn here :D
    I think this post was very interesting!

    Finnish people want to learn English and most of us speak it very well actually. I think the problem is that we are afraid of making mistakes. We are afraid that the American we are talking to is going think we are stupid because we don’t know the right word or we don’t know how to say it right.
    We think we can’t and then we won’t.

    With each other Finns speak a lot and really fast or at least that is the case with the younger generation.

    • Heli,

      Don’t worry about it – we’re almost always quite impressed at your ability. We’re also usually just grateful for the effort, since we’re well aware of the fact that you’re speaking English and we’re not speaking Finnish ;)

  55. Very interesting article to read!
    I have to admit (as a Finn) that I’m not really talkative either, expecially when it comes to strangers. But with my friends I talk a lot. So I think that the stereotype of the silence of Finns has something to do with our reservervation towards strangers. Talking becomes a lot easier to us if we have known the person for a while.
    And of couse there are exceptions. Some Finns just won’t stop talking, some Finns just won’t start talking. Everyone is a bit different.

  56. Finnish conversation, a bit of a caricature, but quite normal here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RA8f3FbEIo
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWR1dcCE7U0

    In Finland, it is generally hard to get your turn to speak if the conversation flows already… If you try, you usually end up doing it wrong or at wrong time, people will look at you badly because you just interrupted them. Someone could even guide you “DON’T INTERRUPT (HIM/HER)!”. And after that, silence. To even more emphatize that you understood (i.e. you stay silent) (maybe a right time to apologize if you really want to, but do it quickly and do not make a number of it). If that test goes fine, the original speaker may continue. That usually leads to long periods where you cannot have your say. Or what you where trying to say is out of context then, i.e. useless now. That may have something to do with this silence thing. If it is rude to interrupt and there are so few places to take a part of conversation as an outsider, you have to wait, wait, and wait… I’m not sure, but listening is respected here more than speaking (we have two ears to that compared to one mouth), and talking about yourself (if not asked) is kinda selfish. And more importantly, silence doensn’t mean that conversation has ended… you can communicate by using the silence as well… and that can be really powerful. People don’t talk a lot in funerals (they act quite like Finns almost everywhere in those situations, and that’s perfectly normal)

    • Aki,

      Cool – will check those out. Thanks for the share.

      Personally, that does sound a bit like torture. At least conversationally. I love a very active and well-threaded conversation.

  57. Theo A.says:

    Hey Alex! This was a really interesting article to read, and it highlighted well what I have also myself, as a Finn who has visited USA a few times, noticed. As you said, here silence is very common, and perfectly normal, but in the States if there was even a slight pause, it was immediately filled in by someone, just to keep the conversation going.
    Apart from the way the conversations are spoken, also initiating conversations, and alltogether conversating is different, as here in Finland people tend not to start talking to strangers, for example if you are in a bus and you start talking to the person next to you, you will be thought of as weird, as where in the States, it was (atleast from my experiences) totally normal to start talking to strangers. This social shyness is maybe a thing that Finns are a bit shamed of.

  58. Kristo Miettinensays:

    Hi Alex!

    Dual national, more-than-merely-bilingual (puh-leese) Fenno-American here. I liked your piece, sort of in the way I like cheesecake, smooth and satisfying, though not particularly nutritious.

    Let me raise a few points that I suspect you will half-agree with.

    Consider, for instance, your comment on American conversation: “you’ve got a recipe for frustration and perceived arrogance when talking to Nordics / Scandinavians”. I suspect you’ve seen enough of the Nordic/Scandinavian worldview to now that they don’t need to hear you speak. Simply being American is enough to convince them that you are arrogant before you ever get a word in edgewise. Scandinavians/Nordics will not have the patience to ask you how it is in America, they will proceed to tell you, and then judge you for it. These are among the most prejudiced (not just in a racist sense, though that too; their prejudice is commonly cultural) people on the face of the planet. As an American, you do not have to show signs of arrogance, it is taken for granted. You can overcome their prejudice with patience (as is true of all prejudice), but the point is that you start out with a negative judgment to overcome. BTW you need go no further to see Nordic/Scandinavian prejudice than the very discussion of Nordic vs Scandinavian. The Scandinavians are jealously proud of that appellation and exclude their cultural peers, the Nordics, simply for not living on the blessed peninsula. The Nordics, eager to share in the perceived superiority of Scandinavia, promote the concept of Nordicism, as something that binds them to that which they want to be considered part of, namely Scandinavia.

    The silence of Nordics in conversation may be as you say, a “turn-based culture”. But it is just as much a protocol-based culture, straight out of Kafka. These people care more about whether it is your turn to speak than about what you have to say. Brilliance expressed out of turn is scorned; trivia expressed at the right moment, in the right tone, and on the right topic is held as the highest wisdom. Silence when it is your turn (obligation) to speak is offensive. Not catching on to someone’s subtlety of meaning, not praising a turn of phrase or not addressing a request left unspoken but implied by omission becomes an insult. The “rules” of conversation do not simply restrain freedom of expression, they also mandate expression of feelings not felt and opinions not held.

    The absence of basic words of courtesy (like “please”) in Nordic languages are not signs of how descriptive and contextual the languages are; they are signs of how rude and uncivilized the cultures are. This is not necessarily a bad thing, in a redneck sort of way, but it is not a thing to be glossed over either. Civilization is a late arrival to this part of the world; or perhaps it is yet in the process of arriving. Of course as a Finn I could be accused of projecting Finnish backwardness onto the region more generally, but while Finland may take the prize as the last to arrive in civilized times, the rest of the Nordics were not that far ahead. This is, at best, a recently-civilized region, whose languages haven’t caught up to the nuances of modern times.

    You may have heard the fairly-standard Nordic criticism of us Americans, that we are friendly without being friends. Nobody I have dealt with over there has any response to my standard retort, that Nordic/Scandinavians are hostile without being enemies. These are still, fundamentally, pre-civilized peoples, who haven’t learned (for better or worse) the oily diplomacy of Talleyrand and other paragons of civilization. You call this directness, which it is, but it is also incivility. The two go together, in a redneck sort of way.

    Kristo Miettinen

    • Det var jo helt riktig! Spot on! Nailed it, Kristo. Thank you for your post.

    • Ellasays:

      Kristo, the tone of this comment was bafflingly rude and bitter. Not to mention arrogant. And so sweet of you to object to sterotyping and judgement with a heaping helping of just that, flung like muck. Let me guess, since you’re calling from inside the house, it’s okay?

      Also, I’d like to object to your comment about the lack of a word for “please” meaning the culture is uncivilized. Did it never occur to you that while a language (like, say, Finnish) may lack a one-word equivalent of “please”, it may have phrases that fill the same function?

    • Hi Kristo,

      While I do think you’re fairly accurate in saying that there are widespread stereotypes about Americans within the Nordics, I do not find that most of the Nordics I meet offer those up outright. Rather, I find that there is quite a bit of curiosity about what goes into those stereotypes, if they are in fact real (with a side of disbelief at times on their part), and an interest in understanding why an American is interested in moving outside of the US. I also don’t think that the negative perception of arrogance is nearly as prolific or negative as you seem to believe. I find that, especially here in Denmark, many Danes have a respect for it and while they find it in excessive amounts annoying, feel that they could benefit from more of it in Danish culture. Of course this is also tied to Jentelov.

      As far as the ongoing tiff between Nordics/Scandinavians. It is an interesting issue, and one i’m only starting to fully delve into. Of course, the same can be said for Nordics/Scandinavians and then the Baltics as well. I think this is a topic that the SATW Comic plays with from time to time quite eloquently.

      I’ll also agree with you that turns and protocol play a huge role in shaping Nordic conversations, but again, this is true in all cultures. It is just that the rules themselves tend to vary widely. The Nordic cultures are highly protocol oriented, with a ritualistic incarnation, and extremely collectivistic. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all, just a dynamic part of the Nordic linguistic and conversational identity. It is also in part perhaps based on environmental conditions, and a need for getting along with each other in harsh conditions.

      “The absence of basic words of courtesy (like “please”) in Nordic languages are not signs of how descriptive and contextual the languages are; they are signs of how rude and uncivilized the cultures are.”

      I just don’t agree here at all. It comes down to cultural protocol and as has been discussed in previous comments the age of the languages, and their composition. Your point here also seems to conflict with the other point previously about the rules and protocol present in Nordic conversations. You’re essentially claiming it both ways. You do, however, perhaps have a point that some of the more traditional protocols that have arisen in other parts of western and southern Europe have not been as actively implemented within the Nordics. Still, that’s just a different type/set of protocols and not something that has to do with civility. As has also been mentioned previously, there are still ways to deliver this politeness, it is just that specific words are not used in the same fashion or viewed as necessary/or may be viewed as hollow or insincere.

  59. Mikko Elliläsays:

    The communication style that you describe as American feels completely natural to me, and I am completely Finnish.

    I think the difference between the two communication styles you describe has more two do with personalities rather than cultures. A lot of Finns talk the way you consider to be typically American.

    That said, it is also true that a lot of Finns do get upset when someone “interrupts” them even if it’s just to show interest, to add a relevant comment or to ask a relevant question. For example my sister often gets annoyed when I do this. Also my mother uses this “American” communication style which often annoys my sister to the point where she says things like, “Do you think you’re the only person in the world?! Shut up and let me finish!!”

    • There is definitely a component tied to personality type. This has been broached and discussed to varying degrees in previous comments. Some is more organic behavior, while others are learned or culturally enforced. It is interesting to see where these cultural trends amplify these trends/behaviors or minimize them.

  60. Mikasays:

    Yes.

  61. Jean-Baptistesays:

    As a French person I often find myself having veryy intresting conversation with american people, when I lived in the Netherlands, the amound of awwardness was more I could delt with, there was of course the silence, but what was being said between the silence was most of the time a collection of platitude without any hint of humour. On the opposite I thing that in France people tend to be so assertive that they often get tiresome because I can feel speaking can be a way of satisfating one’s ego… So between the irritating French and the dry Nordics I appretiate de temperate americans.

  62. One major aspect is missing : loudness. Americans tends to speak in a loud voice which often comes across as dominant, arrogant, intimidating, inappropriate, disturbing. Scandinavians, along with many other nationalities, would feel rather uncomfortable with a private conversation performed in a too loud voice, partly because of the private nature of what is being said and partly because of the risk of disturbing others, like forcing others to listen. And that´s in addition to the discomfort the American converser inavoidably places on the Scandinavian s/he´s talking to.

    Also, I would like to add that Americans generally converse on a more superficial level, which becomes most evident in the fact that questions get asked (like “How are you?) with no answer expected; or with one typical answer that is almost always given, so that it doesn´t seem especially genuine.

    All in all, I agree with your observations, although they all seem to be connected to one core difference, and that is the pacing and speed of the conversation including the silent moments.

    • Yes, volume is a huge factor. Both in terms of cultural loudness which is more organic, and perhaps also because oratory practice is a core component of many American curriculum. From speaking up in class, to presenting class presentations, to the work place – it plays a core role in our culture and part of that is how to express oneself in a more persuasive or assertive fashion. The layered approach also encourages volume escalation as you engage with each other, in a way that isn’t as necessary in a turn based approach.

  63. Andreasays:

    As Mexican-American, I grew up in two extroverted cultures. The more exciting the conversation, the faster we(Mexicans and Americans) speak. I occasionally do that, but I refer waiting until a person is done speaking to reply. To me, it seems impolite because I know I would not like to be cut off in the middle of delivering my thoughts. :)

  64. Dylansays:

    “The absence of basic words of courtesy (like “please”) in Nordic languages are not signs of how descriptive and contextual the languages are; they are signs of how rude and uncivilized the cultures are.”

    I’m not sure that is right. There are other ways of being polite and really meaning it, even in Finnish ;) than just using words of courtesy because you’re expected to.

    I’m Anglo-Finn.

    • Agreed, I’ve responded in-depth to that specific comment above. So, won’t repeat it here, but I do think it misrepresents the situation.

  65. Kristiinasays:

    Hi alex! Very interesting post. I totally agree with you; i’m from Finland and I talk with my american friends every day and yeah, convos with americans differs much from the ones with finns. Americans start the conversation always with a question hru or whats up, finns go usually straight to the actual topic and after they have heard what they have wanted, the conversation ends. Americans are able to yak and yak for ages, and its sometimes quite strenuous, but I always enjoy to talk with them!

    • Hi Kristina,

      Thanks for the comment – it definitely highlights the cultural differences in conversational style and goal!

  66. Tommy Bomansays:

    Hi Alex,
    As a Swede I find this to be a nice topic and I agree with the post and with several commentators here. I do also come with a warning and that is; do not mix Swedish, Finnish, Czechs and Americans at parties.
    The Swedes will be decently social and mingly for 30min but will after that sit down to drink and will come back and be social 3 hours later when they are very, very drunk.
    The Fins will be social for 2min and will then sit down in a corner uttering a few sentences at most for the rest of the party. Perhaps they will be drunk enough to socialize with the Swedes later and a few of them will be talking a bit more, but basically that is it.
    The Czechs will be social for 10min and then they will start talking Czech and will continue to do so for the rest of the evening, only interrupted once in a while by an American desperate to start a conversation.
    The poor American’s will be trying to socialize and talk to all groups, failing miserably with the Fins, getting decent responses at times from the Swedes and can get a short answer from the Czechs, but in all other aspects they will feel totally ignored and feel like something the cat dragged in.

    The Swedes will feel uncomfortable and think the Czechs are very rude while they, partly, think it is fun talking to an American and partly find him/her obnoxious and too talkative. We´ll find the fins alright, sort of our quiet cousins, and we´re fine with them drinking and being quiet.
    The Fins only care about the alcohol although sometimes they do have a small conversation about heavy metal or how weird the Czechs and Americans are, and of course cursing something about the Swedes too.

    Although this is a generalization it is still, by my experience, the worst combo of people at social gatherings.

    • haha, thanks for the chuckle. After three years as an international living abroad with a heavily diverse international group of friends – it can definitely make for very interesting party environments!

  67. Jako Lovessays:

    Compared to Americans, Mexicans and Guatamalans (the foreign groups most common in the area of the US in which I live) can, and do, fill a pause between English words with 10 Spanish ones, at an impressively high decibel. Constant words — and constant sound — seems as comforting to some people and perhaps even national sensibilities as it is rude and distracting to others.

  68. Raymondsays:

    Thank you Alex for starting this conversation and all who contributed. I’m an Afrikaans speaking South African, but after university and in the world of commerce English became my first language. I even lived in the USA for a few years and adopted more of their ‘fast-paced-no awkward-silence-quick-response’ conversational behaviour.

    As is, South Africa has 11 official languages and for sake of politics, economics and finding our new social structure we seem to have adopted English, especially since most economic & political phrases didn’t exist in the other native languages. The African languages seems to be also more direct and have interesting accompanying behaviour, like talking loudly so people over hearing can’t accuse you of gossiping.

    Anyway, was involved with a Finnish woman last year. Communication was not easy for me… never knew whether she heard me, understood me, and I probably never allowed the pause or awkward silence prior to a response. When in Finland though I noticed some Finns have a lot to say in Finnish!

    Thanks for all the insight people.

    I hope that

    • Raymond,

      Very interesting comment! Thank you! I love the observation about volume being tied to authenticity. My brother has been stationed with the US Peace Corps in Zambia for the last 3 years and it has been very interesting talking about conversational styles with him (he learned Bemba as part of his stay). The blunt/directness is also fascinating and was a bit shocking when we visited. I know I’ve picked up on similar behaviors with some of the South Africans I’ve met and that makes total sense.

      Good food for thought!

  69. Mike Sierrasays:

    What a wonderful dissection of your experience in communication between cultures and languages. Communication and sharing the presence of another is certainly far more than merely a translation of words, phrases, and idioms.

    Part of my health professions career was spent in Alaska where I had the opportunity to treat Inuit people. While they were able to communicate in English, it was an exercise in frustration, particularly with the men. They still spend days alone or with a small party hunting on the frozen seas and coastline. It seems natural that they would develop the means to spend the time quietly together.

    Inuit is a language of limitation, naturally. The culture has been exposed to a very specific, unique and constrained environment. It should not surprise me that they have a couple of dozen words for snow, depending on it’s characteristics, timing, and location, for example. Yet they lack the ability to describe vegetation the way that someone from elsewhere typically has.

    Trying to examine an Inuit man is not for the impatient. No matter what question you might ask, expect a one word reply. “How did you hurt yourself?” I would ask. The reply would be “Hunting” and the man would resume his silent calm. “Alright, how did you cut your hand?” and the reply would be “knife.” “Ah, I see. What kind of knife” , to be answered with “hunting.” “Was your knife very dirty?”, to be answered with “No”. “So it was clean?” answered with “No.” “Was anything on the knife?”, answered with “Yes.” “I see. What was on the knife?” replied to with “Seal.”

    Getting a medical history required giving up all expectations of getting anything more than the shortest answer. I began to assume that giving the patient any more information than necessary was also not very effective. With women this was possible as they were much more talkative but no where in the realm of a non-Inuit.

    In time my medical examination became tailored to the culture and language. I tried my best to look through their eyes as I asked questions and gave care instructions. And not to expect that any instructions would be followed for healing was also a yes or no in the mind of the Inuit. Either they would heal or not. Simple!

    • Fascinating! Thanks for the comment Mike! I had the opportunity to spend a week with an Intuit tribe in Alaska back in 2001 (was actually where I was on Sept 11th) and it was definitely an enlightening experience…though at the time I was a bit young.

      The comment about the # of words for snow is definitely interesting. It ties into a lot of other research I’ve read about how our vocabulary is shaped heavily by our surroundings and what we do. I think it also ties back in a related way to the comment and response earlier about the sheer number of words English has accumulated by being trans-continental.

      One question comes to mind – what about the oratory tradition within those cultures? I know it has diminished – but how expressive were they within that context? I wonder how much is available word choice, and how much is cultural stoicism.

  70. Timo Hellmansays:

    This certain article is mostly agreeable stuff.

    I have an American pal, who lived in Finland. Conversations and hanging out with him has sometimes certain funnu parts for few cultural gaps. For starters, he is such a out-bursting and happy guy in that American way which is familiar to Finns via TV series and movies. To me, as a little bit more reserved person as an average Finn, was sometomes mildly confusing. Sudden, loud expressions of happiness are not unheard in FI among adults, in Eastern parts those are even more common, but in many cases this kind of behaviour is characterized as a thing which is childish (literally).
    And yeah, one so odd thing. Asking things for no reason. That happy-happy joy-joy guy (do not get me wrong, I live him in bromantic way) is looking at me when I’m doing stuff and asks “T, what you are doing?”. My reaction was usually cold sarcasm – oh, because I’m me – taken well. “Oh, can’t you see?” Asking things for no reason like that for chit-chat – in Finland it is sometimes considered “slowness”. Usually Finns, however, do’nt pay attention to things like that. It’s very common that we think we are those barbarians and THE FOREIGNERS are civilized. Kinda cultural low self-esteem.

    • Hi Timo,

      Very interesting that as you get older the cultural protocols suggest more reserved expressions of humor. Also interesting to hear about the back and forth with general questions – either out of genuine curiosity, or to make small talk.

      It is also interesting to see emerging in the responses to this thread a re-occurring theme tied to Finnish self perception as overly simplistic, slow, or otherwise disengaged.

  71. Silence can be golden. I find news show interviewees, usually an”expert”, that follow the broadcast theory that silence is not golden particularly annoying. A string of ah’s or the’s done multiple times in a single, fast talking interview kills any credibility for me. Not that the media offers much credible to begin with.
    Martin recently posted..Government-In Case You Haven’t Figured It Out Yet

    • Martin,

      Yes, it is always quite interesting to observe how quickly someone can undermine their credibility and authority with ineffective statements and filler.

  72. Majasays:

    I’m Danish-Swedish-Finnish and now live in Turkey. Last year my husband and I spent 3 months in California, but I don’t really recognize the difference in conversation styles.

    My Finnish relatives do joke about the Finnish allegedly ultra-slow way of speaking, but they themselves do not speak that way.

    Neither do I myself suffer from Nordic silence. Actually here in Turkey I’m sometimes frowned at for being too enthusiastic, speed-talking and gesticulating … when I can get a word in edgewise, that is, because Turks love to hear themselves speak and can go on and on, no awkward pauses here!

    • Interesting to hear! Yeah, the Turks are definitely extremely conversational and definitely can have quite the fast pacing.

  73. Interesting observations! I’m a Dane living in Seattle, US and have to say that I don’t feel it. The Americans here are very polite and I can’t recall having felt interrupted or rushed. In fact I particularly enjoy how good Americans are at small talking and feel proud that my children are learning this skill set. One of the reasons I think is that as kids you change class every year and you have to adopt social skills to make new friends. In Denmark you don’t have to as you are in the same class room for years and years.

    I have however learned to decipher some American ways of expressing themselves, which to me as a Dane seems very rude, but to Americans is no big deal.
    Ex. 1: How are you…. is a greeting, not a question.
    Ex. 2: In the Southern is seems completely okay to trash someone as long as it’s followed by “bless her heart”
    Ex. 3: “we should do coffee, or you guys should totally come to our house and hang out…is not an invitation, it’s more like a way of saying, I like you, and to Americans that is most often where it ends. To a Dane, that makes you completely untrustworthy. If you say you want to have coffee, follow up or shut up!

    One of the biggest a-ha experiences for me was how awkward it is for Americans to talk about sex. For (most) Danes sex is the playground of adulthood and something very natural. Here it’s hush hush and often people connect sex with shame and guilt and they get uncomfortable if we bring it up.

    Cultural differences are amazing. I learn SO much from my American friends and I’m pretty sure they learn a little from me too :)

    Thanks for your great blog, keep it coming!

    • Mia,

      Very interesting point about the differences in the education systems and what that might translate into, from a perspective and social standpoint.

      Also, nice work on the examples. Indeed, the get at some of the quirks and complexities of American slang and/or protocol.

      Sex is also a hugely complex issue in the US. Well, sex and violence. It has definitely taken some getting used to.

  74. minttusays:

    It’s too funny how people in this discussion are mostly Finns that love it that they can confirm stereotypes about themselves. We like being weird.

    However, I agree with most of this as a Finn having lived abroad. I’m talkative. But I do not like meaningless chitchat , as it would be seen back home. I’ve learned to talk like expected when abroad but I hardly see the point.

    And what a joy to be back home. So quiet. No one is too loud. And no one expects me to have polite conversation with distant friend or workmate if I happen to see them somewhere. Why speak if you have nothing important to say ?

  75. Charlotte Kousholtsays:

    So, I am a Dane , who have lived in the UK for the last 9 years.
    I can recognise a lot of what you wrote in the article and what have been discussed in the comments about. Really interesting.
    I don’t have a lot of experience of talking with Americans but plenty of experience of talking with Brits and other foreigners from around the world.
    My English is very different depending on whether I speak with local English people or with mainly other foreigners.
    When a big group of foreigners are together here, we speak fast and free to each other, helping out if someone is searching for the right word or even trying to correct if we think the other person is using a wrong word in a sentence. We feel free to express our selves in any way we want, as we all know English is the 2nd language for all of us. Even the ones struggling a lot with the English language feel free to express themselves.
    Some of them are a lot more quiet when speaking to English people.
    I am usually OK, talking to the English, but I do notice that I speak more controlled (which I guess makes me slower) and think more about getting the language correct. However I do feel that the English language is so much easier to describe something in details, it’s a lot more describing and I like to have so many more words to work with (even though I am still not comfortable with using all of the ones I am not 100 % sure of the meaning of.
    When I speak with Danes at home, that I have known for a long time I speak faster than when I speak English, even though I sometimes miss being able to use a particular English word that we don’t have in Danish.
    But here is a funny part :when I meet new Danes abroad, my Danish gets slow and kind of artificial sounding and my accent gets more “Copenhagen’ish” even though I am from the northern part of Julian! I guess my brain is just more used to conversing with strangers in English??

    I enjoy both the more “Finnish” form of conversations with reflection and pauses in between but also the more “American” fast conversation. It very much depends on the situation and the people. I do enjoy my peace and quiet a lot of the time, but also need fastflowing animated conversation from time to time, but I am mainly an introvert. :-)
    I think the English do a lot of the massive smalltalk like Americans too, but some of it is just a sort of polite chitchat that doesn’t mean anything and that irritates me endless.
    I am a very direct and “get to the point” kind of person, so I have waited a long time for an invitation from people saying conversational “oh we must have you guys over for dinner one day” that just never came!
    If I say something like that, I instantly try to find a date for inviting people over and if it takes a while, I feel uncomfortable every time I see them again until I finally manage to set up a dinner date with them.
    It took us some years to realise that this was just polite chitchat for most English people and not to start expecting an invite soon!!

    I do struggle sometimes with this polite conversation without a real meaning, but on the other hand, I do enjoy that people here are quick to say sorry, even if I bumped into them, instead of getting cursed at as would likely have been the reaction in Denmark.
    I must say that for the most of the time, I love being sort of international, with having friends from so many different cultures as it does develop oneself in so many ways and open your eyes to see the world differently. :-)

  76. Hi alex! Very exciting publish. I completely believe the fact with you; i’m from Finland and I discuss with my united states buddies every day and really, convos with people in america varies much from the ones with finns. Americans begin the discussion always with a query hru or what is up, finns go usually directly to the real subject and after they have often observed what they have desired, the discussion finishes. Americans are able to yak and yak for age groups, and its sometimes quite intense, but I always appreciate to discuss with them!

  77. thanks for sharing. i am a native english speaker, USA born and raised, and just always thought my discomfort with fast-paced conversation had to do with my being introverted. i resonate with a lot in this article from the Nordic perspective. especially that thing about even a brief pause being seen as an opening to respond…i often have the experience of feeling talked over, interrupted because i am slower than most to process my thoughts or to connect with what i want to say exactly as i am not the type to think aloud. i found classroom discussion in grad school challenging because i would still be considering what i want to say while the topic had moved on…i wonder now, if there might be some cultural influence since my mom is from Belgium, also introverted and when we talk on the phone we sometimes sit in silence for awhile between topics, very comfortably, while when this has happened with American friends they have asked me “what’s wrong?” or told me i am boring on the phone!! ;)

  78. This article completely hit home for me, and I haven’t even left North America. I grew up in a family of first-and second-generation Scandinavians– Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, and a few Sami. The conversations at family gatherings would follow much the same pattern you described. To this day, I find it somewhat difficult to keep up with the rapid-fire conversations among my co-workers, although they don’t see me a rude or standoffish, just quiet.

  79. I find this fascinating. I am an American who has learned to adapt to the American way of speaking, especially with my husband’s family. My normal rhythm is more Nordic. Thanks for sharing.

  80. Laurasays:

    As a dane who has moved to Brittain, I can tell you that it is not just Americans who will fill silence and give that “positive feedback” in a conversation. I have a very good english, but there are sometimes a word that I can’t “find”. In cases like that I get interrupted very often.

  81. Asbjørnsays:

    Maybe I’m out of topic here. My problem is, I speak English too well!
    When I speak to US or UK people who know that I’m a Norwegian, everythingms OK. But when I speak to people I randomly meet, like a waiter or a nperson in a news stand, they don’t realize I’m a foreigner. They hear my English, an think it’s quite good. Then they talk back in a pace I can’t decipher all the time. Then they take me for a retard, and treat me like that. Then I tell them I’m from Norway, and the slow down a bit, or if they’re well educated, the drop their slang and local variants.

  82. Great post and insightful thoughts. As a Swedish American and after living roughly half my life in both countries, I’d like to add that a huge part of the American conversational approach is based around “taking the temperature” of the audience. A real-time inventory of reactions and attentiveness. Couple this with how long the American public has been more or less subliminally influenced by talk show and news media rhetoric and the fact that school kids are taught from an early age how to speak in public. When a sales rep in a shoe store or a server in a restaurant asks you how you’re doing, it’s not so much that they really, really care about your well-being, it has more to do with setting the stage for their performance and adjusting the mood to the verbal and physical response.

  83. Karl-Mikaelsays:

    Agree.

    I’m Swedish

  84. Per Ahlstromsays:

    Just a story to illustrate what you are talking about.
    A very successful businessman from the north of Sweden has often told of how he gets frustrated when he is doing business in the US, and how much he likes to do business in Japan:
    The Americans drive me crazy. When you negotiate it is a constant chatter, people are running in and out, they are white, black, yellow. To me it is totally chaotic.
    Doing business with the Japanese feels more comfortable. It is like when I call my brother-in-law, who lives up in the mountains. “How about going fishing this week-end?” I ask him, and he goes completely silent. After listening to his silence for a while I realize that he is thinking about how to phrase a refusal, because he doesn’t want to be rude, but it really isn’t convenient because his mother-in-law is coming to visit and … So I say “Well, thinking about, maybe it would be better to go next Saturday?” To which he responds quickly and in an up-beat voice “Yes, that would be great!”
    That is what it is like to negotiate with the Japanese, and it feels very comfortable to me.

  85. I’m a native born English speaker and often find myself talked over and around because I was raised in a small Scandinavian community by parents of Norwegian/Swedish heritage. I frequently speak slowly and oft times will pause to either collect my thoughts or to find the perfect phrasing. It has irritated me no end that others will not let me finish my end of the conversation. Until I read this article I had assumed it was a problem unique to me. Now I see that it was because of my Nordic upbringing.

  86. Jeanettesays:

    Very interesting text – like it a lot! I am a swedish speaking finn and I also see some cultural differences within my country regarding silence and long pauses in conversation. I often feel uneasy over the phone with some of my country men.

    I have also lived for some time in the US. One thing that I noticed was that we finns show affection towards friends by sharing our problems and sorrows (yes, it may sound crazy, but that is very common). I mean, also out at the pub on a saturday night. I made that misstake and was immediately regarded as one who ruins the party… Of course we also talk about happy things, joke and so forth, but sharing your sorrows is a bit of a way to bond between friends.

  87. Very interesting post. I have the lucky combination of being both a native English and Nordic speaker. Dad is English, born in Iceland.

    I often find that even though Americans are loud and expressive it is very difficult to go deep and have a meaningful conversation. It often stays at the basic chit chat level. I think it comes from the culture of always rushing to the next thing on the schedule. As a result they don’t take the time to go deep with people because time simply won’t allow it. I apologize if I offend anybody but that’s just what it seems like to me.

    The Nordic people on the other hand are a lot more quiet, not just in speech but in personalities also. I don’t know what it stems from but they just seem to be more reserved as nations. Maybe it’s the cold? ;) All I know is that the silence drove me nuts as a kid and I just remember wanting to shake people up just to get a reaction out of them! LOL it hits me even more now because I live in Greece where everybody is loud and in your face! What can I say, I went from one extreme to the next!

    Also being loud in the Nordic countries is not exactly culturally acceptable, I get looked at when I’m loud in coffee shops for example.

    Its been interesting moving from the north to the south and experiencing two radically different cultures and I honestly wonder if the weather doesn’t play a huge role in it all.

    Anyway thank you for the article it got me to think.

  88. The paragraph about Yes amused me. The Irish language has no word for Yes or No. One repeats the verb to agree. “Are you going to the shops?” “I am”.

    The Irish English dialect reflects this usage. I don’t speak any Irish, yet when I was living in Dublin I found myself following the Irish usage in English. I rarely said Yes.

    If Nordic speakers want a simple yes from native speakers who never use it, then no wonder there are difficulties.

  89. Kári Emil Helgasonsays:

    I’m Icelandic and I lived in New York for about five years. The biggest difference I noticed is the American tendency to exaggerate and accentuate. Just saying “thanks” can be perceived as curt, ungrateful or even annoyed. Americans, when conveying actual gratitude prefer saying things such as “thank you so much”. Similarly, Americans tend to perceive “that’s funny” to mean “that’s mildly entertaining” (or even, more cynically, “that’s barely worth smiling at”) but if they actually find something funny, they say “that’s hysterical”. Commonly, neither phrase is accompanied by laughter or even a chuckle, however. If they find something funny enough to laugh at, they will laugh and say things like “oh my god, I’m dying, that is SO funny”.

    This reduction in the meaning of common, simple phrases and subsequent need to embellish in order to convey the appropriate emotional response can be seen in many other instances. Saying “I’m happy for you” may be often be taken to mean “I’m glad you’re doing OK” whereas actual happiness for someone needs to be accompanied by at least a “so”: “I’m so happy for you”, or other intensifier “oh my god, I’m so incredibly happy for you, you won’t believe it.”

    For Non-Americans these nuances take a long time to pick up on and may seem phony, fake or indirect. But because they are so common accross the board, the should not be taken cynically, but almost as literal shifts in meaning. Conversationally, as a rule, simple, unintensified phrases should be interpreted as actually being reduced in meaning and the same reduction applies to the intensifiers used: they are in fact less intense than non-native speakers may assume and may simply move the phrase to what others would see as a neutral plane.

  90. henrysays:

    Different from Americans yes. However Americans inherited this conversational style from the millions who immigrated there from southern France, Spain and especially Italy, where passionate interruption is, um,…what is Italian for de rigueur?

  91. Louisesays:

    Hi Alex

    As a Dane I find your observations very to the point. I have quite a few Eastern American friends and with them it is not as clear as a recent experience where I had a visitor from California. Her overflow of positive feedback and affirmation made me insecure as to her sincerity. The level of intimacy I felt she was trying to create was overwhelming and I felt quite superficial.

  92. Great article! Very fun to read the comments too. I’m from Iceland, though my mother and grandmother are Mexican. When I was 5, we moved to the US where I did five years of school before moving back to Reykjavík. Then I went to the US for college and grad school, but returned home when I got a job. And now I’ve just moved to Finland, to work for a few months.

    I learned Spanish as a child, and obviously English as well. When speaking English, I almost feel like my personality becomes American, and I enjoy the fast-paced conversation and positive feedback you describe with my American friends. However, I get so annoyed when strangers start talking to me and usually try not to engage – seemingly rude to them, I’m sure.

    In Icelandic, I’m more calm and possibly introverted, though at times I get bothered by the reservedness in other Icelanders. Sometimes I just want to snap my fingers in their face and yell “wake up and talk!” (how American of me) while the person is pausing or thinking, a totally normal of speaking in Iceland.

    My boyfriend of four years is from Spain, and he’s often gotten so frustrated when talking to me for precisely the same reason. On the other hand, if a group of Spanish friends is visiting, I sometimes need to take a private moment in the other room when it turns into a shouting match free-for-all, much worse than Americans :)

    Finnish people are quite similar to Icelanders in the way the speak, though I suspect they use pauses even more than we do. Since I don’t speak Finnish and use English here, reading this article reminded me not to get carried away with my American behaviors while talking to people :)

  93. Meritsays:

    This is all super interesting! I’m about to return to my native Finland permanently after 27 years in the US.

    The Finn I’m marrying is of the stereotypical sort, quiet and contemplative. Also intelligent, stable, thoughtful.

    Here, I’ve had a a failed 16-year marriage, and a 9-year engagement which ultimately ended too, both to American men. The 9-year engagement was to a man to whom language, nuance and verbal jousting was food.

    Needless to say, I’ve got an adjustment to make.

    I will never forget being at the wedding of a graduate school classmate (Cornell) in Pennsylvania and having my classmates describe to me how they always knew to actually pause, focus and pay attention when I spoke because they knew a new perspective or an interesting question was coming out. As opposed to the filler jabber-jabber repeating (perhaps with a slight twist) what the prof or the previous student just had said, JUST to be heard and to fill the silence.

    I, in turn, felt at times wholly inadequate, and sometimes questioned my own intelligence, because I just couldn’t, perhaps wouldn’t, contribute to the “noise”.

    I would love to see your next blog posts!

  94. Bettinasays:

    Hi Alex,
    Great article. It is alway interesting to see how other people see things, that you cannot yourself see, because it is too close for you to see the overall picture.

    In Danish we do not have the word please in the same sense as it is used in English, But we do use frases such as “Vil du være så venlig/ Vil du være sød … ( Would you please/ If you please) But since we do not use it in the same way and as much as people in for example England, we may seem rude I guess, even if it was never the intention.

    Thanks for the interesting input.

  95. Jansays:

    It is important when reading such articles to realize that if you misunderstand the information being given it can create and reinforce stereotypes in a harmful manner, rather than helping your interactions with other. There are individual differences which need to be taken into account, and assuming someone is likely to be like this or that based on their nationality is basically overlooking their individual differences and as such is offensive to their humanity and individuality. In today’s world more and more people have lived abroad, which is extremely common among all “Nordics” and this leads to more cultural fluidity, as do bilingualism and other such traits that are more and more common in the modern world. It is also rather dangerous to pair related, but different cultures, in this manner, since it can create generalizations which are quite dangerous, and many will feel pairing the different nations together in this manner is somewhat offensive, or at least uncomfortable, as “Nordics”, especially Finns and Icelanders, are very concerned with and aware of the uniqueness of their identity and are sensitive to this kind of grouping together, based on their relative distance from general Scandinavian culture and a history of colonization. In reality, Finnish and Danish cultures could not be more different, the Danes famous for their relaxed and easy manner, while the Finns seem silent and mysterious, and Icelanders, also called “Nordics”, have a way of interacting with each other which is very peculiar and different, and stems from being a nation where writing poetry is a more common and ordinary a past-time than watching football in most other countries, as has been true for hundreds of years. When there are no words in between sentences or nods and such things, it’s far more likely to be the result of lack of fluency than cultural difference, since all these things are also present in general “Nordic” conversations, in a different manner from one nation to another. The article is helpful, however, in pointing out certain common misconceptions. In today’s world, it would help everyone to keep one simple rule in mind: When offended; think again. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, but as an individual. Dare to ask questions, don’t feel so taboo about accessing how the other person feel or what they perceive as normal or what may upset them or what they may find offensive. In today’s complex world, assuming things about someone based on what their passport gives as their “nationality”, however, is not only going to lead to deceptions and further misunderstanding, it can be quite dangerous, as more and more people are brought up in various subcultures or minority cultures that come with an entirely different code of behavior, or have spent a big chunk of their lives somewhere that has modified what they feel is acceptable or are comfortable with.

  96. Jansays:

    Source: I am Danish and I lived for many years in 4 of the “Nordic” countries and spent long stays in all the rest (except Faroe Islands and Greenland, which are also their own culture, while politically affiliated with Denmark). I can assure you what anyone with deep knowledge of these cultures can, that they are extremely different from one to the other. It is entirely possible to experience culture shock going from one of these cultures to another. And in the case of trying to fit into Finland or Iceland, that culture shock will be quite extreme.

  97. Jansays:

    For the uninformed, when I said “history of colonization”, I meant a history of being colonized. Iceland was colonized by my country and there was a level of injustice and oppression in world most Danish people are not willing to face. The Icelanders were basically discriminated against in their own country and exploited in ways they tend to not to forget, but is a children’s story compared to the treatment Finns faced from other nations. The nations both have a highly unique language and a large proportion of their members do not identify with labels such as “Nordic” or “Scandinavian”, and in the case of Icelanders, I have met many of them that even passionately reject the label “European”, a few of whom told me they considered it personally offensive to them. Iceland belongs to two continents and most of it’s people is vehemently against the EU.

  98. Jansays:

    Speaking of feeling offended by the “European” label, I forgot to mention the Greenlanders, which are technically, politically speaking “Nordics” or “Scaninavians”, being politically speaking a part of Denmark. If you tell a Greenlander he is “Nordic” or “European”, in many cases you will be greeted with a level of insult of a similar degree as if you would have called him a thief. The Greenlandic rejection of these lables is much more extreme than the similar trend I have noticed among some (certainly not all) Icelanders and is based on different criteria and, unlike in the case of Iceland, it is based on race, among other things. Even many mixed Greenlanders, of whom there is a lot out there, will tell you they are 100% Greenlandic and will not identify with their Danish ancestry at all, even if they love their father or mother, or grandparent or another close relative entirely of Danish descent. This seems zenophobic at first, but has to do with being a small culture having to defend it’s existence, it’s culture and it’s myths from a world that has often shown it disrespect. This is also true for the Sami people of Sweden, Norway and Finland, many of whom still oppose the “Scandinavian” or “Nordic” label and find it offensive. Forcing an identity on other people is not good manners, but this is what creating generalizations about “countries” creates, so while filtering information from articles such as this one, which are intending to be helpful, don’t allow it to happen.

  99. Jansays:

    I would also like to correct the nonsense about Danish impatience towards people learn their language. It’s simply not the motivation behind it at all. Most of the Nordic countries have one thing in common and it is that the people living there have no desire for you to learn their language, and if you choose to do so, they do not feel it is their place to help. It is the exact opposite attitude you find in Germany or France, where even people who speak perfect English will often pretend not to understand you if you speak it, and in the case of Germany, will correct you and give you free grammar lessons if you do make mistakes. As for Scandinavians, they don’t understand why you would want to learn their language at all, if you speak English anyway. As for Finns and Icelanders, they imagine their language to be too difficult for you to learn and want to discourage you from undertaking an impossible task. Hardly a soul tries to learn Greenlandic, so Greenlanders will probably simply be baffled and not know what to say. When Nordic people encounter the attitude in France and Germany, or learn of similar experiences non-English speakers encounter in America and England, often they describe these experiences as “colonialist” or say that these nations are arrogant and have a superiority complex which is why they want to force their language down your throat. They imagine themselves to have the exact opposite attitude, and go to great lengths to tell you you don’t need to speak their language at all, (if you speak some language they somewhat understand at least and so you aren’t creating major problems in their lives). Foreigners who desperately want to learn however perceive this as unhelpful, but the Nordic general attitude in general is “help yourself”, so they don’t feel it is their place to help you, nor would they expect similar help in your shoes. If you find a way to become relatively fluent in these languages, which is very easy except when it comes to Finnish, Greenlandic, Faroese and Icelandic, and extremely easy if we are speaking of Danish or Swedish (Norweigan is a little bit trickier, but not impossible), people will not only be more than willing to converse with you, however, and they will respect your ability to speak their language and that you took the time to learn it yourself with the help of books, teachers etc. They would never expect you to do it or require you to it, however, or even encourage you to do it and would be likely to ask you questions like “Why?” or “Why not Chinese or Spanish?”, since there is little practical value in learning these languages.

  100. Jansays:

    Us Danes in particular are very surprised if others want to learn our language. We tend to perceive the world as looking down on it, as our neighbors laugh at it. Swedes and Norweigans laugh in a friendly amused manner most of the time, but many Germans have for a long time described or language as an “illness” a “sickness of the throat” or an “inherited genetic speech disorder” and a lot of them bluntly tell us they find it a very ugly language. We are so used to this it just doesn’t hurt us anymore. More good-natured depictions of our language, such as this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-mOy8VUEBk of our language are common, and we don’t take an offense to it at all, but find it strangely friendly and familiar. And if they are very funny, like this youtube clip truly is, then we will laugh at it ourselves. Having grown up with these kinds of jokes about our language from our neighbors, as well as being aware of more offensive remarks certain people make, we kind of do not imagine anyone truly wants to learn our language. We see it as a private treasure, shared by us and the few strange eccentrics who truly want to learn it. Icelanders are still forced to learn it in school and tend to really dislike that experience and they seem to look down on our language and most of them feel it doesn’t belong on the curriculum, as this is a heritage from colonial times and they learn in history classes that Danish nearly killed the Icelandic language. A lot of Faroese and Greenlanders, who also need to learn it, also tell us they think it is ugly, and sometimes show a very arrogant attitude against it, since they feel it is both inferior and a threat to their languages. I can personally understand all of that, and I don’t find that attitude offensive, but only in the case of these three nations, since it has historical reasons. When German bring me similar insults, however, I like to point out to them that some of the greatest linguistics of the world were Danish, that Danish is a beautiful language and that the great H. C. Andersen and some other renowned writers were Danish, and even Hamlet was inspired by a Dane. I also like to point out to them that they should have learned to be more respectful of other nations and culture, in light of their history. It all depends on where it is coming from. But if you were in our shoes, you can understand why we are a bit on guard on people learning our language. We just imagine it will result in a similar frustration most of the people who do bother to learn it (Greenlanders, Faroese, Icelanders) encounter and the intense dislike that sometimes seems to follow, or that you are learning it only to get ahead in our society, but probably you don’t really respect our language that much, so we would rather that you stayed away from it, unless you have more personal, less practical motivations, since really there is no need to anywa.

    • I appreciate your passion and desire to share your opinion, but let’s leave off there for the time being. 6 extended comments back to back is getting a bit extreme.

  101. Jansays:

    It depends on whether you want to explore superficial facts, or if you care to know why other cultures behave differently than yourself, such as why Danes don’t care to teach other’s their language. Some people just like the surface. From reading your article I am surprised to find out this seems to apply to you. Surface bring prejudice and prejudice eventually brings false solutions which then lead to war and strive. Understanding takes accepting complexity and a willingness to take on new information which leads to true understanding.

  102. Jansays:

    I have no desire or passion to share my opinion, but I do feel it is my duty to correct misconceptions I see in the comments to your blog, such as the reason we are reluctant to support others who, at least pretend, to want to learn our language, is impatience, when we see it as doing them a favor since there is no need to and we have a bad experience of dealing with people learning our language and failing to appreciate it (for historically understandable reasons I can respect, or former and current colonies) as well as people who never bothered to learn it taking a dislike to it (germans and the rest). We are hesitant to believe you are genuinely interested in our language and do not see why you should then waste your time. A person genuinely interested can pay for their own lesson with a qualified teacher and buy proper learning materials. If you are talking to us in our language only for your own benefit, we are not obligated to help you with that.

  103. Tomsays:

    Jimmy Kimmel Chats with His Studio Audience (Guys from Finland)

  104. One maybe noteworthy issue related to this topic that I realised after reading this post while watching some American TV series is that in them (the scripted, acted ones, not ones with authentic conversations and interactions) the conversations are mainly turn-based with some short silences in between and pretty “normal sounding” to me as a Finn at least. That might be another reason why we Nordics don’t know the American conversation customs that well, since a big part of the English proficiency we have comes from watching American TV shows. (In Finland, as well as in other Nordic countries, I guess (am I right?), translated stuff is subbed, not dubbed, as most of the readers of this comment probably already know.) Do Americans think the conversations in TV series sound unnatural or have they got so accustomed to them that they can’t hear the difference? Because there is a difference, right? Also the Finnishes spoken in real life and in acted shows/movies are very different, and that’s the main reason I personally don’t watch a lot of Finnish stuff at all, I can’t stand the way they speak in them. Is this the same in other countries and languages as well? Finnish is well known for having very different spoken and written languages, more so than many other languages, so in the case of Finnish, that is probably the main cause of the awkwardness of conversations in Finnish movies and shows. What about other languages? (I didn’t read all the comments so if this topic has already been discussed, I’m sorry to bring it up again.)

  105. Ivanasays:

    I enjoyed reading your article, thanks for sharing your observations. I was born in Denmark with American parents and moved to San Francisco at 14. Making new friends at this age wasn’t easy, given a lot of the points you raised in your article. Another thing I experienced is that while Danes can be concise in conversation, there is also an element of story-telling ,when hanging out with friends or family. When someone tells a story about something that happened, everyone else listens with genuine interest. When I came to the U.S. I would share stories of funny or interesting things that I’d experienced, yet of the many responses I received, interest usually wasn’t one of them. It seemed difficult for most Americans to sustain their attention until I’d finished my story. They usually stopped listening, looked bemused, but most often, someone interrupts and carries the conversation elsewhere, with no notion that there may be a point or a punchline to what I’d started saying. It drove me crazy, and I still struggle not to take offense when it happens. That said, I found that my conversation skills had to get far more aggressive to communicate with Americans. If I wait my turn to speak, it never comes, so I have to push my way into the conversation and interrupt if I want to be part of it. It’s a habit I adapted as a sort of survival strategy, but I don’t appreciate it. Your observations of the conversation style I grew up reminded me to stay true to what I value, and I thank you for that.

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