Friday, 15 May 2009

Why Finnish people never raise their voice

If you have had the chance to work or spend a holiday in Finland, you might have noticed that Finns never raise their voice.

Finnish men and women are remarkably polite towards friends and strangers and you will almost never see them quarrel. Finns are also known to be extremely honest and this is reflected in their incredibly low crime figures.

Most people react with disbelief when they hear these facts for the first time. “Human nature is similar everywhere,” they argue. “We are all made of the same flesh and blood. Cultural myths are nothing but fairy tales.”

To prove their point, they will look up on Internet until they find a news report about some atrocious murder in Helsinki and then they will smile satisfied. “You see, there are also criminals in Finland!”

Perfection does not exist. Indeed, Finnish youths shout at each other from time to time and criminality, although relatively low, is far from being eradicated.

My point is not that Finnish men and women inhabit an ideal society. I am just trying to bring to your attention the fact that verbal or physical violence constitutes a rare phenomenon in traditional Finnish society.

In this respect, Finns are amazingly different from other cultures. Foreigners who go to live in a small Finnish town for a year frequently experience a shock when they return to their own country. If you doubt my words, take a moment to reflect.

Pick up pen and paper and make a list of situations in the last month when you have witnessed verbal or physical abuse. Chances are that your list will be long.
  • Business discussions that turn to shouting matches.
  • Aggressive behaviour during sporting events.
  • Humiliating treatment of employees.
  • Loud, bitter, public recriminations between spouses.
Human life offers infinite occasions for disagreement and irritation. How is it possible that Finns systematically tend to avoid violence?

Is there a lesson that we could all apply to improve our private life and working environment? What makes traditional Finnish culture so peaceful?

The answer is deceptively simple. Apparently, Finns have found a better way to discourage unacceptable behaviour.

It is a way that involves not-doing, rather than doing. It is a form of punishment that can take life-threatening proportions in small Finnish towns isolated by snow during winter months. It is called ostracism.

Nobody will force you to be honest. You will be free to offend your neighbours. No one will prevent you from making as many enemies as you wish. There will be no shouting and few complaints.

Nevertheless, one day, when you really need help in a critical moment, people will just leave you alone.

A few decades ago, specially in small Finnish villages, ostracism constituted a horrifying punishment that only a fool would be willing to incur.

Nowadays, although modern technology renders snow and ostracism less threatening, honesty and politeness still remain at the core of Finnish culture.

“This is is an interesting principle,” you might say, “but does it have universal application? Do we all need to go and live in Finland?” Frankly, I don't think so.

I believe that we can start small, right here. It is quite simple, actually. In fact, next time you are about to raise your voice, all you have to do is think of the Finnish snow.


[Image by Per Ola Wiberg (Powi) under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]

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