Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Taciturn Finns

The Finns are often portrayed as taciturn, but this has not been my experience: most Finns I know are quite talkative. However, pockets of "taciturness" do remain in Finland, especially amongst older Finns - as illustrated by the following annecdote.

I heard this story from a professor at the Helsinki School of Economics (HSE), as it was called then. He explained how, a few years ago, he was one of a number of speakers at a training course for a group of senior managers from a rather traditional Finnish corporation.

Shortly before the course was due to take place, the professor from the HSE discovered that the speaker before him was to be a well known academic from a leading American business school. Not wanting to pass on a chance to see this US business guru in action, the professor arrived early at the offsite location where the training was taking place.

When he got to the training room, he saw the business guru standing in front of a dozen besuited Finnish managers, who were sitting quietly with their arms crossed and showing little emotion. The charasmatic guru was trying to engage with his audience, using all the tricks of his trade - big smiles, positive body language, jokes, etc. However, his audience remained motionless and apparently unmoved.

The guru was beginning to sweat... He obviously wasn't used to audiences not reacting to his performances. In an attempt to get some interaction going, he started asking individual managers for their opinion on the topics he was discussing. The Finnish managers answered politely, but succinctly and with little apparent enthusiasm.

Eventually, in a final and desperate bid to engage with his audience, the guru approached the company's CEO and asked him what he thought.

The Finnish CEO sighed audibly, paused for what seemed like an interminable amount of time and then said: "I pay, YOU talk!"


  1. Excellent :D I'm not surprised. A couple of years ago, I followed a course at the University, with twenty-something years old students. The teacher was desperately trying to engage with his audience as well, but nothing ever happened, I was usually the only one to raise a hand. It didn't seem to bother the (Finnish) teacher much, though, but it lasted for the all several weeks long course.

  2. Ah. Desperately trying to catch peoples' attention when you already have it is the biggest mistake you can make. It's all about the exchange of information. When you keep trying to engage the audience, you're not conveying that information. Yet, that's what the audience is there for.

    Looking for external signs of validation is useless. The onus is on the audience to listen and you can't force it anyway. So, unless they're clearly not paying attention, it's a valid assumption the audience is listening.

    I suppose it is important for a speaker to learn to recognize whether the situation they're in is about conversation and interaction or if the audience is there for a lecture.

  3. Excellent story! I can just picture it :)

  4. I had a busload of Finnish and Estonian cardiologists for a city tour of San Francisco. They were men and women of the most taciturn type - nothing, not even the icechest full of champagne, seemed to open them up. Lucky for me, I'd lived in Finland in the 1980's for six months, and knew better than to try. I just gave my usual lecture and drove them far out into the headlands past the Golden Gate Bridge, far away from crowds. It's the silence of the landscape that made this bunch finally start talking. In front of others - there's nothing to say, apparently, let them make fools of themselves.

    One did have a suggestion: for the upcoming US election for president, he recommended that Finland, nation of 5 million, could do the whole campaign and election for a much smaller price, and the whole world would be happy with the result, which probably would be a better pick for Leader of the Free World than Americans could do.

    I have to admit that this doc was probably right. Yksi ongelma: the Finns are too socialistic. They'd probably vote in an alcohol allowance on the welfare checks.