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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lone Wolves

Since moving to Finland, one thing my Finnish husband has told me repeatedly is Not To Get Involved. It turns out that Not Getting Involved is a characteristic distinctive of Finns.

Finns don’t actively communicate with strangers on the bus, on the street, or waiting in line beside them. Finns don’t ask personal or searching questions of people who aren’t close friends. If a Finns sees someone asleep on top of a wall or wearing a bathrobe in the Helsinki city centre, they don't pursue the matter. They go about their business quietly, keeping themselves to themselves. They live and let live.

Australians (myself included) are decidedly opposite in nature.

When I am visiting my hometown, I’m always struck by how relentlessly talkative and friendly Australians are – in stores, on public transport, at the supermarket checkout – wherever I turn someone is cheerfully engaging me in conversation. In Finland, without ruthless self-editing I come across as over-effusive and a chatterbox. Even friends often look a bit taken aback when I’m talking to them. I sometimes see actual fright in people’s eyes when I’m enthusiastically explaining something, gesticulating with wild abandon.

It’s more than just wanting to talk, though. I want to HELP. If I see someone on the street holding a map and looking lost, I feel compelled to ask if they need directions. If we’re at the park, I’ll quietly keep an eye on that kid who’s wandered away from his mum, and stop him from eating snow/mud/his own snot. One summer’s day we were playing on the beach, and suddenly a woman nearby started yelling, saying that she couldn’t find her two year old son. I felt her horror so keenly that I almost rushed into the water myself to start the rescue effort (I would have, actually, except that my Finnish husband implored me Not To Get Involved). Eventually little Simo was spotted playing happily in the sand further down the beach, oblivious to all the fuss. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that if this was Australia there would have been half a dozen dads already in the water searching for Simo, while their wives gave his mum hugs and moral support and big brothers and sisters scoured the beach, shouting his name. All that fuss would somehow have felt comforting.

Aussies really are officious enthusiastic participants in other people’s lives. If an old lady slips on the footpath, or a small boy is lost, people rush up to offer assistance and concern. If a group of teenage kids is making trouble in Queen Street Mall, it’s only a matter of time before an older bloke wearing wraparound sunglasses marches up to them and commands them to get their shit together. You could call us busybodies, but really the average Aussie is just a “people person” through and through, and gets immense pleasure and satisfaction from interacting with others. More than that, though, there's a sense of wanting and needing to reach out and make sure others are ok, and a genuine belief that offering someone a kind word and a smile will make a positive difference – even only temporarily.

In Australia, if you see a stranger in trouble, and you ask, “You ok, mate?” what you're really saying is, “I see you’re having a hard time, and I feel for you. I hope you can find your way through it.” You aren’t trying to set yourself up as a new friend, or a guardian angel (let’s face it, you probably won’t even tell that person your name). However, you do connect for a moment - just long enough to give that person a little kick-start towards helping themselves. Just long enough to show them that another human being noticed and felt their pain.

And it truly does make a positive difference - to the person in trouble, yes, but also to you.



Even after two years in Finland, I’m still not sure why Finns are so hesitant to reach out in the same way. I don’t believe they are cold-hearted, lazy, or indifferent (and for the record, if you do initiate conversation with a Finn who is a stranger, their response, though wary at first, will almost always be a positive one). I think it’s mostly about uncertainty – not being quite sure what to say, not wanting to take the liberty of anticipating someone else’s needs, and not wanting to be seen as officious, interfering, or a know-all. These sentiments are fair enough. My best guess at a Finn’s thought process is: “This person has their own family and friends; if they want to talk to someone, they will talk to those people; if they need help, they will seek it from those people. There is no place for me in this person’s life, so it is appropriate that I do not interact with this person.”

All the same, as a nation, Australians come across as reasonably happy and smiley and cheerful, whereas Finns are seen (even by their own) as solemn, melancholy, and even somewhat depressed.

Finns often seem to me like lone wolves, stoic in the face of hardship and terrible weather, reluctant to burden others with their troubles, hesitant to reach out even when another person’s suffering hits them right in the heart.

Poor little lone wolves. I want to help you not to be so alone.


40 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I can relate to this. Indonesians are similar to Australians. It's like seeing two polar opposites at play. I haven't made any Finnish friends yet (even after living here for 5 years), though I've made so many acquaintances due to my different training places and work. I think personally speaking, though, I feel more at home here in Finland despite the fact that I came from a "people person" country like Indonesia. I'm an introvert at heart after all.

    However, I was actually pleasantly surprised that after I started working, people had begun to be more open to me (I know one woman customer who would chat me up whenever she comes over - talking about her ongoing remontti for example).

    In the beginning they'd ask me standard questions like where I came from, how long I'd lived here, why I moved here etc. (some were even polite enough to ask first "Do you mind if I ask you some personal info?") and as time went by, they had started giving me so much encouraging verbal input and feedback (esp. the elderly).

    Maybe life in this small village is a little different than in the big city 'coz over here many people know one another, because I've seen people chatting with one another in supermarkets and sometimes they got back in just 'coz they saw someone they knew and they wanted to chat with them. Dunno.

    All I know is that once I started working and people started knowing that I could survive talking Finnish, they started chatting me up more even when I didn't initiate it. The other day while walking to work, a man who was getting out of his apartment building said to me, "It's really slippery today." I told him, "Yeah, but I have my spikes under my shoes." He said, "Good."

    Before I got a job, those people who chatted me up were only those who had known me through training places. Before I started doing any training, they would just stare at me and say nothing he he...

    P.S. I think you're a really warm-hearted person. :-)))

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    1. I once wrote this in a blog post:

      I must say that personality-wise, I think Finland is more my style than Indo. In Indo, I've never been what they expect me to be: good at chit-chatting and friendly. That's more my brother's style. He's always been the charmer, the artist in the family, whereas I'm more of the "brainy", the bookworm, the silent one.

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    2. Amel, I wouldn't be surprised if you found your some of your work colleagues consider themselves to be your friends. It's not something you necessarily need words for, other than to break the ice - especially after you get a feel what the other person is like.

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    3. Anonymous, THANKS for your POV. Dunno about being friends with my colleagues 'coz they keep changing (some leave, some move, some quit, etc.) but I still keep in contact with some of them via FB. :-) However, I don't hang out with them except if there's pikkujoulu or something like that. I guess I'm not really a good initiator anyway in that area - in inviting people up unless I've known them well enough ha ha...

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    4. Amel, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I do think that once Finns get to know each other, they are always ready with smiles and kind words (and in fact I get the impression it would be considered rude if you saw an acquaintance on the street and didn't say hello). I guess where you live there is a much higher likelihood of running into someone you know than in Helsinki!

      As for friends, I think it does take time to get close enough to someone to be able to say he or she is truly a "friend". In the two years I've been here I have made ONE close friend who is a Finn, and we only ever speak in English, so I would say that doesn't strictly count as having a "Finnish" friend! :)

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    5. Oh yeah, I also get the same impression...nowadays even though I don't know my customers' names, but I always try to smile at those familiar faces and say hi 'coz I just feel REALLY rude if I don't do that. The problem is that it's a very small village and I do live downtown, so it's kinda hard to remember those people who aren't really regular customers. But just to be safe, I try to smile at anyone who makes eye contact with me ha ha...

      I'd count your Finnish friend as a friend, even though you don't speak Finnish (yet) to each other he he...

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  3. The way I see it, it's about leaving people be and letting them handle themselves and keep their pride intact. They'll ask for help if they need it. And if they ask for help you give it. If it looks as though they might not be up to the task of asking and it looks like they'll not be in any harm (like a drunk sleeping it off somewhere out of the way in the summer) you still leave them be.
    If you're not sure, more often than not the correct thing to do is to call 112 and to see that they're okay in the meantime. You may still want to check them first.
    I suppose there's always a learing experience to be had as well.

    Of course, people's friends and family tend to always know what is going on better than a stranger and have a better grasp on when and what support to offer.

    About Simo, the fastest way to find him was probably not have everyone running around like headless chickens. By having everyone sit still and not get excited about it, he was probably easier to spot. I bet there were people watching the water all the time. No one would've let him drown. They would've also interfered if he had wandered off onto the street etc.

    I'm not saying you're wrong, though.

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    1. Anonymous, thanks for your very thought-provoking comment. It was really interesting that you used the word "pride". This is a part of the Finnish character that I'm still struggling to understand properly. It does seem to be that people place great importance on "standing on their own two feet" and not attracting charity or sympathy from others.

      You are quite right, too, that close family and friends do know a person best, and also that Simo possibly wouldn't have been found so easily if there were 20 people swarming around making a big fuss :) And yes, I have noticed, too, that Finns will certainly intervene if there is an emergency situation, e.g. a drunk who has fallen asleep in the snow, or a child about to run onto the road. Finns just have a different approach, and there is certainly nothing wrong with the way they interact with each other. I just sometimes have this feeling that national levels of happiness could be raised a notch higher if there was more "excessive friendliness" around!

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  4. Gosh! As a Scot I am congenitally incapable of remaining silent or keeping myself to myself!! I dread going to the South of England on occasion - a place where the shop assistants perfect disdain and where people do not speak to "strangers" on the train...
    It is human and the state of being human to reach out to another fellow being. Give me the warmth of strangers any day!

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    1. "congenitally incapable of remaining silent or keeping myself to myself" - that is me, through and through!
      Mental note to self: must visit Scotland sometime. I have a feeling I would fit right in!

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    2. Haha! I am absolutely certain that you would! And we even speak our own "foreign" language here... another perfect linguistic challenge for you!
      My friend has a lovely new Australian partner - he is hilariously bamboozled when she and I get together to speak in our fast broad Scots. He genuinely hasn't any idea what we are saying! (but that does come in handy occasionally!).

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    3. Oh yes, you Scots are seriously hard to understand! Even the "aye" instead of "yes" throws me. Then again, I'm the person who struggled to understand the local "dialect" in AUCKLAND. Yes, the Auckland that is in New Zealand, i.e. Australia's neighbouring country.
      It was embarrassing in the extreme.

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  5. Katriina,

    I can very much empathise with you! As an outsider at a Finnish family reunion once, I suffered major culture shock observing everyone stirring their coffees constantly and wordlessly, while I attempted to punctuate the silence with chit-chat. Needless to say my efforts were met with polite smiles, more silence and eyes pointed at the table top. I was bewildered indeed.

    As for Australia, after years living in Japan, which as you will probably agree is very similar to Finland in this regard, the end of an exhausted red-eye flight back to Australia (for 3 days before racing back to Tokyo) found me struggling with my overhead luggage, but only for a brief moment, as a kindly wraparound sunglasses type stepped in to take it off me and lower it to the ground with "I'll get that for you, love". The same kind of chattiness and kindness continued all through immigration, baggage and customs, with a parade of different people, so that I nearly collapsed with the recognition that it was Time to Live Back Home. And here I am.

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  6. I loved this post. Having returned to Oz after about 10 years abroad I am finding that its not as friendly as it used to be. My husband who is American still thinks they are the friendliest people on earth, but to me... things have changed. It may be the (small = small minded??) town we are living in as opposed to the city, but I do hope that what I travel around more I find it. I loved that about my home, and I think you did it total justice with this awesome post.

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    1. Karyn, you are too sweet! Really interesting (and a bit sad) to read that you're finding things different these days... C'mon Aussies. Don't turn your back on your true nature!

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    2. Karyn, I forgot to mention - when I lived in Sydney with my Finnish husband, I became convinced that Australians behave differently (and, I think, in a less friendly and natural way) towards people who speak English with a non-Australian accent. Do you find that people treat you differently, and more like "one of them" when you are by yourself? It was mostly because of this that I decided I didn't want us to continue living in Australia. I was tired of feeling as though my own husband was an outsider. Like your husband, it didn't bother him, but it really got to me.

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    3. I just saw your reply here. Im not too sure on that one. We havent spent a lot of time in Sydney - other than short vacations, but here in our small town I find that he's more popular than I am! ;) Granted he's a much more friendly and outgoing person - I am more withdrawn until I get to know people - but I do think here at least, his American accent is a bit of a novelty. There's very few Americans in the town and when people ask where he's from etc etc they all want to talk about American football, or ask about hollywood etc. I do remember seeing on an ABC meet the press type show an interview with a man that worked as an actor in the US who was Iraqui by birth and looked VERY middle-eastern. When he got work in the US he said that he met a famous actor who told him "If you speak with an American accent, people here will consider you American, regardless of what you look like." He went on to say (in his very authentic Australian accent) that it was not the case here. Because he LOOKED very foreign, he was judged quite harshly (even more so since 9/11) and definitely wasnt considered 'authentic Australian.' I think we ca be quite racist like that - so I see your point.

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  7. Katriina,

    I can very much empathise with you! As an outsider at a Finnish family reunion once, I suffered major culture shock observing everyone stirring their coffees constantly and wordlessly, while I attempted to punctuate the silence with chit-chat. Needless to say my efforts were met with polite smiles, more silence and eyes pointed at the table top. I was bewildered indeed.

    As for Australia, after years living in Japan, which as you will probably agree is very similar to Finland in this regard, the end of an exhausted red-eye flight back to Australia (for 3 days before racing back to Tokyo) found me struggling with my overhead luggage, but only for a brief moment, as a kindly wraparound sunglasses type stepped in to take it off me and lower it to the ground with "I'll get that for you, love". The same kind of chattiness and kindness continued all through immigration, baggage and customs, with a parade of different people, so that I nearly collapsed with the recognition that it was Time to Live Back Home. And here I am.

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    1. Anonymous, it sounds like we've lived very similar lives! Yes, I absolutely agree that Japan (well, Tokyo at least) and Finland are pretty similar when it comes to people "keeping themselves to themselves". Only in Tokyo, for instance, can you be standing on a train so crowded that you are literally within kissing distance of 3 or 4 other human beings, and yet everyone is completely silent (not necessarily a bad thing, to be honest...)

      When you mentioned that you moved Back Home, I felt a pang of envy. I cannot deny that there are lots of things I miss about Australia. At the same time, I feel at home and settled here in Helsinki in a way I never did in Tokyo. The reasons for that are many and complex (more than enough for a long separate blog post...) For now, at least, I can get my fix from trips back to Oz now and then. Oh, and from Blast-From-The-Past tv shows that I catch here now and then and glue myself to in a haze of nostalgia (a bit of Flying Doctors, anyone?!)

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  8. I think this is a 'northern' thing. I even found it in the north-west if the Netherlands, people just seem so much inside themselves... I feel for you!

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    1. This trait does seem to be very common in cold places! Thanks for your good wishes :)

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  9. Where I'm from in the USA, interactions are quite similar to those in Finland. People aren't apt to chat much. One thing I'll say for Finland, though, is that I actually think they're kinder here. For instance, where I'm from, if you start chatting with someone you don't know, they likely will look deeply pissed off rather than frightened. ;)

    As for me, I'm comfortable with the Finnish way because it's what I'm used to. I do remember one incident in which my husband acted very Finn-like, and it impressed me deeply. I was visiting him before we were married, and we took a train from Lappeenranta to Helsinki so that I could catch a plane back to the US. Across the aisle from us was a (Finnish) woman absolutely distraught. She was sobbing, clutching her cell phone and talking desperately with someone on the other end. My husband later told me that, from what he could parse, her father had died and due to some train delay the day before, she had missed his funeral.

    When we got off the train and decided to catch a cab to the airport, my husband asked the woman if she would like to share our cab. She said yes, he helped her with her bags, and off we went. There was very little talk on the way, and the woman seemed to have calmed. When she got out of the cab, my husband paid the entire fare before she could say anything. There was no discussion. No, "Oh, no, I couldn't let you do that," "Oh, but I insist," talk. He just did what he could to make her life easier, and yet he managed not to needlessly embarrass her by letting on that he'd heard her private business. There was something so beautiful about the way he handled it.

    That said, I think friendlier societies are wonderful, too. It just has to be a climate thing.

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    1. That story about your husband is just beautiful, and yes, I agree that the way he handled the situation was touching, not to mention very Finnish. What a gentleman. :)

      I guess the difference is (if I'm not just romanticising or mis-remembering) that in Australia, an onlooker probably would have gone up to the woman and offered their condolences, and the woman (far from feeling embarrassed) possibly would have even accepted a hug! It's just a very different way of living through various situations, and I think both ways work for those involved.

      The more I think about it, the more I think you (and Karin) are right about this being largely a climate thing!

      I realise that as a non-Finn, I have to let Finns be as they have always been. On the other hand, I doubt I'll ever be able to change enough to become "Finnish" myself in this respect. At least Finns are straight talkers, and (as has been the case up until now) will no doubt inform me if my behaviour is too far out of their comfort zone!

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  10. Finns sounds remarkably like the English...

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    1. How is it possible, then, that your convict descendents in Australia could have evolved into such a relentlessly outgoing bunch? Maybe this is the ultimate proof that it's a weather thing...

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    2. It's probably just that criminals are an easy-going bunch that don't concern themselves with petty things (like who owns what)...

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  11. I found our blog through JustHeather, I am Finnish myself, but living in Ireland. I ended up going through your posts for quite a while. Really enjoying your blog :)

    I know exactly what you're going through, although reversed. I always thought I was very un-Finnish, friendly and open when I lived there, but moving here has made me realize that even the most open Finnish person would only be close to a rather shy Irish individual. And I have to say that the constant chit-chat and never-ending babble has been really hard to get used to, and even still I often get claustrophobic just because there is too much noise. I often feel like I need to stay in, just because I really really don't want to say a word to anyone and quietness is considered rude here.

    This does not only extend to the rather empty small talk, which I find hard to cope with sometimes (I think I still do often believe in if you don't have anything new to say just be quiet) but even people's symphathy does feel like an intrusion most of the time. I think us Finns just need space and silence to deal with something difficult and someone else's even very sincere comforting just makes me at least feel worse. I feel like I cannot go through my own emotions if someone intrudes on my personal space. No matter how well-meaning or close they are (yes, this even includes friends and family)

    Where and why this came about, I have no idea. And why it seems anywhere else (even Sweden) people talk a lot more.. I don't know. It is something I think both of us just have to learn to understand :)

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    1. Katri, I'm so thrilled that you enjoyed reading my posts, and I'm even more thrilled that you took the time to leave such a long and interesting comment. Thank you for your honest and insightful thoughts. When you said "us Finns just need space and silence to deal with something difficult" I thought immediately of my husband - when he's sick he is like a wounded bear who retreats to the bedroom and refuses all offers of help and sympathy, and when he's worried about something he sits and stares into space, and wants only to be left alone to think. Your observation that "I cannot go through my own emotions if someone intrudes on my personal space" was so beautifully expressed - I really understand now. I feel as though I've been able to put a new piece in place in the "Understanding the Finnish Psyche" jigsaw that I'm doing in my head :)

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  12. Well, there *should* be at least one culture in the world that isn't a purely extrovert playground.

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  13. Well said, Anonymous. ¨
    Before I came to Finland, I lived in Japan for many years. Interestingly, I think Finns and Japanese have a surprising amount in common, including the fact that both their countries could be said to be places of retreat from the "extrovert playground" that is much of the Western world.

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  14. Great post, Katriina. I used to work for a multinational in Europe and spent a lot of my time working in different European countries. I found the same thing. My colleagues from places such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland were more reserved. It sometimes came off as cold, but I really believe it was just a different way of interacting in the public domain.

    Fast forward 10 years to life in Australia and I've decided that Aussies simply want to connect. The lady in the house behind me will hang out of her window and tell me her news. The guy on the bus will make observations about the weather and the state of public transport. Strangers in shops will start chatting to me about random events. Australians want to interact and connect. It can be seen as friendliness but I think it's primarily that feeling of wanting to share and reach out and 'have a chat'. I like it. Although now and again I want a little 'introversion' ;-)

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  15. Russell, thank you so much for dropping by for a read! I think you are absolutely right - Aussies really do have a need to connect. I like it too, though it can certainly be a bit overwhelming for people who aren't used to it. After years living outside Australia, when I'm back there for visits it all feels quite relentless!

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  16. Thanks so much for sharing your post with me. I am so much like you, although we lived in countries that were worlds apart. I think it is as much to do with culture as it is to do with being a feeler and I am a HUGE feeler. I so desperately want to help the people I see who are in need, whether friend or stranger, but living here for 8 years has meant that I have to hold that desire in tension with the Brits' insistence on living their lives privately. I have found that I have become better at Not Getting Involved (although I sometimes fail), but I'm not so sure I like myself very much when I ignore people rather than engage with them.

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    1. Life Of An Expat Parent, thank you so much for taking the time to stop by for a read!

      I feel the same - I feel uncomfortable not reaching out. I wrote another post (The Finn Who Came In From The Cold) about that very feeling - of having to restrain my urge to help. It felt so cold to have to hold back in the name of social convention...

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  17. This is a familiar subject - I too feel like an extrovert Finn, but not, heavens forbid, as extrovert as most people in the English speaking countries for example. I do quite good small talk, I remember to smile and ask (without expecting a real answer) how everyone is doing etc., but it does still feel quite painful. Why not rather be quiet than just fill the pauses compulsively and nervously with empty chatter... Well, of course this is stereotyping in part and there's a huge amount of individual variation, but I think we really do have genuine national differences in these matters.

    There is room for misconceptions and misunderstandings too - I think Finns often are actually quite considerate and caring, but it just shows in different and quite minimalist ways. It's seen as considerate and polite to give people room and peace, and not interrupt their thoughts with idle chatter and your general prescence. If they need specific assistance or just company, they will take the first step. I don't think this is a better way or a worse way of interacting with strangers, just different. (Though I quite like that certain generous and open helpfullness that you can experience in many countries - we could do with bit of that!)

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