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.