Who Needs Small Talk? Not the Finnish (Or Me)

Sometimes just being with another person and relaxing quietly in their presence can make you feel less alone than meaningless conversation. (Photo: Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock)

When I was single and dating, my friends made fun of me for jumping into deep conversations with guys I just met.

I've never been interested in small talk, or its cousin, flirting. I'm genuinely curious to get to know people, and I'd rather not talk if it's going to be about nonsense. Turns out, I have something in common with the "silent Finns" who are also known for not talking small, but diving into meaningful conversation — or none at all.

Part of that has to do with language differences; Finland is surrounded by countries that speak Swedish or German — and even though most Finns learn second and third languages early, speaking in another language can be a challenge and can lead to a more subdued communication style. But, part of the quietness is cultural, say experts.

"We had a practice where you had to pretend to meet someone for the first time," Tiina Latvala, a former English instructor in Sodankylä, Lapland, told the BBC.

Latvala also instructed her students in how to make small talk, since it was a new concept to them. "You had to pretend you were meeting at the cafe or on a bus and [that] you didn’t know each other and do a bit of chit chat. We had written on the whiteboard all the safe topics so they didn’t have to struggle with coming up with something to talk about. We brainstormed. They usually found it really difficult," Latvala said.

Comfortable silences

Unlike some cultures, where conversation to fill up empty spaces between strangers at a grocery checkout or even between relatives is seen as the polite or normal thing to do, Finns have "comfortable silences." That means that both parties understand that not speaking isn't a sign of rudeness, anger or disinterest. It's actually a compliment, because you can trust the other person not to assume your silence means something it doesn't. It's just quiet, and both parties are OK with that. Take a look in the video above.

The Finns are obviously not the only ones who don't appreciate endless comments about the weather, celebrity gossip or discussions of how each person slept the night before. While for some, small talk can be a low-stress way to pass the time, for others it feels lonely.

"I'd come home from an evening out with friends, and I'd still feel terribly empty inside and I couldn't understand it, I had just been with all these people. I still felt really lonely." says Kalina Silverman in the TEDX video below.

"One of those nights, I was Skypeing with one of my friends from far away, and we were having this deep, philosophical conversation about life, and I said 'Wow, I wish all conversations could be like this. This is awesome.' And he was like, 'Yes, screw small talk.' And I was like, 'Yeah, screw small talk, why do we even make small talk?'" says Silverman.

Seeing how little she was connecting with people she'd just spent hours with led Silverman to a realization:

"I thought, you know, what if, when talking to our friends, co-workers or even just complete strangers, we could always just skip the small talk? And instead, talk about the things that really matter in life?"

Making better connections

If we did this — more honest conversation and less small talk — maybe we'd know when our friends and family weren't doing well and needed extra support. Maybe we'd all feel more comfortable sharing our struggles and asking for help when we need it, too.

Small talk can be a mask, keeping us from really connecting with each other. But meaningful connections are something the world needs now more than ever.

All this talk about small talk made me reflect upon my own "strange" way of dating. By avoiding small talk I got to know the guys I dated more quickly — and also got to hear lots of fascinating life stories from those generous enough to share, instead of their opinions on TV shows or favorite apps. I learned about them, but also about being human in general, from each person who shared how he grew up and how it affected him and his life's work. Almost everyone I dated was so happy to speak about deeper topics on dates.

Luckily my jumping into bigger (and sometimes more difficult) conversation didn't seem to hurt my dating prospects — if anything I found the opposite to be true. And I'm now partnered with a guy who loves nothing more than a meaty debate, knowledge-sharing conversation or philosophical ramble. After all, I wouldn't want to come home to small talk every night.

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