By Kathy Toivonen
It is said that Finnish culture embraces the proverb “Speech is silver, but silence is golden.” So I was asked to write an editorial on the subject.
Luckily for this publication, the stereotype of the silent, stoic Finn does not describe me. On the scale of outward emotional expression, I am off the charts. Honestly, though, this is one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever had to write. Talk about silence? And what does silence mean anyway? Multiple generations of my family had a (not so silent) debate and all with different perspectives on what the proverb could mean. Humility. Non-verbal. Offline. Reflective.
So, let’s consider the meaning of the proverb. One interpretation is that silence is valued more than speaking and that it is better to remain silent than to share your thoughts, which may or may not be welcome. Another idea is that small talk is unnecessary so just don’t say anything. Could this philosophy contribute to the ranking of Finland as the happiest country in the world since 2018?
As a Finnish Canadian who grew up in Thunder Bay, I live in both cultures, and so I have no problem sharing examples and thoughts on the matter. In my family, my parents were polar opposites. My mother was talkative and outgoing. The family joke was that if you sat beside her on the bus, by the time you got off, you would know everything about her kids. She had no problem praising others, yet was humble about herself, which is one of the tenets of the proverb for Finns: that silence is humility. My father, on the other hand, was the “typical” shy, silent type who often disappeared when friends came over. Silence was inherent in them as they expressed silence in different ways. But if you want to channel the Finnishness in you, there are steps you can take to find some golden silence.
Today we live in a world of constant communication and virtual small talk. The internet is a new domain of dancing cats feasting on likes that toss out images and ideologies and influence a generation. You can silence the constant buzzing and binging of a beast that wants to be fed all the time by simply turning off your devices for a while.
Another way to welcome silence is to go back to a simpler time. Now that the hectic holiday season is behind us—one that was anything but typical as we tried to catch up from the past two years of upheaval—maybe it’s a good time to slow down and enjoy a slower life. Instead of turning on the TV or logging on, you could read a book, pull out a board game, or enjoy some time outside.
If nothing else, one sure way to immerse yourself in the Finnish mindset is to go for a sauna and steam away a hectic day in the quiet, therapeutic atmosphere. You’re probably not too far from one—it is Thunder Bay, after all.