Small talk is cheap: Finland could teach us the art of keeping quiet

Tim Dowling


Few people admit to being skilled in the art of small talk. It’s like saying you’re good at sleeping, or claiming to be highly lactose tolerant – it’s nice, but it’s no accomplishment. They don’t do medals for it.

Imagine, then, having to learn small talk the hard way – at school. In Finland, the concept of idle chit-chat barely exists; Finns report being surprised when total strangers try to engage them in conversation at airports. But as the global economy brings the world to their doorstep, some Finns have begun to take lessons, in classrooms or from private tutors. For some of us, Finland already sounds like a utopia, a land of silent haircuts and hushed public spaces. Britain does not exactly overflow with spontaneous conversation between strangers – why speak when the lift is moving? If it gets stuck, then we’ll have something to talk about – but in Finland they have reserve in reserve. It’s not a lack of etiquette. It is the etiquette.

It seems a shame to break such lovely, wintry silence, especially when you consider what it is being filled with. Imagine having to be taught to trade pleasant inanities. According to the Wall Street Journal, this is what former small talk tutor Karla Nieminen told her Finnish pupils: “Lower your standards; not every conversation you have has to be clever. You can comment on food, any music that is playing, even the weather.” She is hardly making it sound desirable.

In the US, the land of my birth, visitors often find themselves assailed by pleasantries, but it’s not that bad once you realise your interlocutor is prepared to do all the heavy lifting. A smile and a few phrases such as “Well I’ll be!” can get you through an hour of small talk without you having to make any real contribution.

In the UK, I have found, more is required in the way of exchange. That’s why I am always prepared to tell perfect strangers how incredibly lactose tolerant I am. If need be, I will show them the paperwork that proves it.