I was in Finland all week this week for a change, so a chance to observe the Finns’ unique approach to social language as they enter and leave the office and greet me and the staff and say goodbye. Got a very Finnish answer to my “How are you today?” to an earlybird client this morning. “I have a stiff neck,” he replied. I can see how disconcerting this would be to someone not used to such honesty.
I will never forget meeting our secretary in Helsinki for the first time, 20 years ago, when I was living in Tampere. We had spoken on the phone previously so I was able to ask her “How are you?”. “I have diarrhoea,” she said.
Having been here so long now, it is actually quite refreshing, and sometimes the British and American social dance – what the linguists call ‘phatic communion’ – can irritate with its forced jollity or over-the-top gushiness. I can feel the Finns’ pain in such situations! Though British politeness masking ruthless criticism can give a dimension of humour missing from the palette of more direct cultures.
A friend witnessed the following situation in the famous Coach & Horses pub in Soho recently. A rather tipsy young lady staggered into the bar and asked a group of elderly male theatrical types for directions. After a silence one of them said “I’m terribly sorry, Madam, would you mind slurring that again?”
That’s a great story. An interesting thing is the cultural differences within the UK, which Richard Lewis refers to in his brilliant book When Cultures Collide. I live in the north of England, and often find that the relatively blunt way that people sometimes speak in business situations contrasts hugely with my experience of working in London, where people a typically more likely to sprinkle their negotiations with niceties. When a meeting between north and south takes places things really become interesting, with the northern contingent often convinced the southerners are being deceptive, and the southern group of the opinion that northerners are being rude! Of course national cultural differences amplify the problem many times over, which is why cross-culture training is so helpful.