Theres an old joke about the way in which we, of Finnish extraction, express our affection for one another.
"How can you tell if a Finn likes you?" the joke goes. "Hes staring at your shoes instead of his own."
Its a punchline that makes even the most reticent Finn crack a smile. And the Finn who smiles, in a barely perceptible way is, in fact, likely to be looking down at his own shoes. Or yours, if youve managed to win his affection.
Its not that Finns are incapable of social interaction. Its not that at all. Looking standoffish and withdrawn in the context of a social relationship is simply as much a part of the Finnish national character as eating salty licorice, sleeping next to ones own Nokia cell phone, and biking, in total darkness, through winter snow on a one-speed bike, clad in nothing but a long-sleeved shirt, denim jeans and a determined expression.
Finns are interesting people. Together, they constitute a knowledgable, politically engaged, nature-loving, highly literate nation of some five million citizens. Theyd be more than happy to talk to you. But only after theyve gotten comfortable in your presence. And only if theres something to say.
Getting to that point is the tricky part.
A person looking to befriend a Finn must be prepared to wait. More precisely, a potential friend-of-a-Finn must be prepared to sit and stare out the window, sipping coffee (kahvi, its called in Finland: I started drinking it when I was three), paying occasional compliments to the host for feeding you a cardamom-flavored bread called pulla. Pulla looks a great deal like a dressed-up version of the braided Jewish bread, challah, only with a sweeter flavor more suited to the acidic bite of black coffee. To this day, the mere smell of it throws my salivary glands into overdrive.
Eventually, at some point in the course of the Finnish pulla-and-coffee ritual, a discussion of some kind may indeed emerge. Slowly but surely, the conversation may even build to fever-pitch. In Finland, this means that youve got an acquaintance worked up to the point where hes staring at the table instead of out the window, while venturing forth a statement on the topic at hand in a dry, emotionless monotone. If youve gotten this far with a Finn, youve accomplished something significant.
But theres a crucial aspect to this conversational gambit that needs to be given equal weight. Most Finns will only talk to you if theres something to talk about.
There were a number of things that baffled me about America, when I moved with my family to Los Angeles in 1977. I was baffled by the preponderance of cars and, in related fashion, by the fact that grown-ups would get in the car and drive to pick up a carton of milk at the nearby corner store. And that they thought nothing of driving around that block, four times, looking for a free parking spot to open up.
I was baffled by the American obsession with burgers and by what I perceived to be the psychotic expression plastered on Ronald McDonalds face.
I was baffled by Oreo cookies, and why American kids thought they were the consummate snack food.
I was baffled by why it mattered to my classmates whether the symbol on my shirt was an alligator or a guy with a long stick riding a horse, or, more to the point, why it mattered if my clothes had symbols in the first place.
Yet nothing baffled me more than this American phenomenon known as small talk. Its a strange verbal beast. Its the art of talking about nothing at all. Its talking to fill the space between you and the person seated next to you.
Dont get me wrong. I understand talking.
I happen to be one of the rare Finns who is also Jewish. Ergo, when a topic gets me going, I can talk a mile a minute. I can talk so fast and furiously that I kick up a dust cloud in my wake. I expound, I raise my voice, and I shake my head in strong agreement or in stubborn defiance. Im as capable of kvetching about something that bothers me as well as a 80-year-old Jewish woman fed up with the long lines at a kosher bakery the day before a major religious holiday.
Because of this bizarre, culturally unlikely co-existence of Jewish and Finnish traits inside of me, I teeter constantly between the polar opposite push-and-pull of laconism and verbal intensity. Unlike other Finns, I dont do the monotone thing. I do get excited and wave my hands around frantically when Im trying to get a point across. By the same token, I will stare at your shoes, or at least straight down at the table, if you havent given me enough time to get to know you. As those who know me well enough can attest to the fact that I cant be expected, in these kinds of situations, to fill the space with "small talk."
To me, theres nothing small about this kind of talk at all. In fact, small talk seems to require a rather substantial reservoir of knowledge about the things that make these kinds of conversations succeed: The recitation of endless sports statistics and declarations of undying love for assorted athletic teams; brilliant meteorological observations ("The sun is too bright today. It hasnt been this bright since the summer of 1978!); and an ability to hone in on an aspect of a persons appearance that theyre likely to want to talk about ("Who waxes your upper-lip? It looks fabulous!").
At the very least, small talk requires possession of a vast and confusing set of American social skills that Finns like myself are born without.
No matter how I might have tried, through the years, to change the way I related to the world around me, I have finally given into the the realization that these kinds of social skills are difficult to attain and implement once a human brain has been hardwired toward relentless introspection and taciturnity.
Moses, the great spiritual figure and the man to whom we Jews owe our freedom, knew all about this. Read between the lines, folks. His hesitancy to lead our ancestors in their exodus had everything to do with not wanting to small talk with a bunch of stiff-necked Hebrews.
And just like Moses, who never did get used to all the kvetching of his people and all the exhausting conversations he had to have with cranky Hebrews about the trek through the desert, nearly twenty-five years of life in this country hasnt done much to change me in this regard. But my life in America has taught me that hidden amidst the teeming hordes of garrulous, sociable chatterboxes, are those whose tendency toward laconic speech would make them feel right at home in my native land.
Its just that we, the worlds verbal recluses, have a difficult time finding each other. Theres no great mystery here. We dont talk much. An introvert is about as likely to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger as she is to aspire toward a career as a stand-up comedian.
Ultimately, its a paradox in the lives of the inwardly-inclined that while the thought of attending backyard barbeques and get-to-know-you parties makes us cringe at the thought of having to talk small with a group of strangers, most of us do like to communicate with people, however tersely and concisely, about the things that matter to us. But we have a hell of a time trying to figure out how to make that happen.
There are no American versions of the coffee-and-pulla ritual to draw us out. Theres alcohol, yes, and thats something that Finns are altogether too familiar with. (Anyone who has ever spent time waiting in the Helsinki train station can attest to the joys of interacting with an endless assortment of public drunks.)
As a result, those of us who dont want to spend our later years battling cirrhosis of the liver seem to bear our plight as best we can. Were the ones who turn down your invitations to parties for as long as we can, and, when we finally accept, were the ones who leave them at the earliest possible moment.
Were the ones who seek out careers where our livelihoods are not dependent on televised political punditry, customer service, or aerobics instruction.
Were the ones who are always seen devouring books on the airplane and on the subway or bus ride home.
Its no great demonstration of our intellectual prowess: the average extrovert appears to like reading and learning new things as much as we do. To be completely honest, its that were hoping that the act of burying our noses in our books will prevent someone from striking up a conversation about the crummy weather.
But if a fellow passenger happens to be sitting quietly, looking down at my shoes, it might just be the start of a meaningful friendship. If only one of us would say something first.