Business, Relationships
Comments 2

The art of not saying.

Yesterday I was talking to The Boyfriend about meeting Japanese journalists at Slush, when we were queuing to collect our media passes. Obviously I didn’t know where they are from initially except that they looked like me, but I followed my gut feeling and….bowed.

HAHAHAHAHA AND THEY BOWED BACK. ですから日本人。So we started randomly talking and the conversation ended with “Let’s go for drinks!”

When I told The Boyfriend this at home, he frowned.

“How can anyhow bow!??”

This bow and frown thing always give me a familiar warm and fuzzy feeling, so it made me reflect. Even though I’d stayed in Japan for a year, used to make annual/bi-annual trips to Japan, and dated a Japanese guy for 5 years, I couldn’t really verbalize exactly why these two places feel so familiar.

I could finally articulate it yesterday. Why both places feel familiar is because the people I love live there. There is also this particular cultural phenomenon I particularly liked, that is the art of not saying.

At the first glance the Japanese and Finnish cultures look very, very different. This is because we probably find it difficult to conceptualize, let alone study what is unsaid. Since there are no words involved.

So instead we focus on analyzing and making sense of what is said. And when it comes to analysing what is said, the Japanese and Finnish cultures are very different.

Japanese people can be pretty ambiguous in speech, because if they are not close to you, they don’t usually say what they think. So if a person REALLY HATES BEER, and wants to reject his superior’s stinky beer offer in Japan, he would be saying 「それはちょっと。。。」 which translates to “This is a little…”

If he says “NO” to his boss for example, he is rude and will be disapproved. #enhyväksy #frowns!!

Whereas in the Finnish context it would be a simple “Ei, kiitos” , which means “No thanks.” If you say “This is a little…” to your boss, you’d probably end up drunk, hating your boss and feeling terrible.

So, based on the visible, people end up thinking that Finnish and Japanese cultures are very different. However, if you are familiar with both cultures, you’d probably know in your gut that they feel they same.

Because natives in both cultures know instinctively, the art of not saying.

In Japanese, ambiguous phenomena can be described as 「微妙」 or 「意味不明」. In Finnish, I don’t know the word, so if you do please leave a comment.

In Japan, because the verbal can already be quite abstract, so you’d expect the non-verbal to be abstract and complicated too. The beauty of Japanese language is that it’s open to so, so many interpretation. Which is honestly very great for Japanese traditional and modern literature and poetry. The written word is timeless because of how rich the range of potential interpretation is.

Don’t take my word–Just look at how genius the Japanese marketers are in selling their wares. Through the Japanese language, these marketers craft ambiguous, perfect, beautiful, sincere, magical escapes from the hustle-bustle of daily lives via consumerism, through storytelling. They do this time after time, literally weaving metaphors, rhetorical tropes, analogies, symbols into any slightly complex art of speech.

In Finland however, because the verbal is direct, there is a tendency to expect the non-verbal to be direct too. This however is not true, because human nature is the same regardless of nationality.

So you cannot expect Finns to be direct and simple in their nature, just because they are Finns. However, in my experience, most Finns are kind.

In Aalto University, there is this “Media Rhetoric” class that I took. I’m fans of both (female) professors because I felt that they are very smart and sharp. Once after class, I told one of the professors happily that I am fascinated with metaphors, and casually mentioned that I couldn’t find a particular important but rare book in the field.

And the next lesson she silently brought that book for me. To be honest, I didn’t even remember the conversation (which was already so random) until she showed me the book. This meant that she remembered both the random conversation and my particular interest in this rare book.

/OMG WHY IS SHE SO NICE. -melts- 这也太细心了吧!=)

In informal contexts, I think I could say with all my heart that I like most Finns because of this Finnish Art of Not Saying. To me, this is where the magic is.

Because if you notice the unspoken thing a special person does for you quietly, that nobody else in the world could see, then that “thing” is a precious secret you and the other person shares.

However, having said that, you do need to be careful in formal contexts, especially when doing business with Finns. I define “business” as any transaction that involves money.

It is true that Finns say what they mean. BUT because of this Finnish Art of Not Saying, they don’t tell you additional information that you might need to know, unless you ask.

And sometimes these additional unspoken information might be crucial to your success or failure in the business. So if they don’t tell you this, on hindsight you might think that they are being dishonest.

So you see, this whole communication thing becomes an art. Because how do you know what you don’t know?  Therefore in multicultural contexts, it is important not to assume. Keep asking, clarifying assumptions and communicating with a good heart and kind intentions.

OK I got to go work. See you guys in a bit! 🙂


  1. Markku Ikonen says

    Doing business with a Finn they are trustworthy and hand sake is good as the contract. Ambiguous they are not polite most of the time. If a Finn does not like something or someone they will not associate with them if they can avoid it. Ambiguous means epäkohtainen or kaksiosainen tai epäselvä ominaisuus. There is nothing abstract about Finns I can assure you of that its all out there for you to see in real living effects,

    • Oh really? That wasn’t always my experience. But well there can always be exceptions.

      Hahahaha thanks for teaching the phrase Id learn!!

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