Nordic Conversations Are Different

Silence. It is something Americans hate. In your typical American conversation you’ll rarely find such a thing as a comfortable silence, a reflective silence, or a natural silence.  For the average American in a normal conversation there’s really only one type of silence and that is awkward silence. A type of silence that we’re taught from childhood to avoid at all costs. This stems in large part from the American conversational approach which I think can best be described as conversational layering with each person quickly layering on new overlapping information in rapid succession. Add in the fast-paced rapid-fire approach to speaking common among most Americans and you’ve got a recipe for frustration and perceived arrogance when talking to Nordics / Scandinavians (and other internationals).

Unlike Americans, Nordics/Scandinavians have a conversational culture which treasures the silences. This comes from a significantly increased comfort with silence compared to their American counterparts. Nordics/Scandinavians have a very turn-based structure and style. While the Finnish are notorious for the slow pacing of their conversations and their extreme comfort with what would otherwise be considered painfully uncomfortable periods of silence, it is a trend present to a lesser extent across all of the Nordic countries.  The result is a conversational practice which is heavily turn based with definite gaps to signify the closure of a point. In this way a traditional Nordic conversation much more closely resembles the structure of formal debate than a round table free-for-all discussion.

Due to the near bilingualism of most Nordic citizens and the fact that many also speak American English with very mild accents, it is very easy for non-native speakers to forget that the Nordics are still not quite native speakers.  This means that when the conversational silences occur during the natural flow of a conversation, they are amplified because of the added need to process, digest, and periodically search for missing words. Something confounded when talking with native English speakers due to our heavy use of regional slang and provincial idioms.

In discussions with Danish friends and by closely exploring my own conversations, I’ve come to realize that this translates into a certain level of frustration among Nordics when talking with native speakers. It can often translate into the perception that the American (or other native speaker) is arrogant, dismissive, not paying attention, and/or rude.  Keeping in mind the two conversational styles I mentioned previously, here are a few areas where I’ve watched issues arise.

Affirmation behavior

A common American practice to show continued engagement with a conversation is to give constant positive feedback.  This can either be gestural (movement) or verbal (spoken) and comes in a variety of forms but usually includes movements such as head nods, finger pointing, and shoulder shrugs while the verbal includes words like “uhhumm”, “yup, yup, ya”, or “definitely”.  While these are intended and expressed by Americans as a way of confirming engagement with the conversation, filling small gaps, and expressing agreement, interest or sympathy, I’ve found they often confuse non-native speakers who see them either as an interruption, inquiry, or dismissive attempt to speed the person up.

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