Nordic Cultural Insights into Communication

Silence and gaps in conversation are something deeply uncomfortable for the average American. Yet, for many other cultures, they’re a natural, and at times, even an essential part of the conversation. 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.

Before moving to Denmark and ending up immersed in Nordic culture, it’s not something I noticed or was really aware of. From an early age, Americans are taught that an awkward silence is a conversational cataclysm and something to avoid at all costs. This approach makes sense in an American context. In large part, the American conversational approach can best be described as conversational layering. Each individual is rapidly engaging with the other, 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 laid the groundwork for a completely unexpected cultural clash.

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Unlike Americans, Nordics and Scandinavians (I’ll just say Nordics moving forward) have a conversational culture which treasures the silences. This comes from a significantly increased comfort with silence compared to their American counterparts. Nordics 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 with definite gaps to signify the closure of a point. In this way, a traditional

Nordic conversation more closely resembles the structure of a formal debate rather 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 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 further compounded 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 English speakers. It can often translate into the perception that the American (or another 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 some 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, yeah,” 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 nonnative speakers who see them either as an interruption, inquiry, or dismissive attempt to speed the person up.

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