Small talk, etc.
Since our return to Finland, I’ve been thinking a lot about small talk and different ways Finns and Americans interact in public. I’ve also read a couple of articles recently about how “small talk”-type interactions may boost happiness and strengthen society. In addition, Finns can take a class now about how to make chit-chat with strangers.
Some of the conclusions of this strain of research fly in the face of my personal experience and opinions, and I’ve been mulling over this apparent contradiction for the last few weeks. And I think there are a few different things going on.
Small talk with strangers. I still come down on the side of not doing this - or at least not having to do this, especially if it’s a weird gendered expectation. In the US, I would love to feel like I didn’t have to comment on the stuff I’m buying, or fill silence on public transportation. Silence is a GIFT you can give. So is respecting someone’s privacy even if they are engaged in a transaction with you. And the thing about talking with a stranger is that when you have to do it, and you have to do it all or most of the time, it becomes a chore. In Finland - where it’s not expected that you will just burst into conversation with any human being who enters a meter radius of you - small talk between strangers does sometimes happen and because it’s spontaneous, it is magical. It makes you smile and fills you up with warm fuzzies.
All that said - and maybe this is the American in me trying to express itself - I do sometimes have the urge to just up and tell someone here that I love their shirt, or their hairstyle, or say that they look amazing. This happened a lot in my brain this spring with random passers-by (never out loud, though) and I think it was just almost two years of built-up, unexpressed AMERICANNESS. I have at times resolved to tell strangers positive things more, even in Finland, but I haven’t yet done it.
Borrowing stuff from neighbors. I actually think Finns do ok with this, though it depends on the makeup of your neighborhood. We have borrowed bolt cutters, a crowbar, and a tire jack from neighbors. It’s not…sugar, exactly, but we’re out there, forming those societal bonds! So, carry on, everybody!
A related social contract I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the way we allow kids to inhabit outdoor spaces. Some friends of mine in the US moved to a new city and are having all kinds of trouble getting permission for their kids to walk home from school. It seems that part of the problem is that nobody’s kids walk home from school, so it’s seen as unsafe and weird.
I feel very lucky that where we live, kids are outside, all over the place, by themselves: walking to school, playing in the forest, getting themselves to their hobbies, going to the store, whatever. And it very much feels like a deal we’ve all made, silently: I’ll let my kids out, you’ll let your kids out, and they’ll all be safer outside because there are so many of them and we’re all keeping a collective eye on them from our kitchen windows. If that social contract ever failed, I would be so sad!
So I’ll be sticking to spontaneous, meaningful small talk with the occasional stranger, timely loans and interaction with neighbors, and continued fostering of children’s independence outside.