|Gateway to old town, Tallinn|
It's been said that the further north you go in Europe, the more tolerant people are of silence. Due to smaller populations and therefore less competition for the word, the nordics are a prime example of this.
This acceptance of silence is also a key to successful communication in the Baltic countries. This week Lynn and I have been in Tallinn, Estonia running an intercultural workshop. The participants were from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland,Iceland and Sweden. One of the questions we asked on the workshop was what is the meaning of silence. Thoughts differed on this one. It means I agree, it means I disagree, I like you, I don't like you, I am angry, I am respectful, I have nothing to say, I have no opinion, I am shy, I am tired, I didn't hear you. No surprise then that it's easy to jump to the wrong conclusion when people are quiet.
The overriding similarity between the Baltic countries however is the feeling that silence is 'comfortable', not to be feared or avoided. The same attitude exists in Finland. This may seem strange to those of us from cultures where we interpret silence in group situations as embarrassing and fill the gaps with chatter and noise. A skill to learn for those of us from cultures less tolerant of silence is to patiently wait the more silent cultures out. In Sweden, when we are running training courses and we ask a question to the group, we slowly count to 10 in our heads while waiting for a response. The technique usually works. In Estonia, the key was to count to 35. And, even then, we didn't always receive an answer.
There, you can talk as much as you want about being comfortable with silence!