Finland, Vodka & the Allure of Introversion


Finland, I had read, is a land of introverts.

Before landing in Helsinki, home to 600,000 of it’s 5.4 million Finns, I expected the lack of extroverts to mean I’d be delivering my keynote speech to a roomful of grumpy, anti-social Scandinavians. In the speaking business, we call it Death by Silence. By departure, I realized that not only is Finland not a part of Scandinavia1, but that introversion has little to do with reclusiveness, lack of expression or sociability.

Kristian, my taxi driver from the airport, confirmed in impeccable English that Finns, including him, would happily stare at their boots rather than look a stranger in the eye. We have not much time for small talk and if you smile at us before we know you, we might trust you less. And we like Formula One racing,” he added, with rumbling laughter. Racing is a solitary sport, I noted; laughter is not.

It’s difficult to explain how relieved I felt to be unequivocally off stage; we had absolutely no expectation of interaction, no requirement to talk. And so, in a cab where the December sun rises and sets in the frozen course of six hours, Kristian and I proceeded to have a warm, hour-long conversation comparing the average snowfall, rates of depression and political similarities of our two cultures. The lack of awkwardness I’d associated with introverts never showed itself. Despite being Meyers-Briggs certified in extroversion (and the related tendency to “blindly step over dead bodies as I make my way to the fridge” – as my family puts it), the irony of our social interaction didn’t elude me.

Zator Pub

It was purely coincidental, by the way, that I read Susan Cain’s calmly arresting book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking while in Helsinki. Content to be alone with my book, I flipped the electronic pages as I sipped a local drink – reindeer tears – made by dropping arctic ligonberries in a vodka-like, Finn-brewed shot of liquid flame called Koskenkorva. Sitting next to a tractor in a pub called Zetor, surrounded by folks who speak English as well as Finnish, Swedish as easily as German2, I was overcome by how darn social everyone was. Quiet, to borrow from Ms. Cain, but unquestionably social. Was the incongruity between expectation and reality caused by Finns consuming trays full of small icy shots called schnapps3, or was it my preconception of introversion that was slightly intoxicated upon arriving in the country?

The answer (more like drunk) came from two people whose names I can’t pronounce, a fiftyish couple who’d not yet had a drink when they sat next to me at the bar and promptly… struck up a conversation. I hadn’t had someone sober start a conversation with me in a bar since, well, ever4 . So enjoyable was our chat that only now, flying to Frankfurt, did I take the time to finish and read through my Kindled highlights of Quiet. Clear as vodka, my definition of introversion was cloudy at best. Here is my incomplete and oversimplified interpretation of Quiet5:

  1. Introversion, as distinguished from shyness6, is a “preference for environments that are not overstimulating” (e.g., overly noisy, crowded, busy or rushed).
  2. Introverts like quiet more than extroverts do. Extroverts like stimulation more than introverts do.
  3. Introverts and extroverts are both social, but in different ways. Neither way is superior or more normal than the other.
  4. Introverts tend to be energized by deeper conversations and smaller groups while extroverts tend to be fueled by broader relationships and larger gatherings.
  5. Introverts retreat into quiet (including intimate social conversations) to recharge, extroverts gather in crowds (sometimes small) to talk.
  6. Privacy and quiet are more highly correlated with innovation and mastery than are collaboration, group “officing” or creative brainstorming. In other words, privacy can be profitable in more ways that one. Check back in the next few days, when I’ll make the connection from introversion to privacy.
  7. You’re neither all introvert nor all extrovert, so expect to experience both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. Your test score is just a tendency, not your prison cell.

IMG_6609There I was, an extrovert taken in by one of the world’s “quietest” cities, staring down at my shoes until Finn after introverted Finn insisted on getting to know me, and then trust me. None of it, by the way, felt like small talk, even though, by definition, it was. Katri, the event planner, who after graciously explaining that my pronunciation of a certain Finnish word might get me fired, and/or killed8, dropped everything to book a dinner reservation for me at a special restaurant. Mikko, the young man who set up my audio-visuals and, as it turns out, sponsored the event! Klaus, from StoneSoft (McAfee), who made me part of the group during cocktail hour. The lovely couple who walked out of their way to lead my lost soul to Restaurant Lappi while conversing knowledgeably about Colorado ski areas. And Piotr, my final cabbie, who gave me a departing tour of Helsinki7, complete with running commentary on Finland’s long history with Russia, Sweden and the bottle.

Finland, I’d read, is a land of introverts – many of whom I now call friends.

1 Scandinavia is the peninsula geographically containing Norway and Sweden and culturally including Denmark.

2 Yes, most of the Nordic people I met spoke four languages. Finland is considered a Nordic country, which also includes Norway, Sweden, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

3 Literally, a mouthful of vodka, often flavored with fresh fruit.

4 Including bars, pubs and ale houses visited in extroversion-obsessed America.

Do yourself and your introverted friends a favor and don’t take my word for her research – read it yourself. You can buy it here.

Shyness, according to Cain, is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation. I’d venture to say that includes pretty much everyone who is not a sociopath (literally, sociopaths don’t care. But I digress).

7 No extra charge.

Not really.

John Sileo travels the world as part of his life’s work to make data privacy fun and relevant (so that it works). His latest trip took him to Helsinki, Finland, where he delivered the keynote speech at their nation’s annual Information Security Summit (after which he sampled reindeer and vodka). If you’d like John to infuse some life into your next event (technical or otherwise), call us on 800.258.8076.

3 replies
  1. Thekitchwitch
    Thekitchwitch says:

    Oh, this was music to my INFP ears! I am definitely introverted but I am also very warm and friendly. I am often known for striking a conversation up with someone at a bar–as long as it is one lonely bar patron or a nice looking couple. I will never verbally approach “threes.” Just because you are an introvert doesn’t mean you eschew all company. Can’t wait to hear more about your travels!

  2. fineartofsmalltalk
    fineartofsmalltalk says:

    I cannot resist the challenge John…Your wonderful narrative is filled with examples of small talk. Whether conversing about snowfall, ski areas or rates of depression you are engaging in small talk. Most people, especially introverts knock small talk…yet as you discovered small talk is simply the appetizer for a relationship. It is only when small talk is superficial, self-centered or used as a tool to gain transactions that it is not welcome by introverts and extroverts alike.

    • John Sileo, Identity Theft Speaker
      John Sileo, Identity Theft Speaker says:

      Deb Fine, the authority on small talk – you make a great point! It was in fact “small talk” by topic, but because of it’s importance in connecting two people from different cultures, it didn’t feel small at all. If it’s only an appetizer, it was very filling! Why do we refer to it as small talk when it is so important? I think of “real” small talk as a formality, not something that we engage in passionately.

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