I have the extreme good fortune of owning two passports and having dual citizenship in the birth countries of each of my parents. So that even now during our COVID lockdown, I have been able to travel to my father’s birth country and absorb some much needed healing and rest. It is hard to explain why I feel such an open heart, such a deeply rooted peace, in this homeland, but I will try and share it from the linguistic point of view.
Something that strikes me every time I arrive here is that whether they speak Swedish or Finnish (and I would venture to guess the Sami language as well) people walk around constantly saying yes to the person speaking. In one form or another, they are constantly and naturally reminding the person speaking: I hear you. I understand what you are trying to convey. I see your point of view. I am with you. They are giving the speaker permission, consent, approval, and support in such a natural, kind and loving way. Quietly and peacefully acknowledging their humanity. Not interrupting or talking over. Lots of turn-taking time and spaces of silence that are not empty, but filled with the ongoing exchange and the leisurely pace of what is gently being spoken and shared.
Already at the airport, I saw two little boys eagerly move close to the moving luggage return, and in my two US language communities, a lot of tired airport parents would have called out something along the lines of “get back here!” or “that’s dangerous” or simply grab the child’s arm. But the Finnish father said in the gentlest of voices: “Listen now, fellows! You see there is a sort of a line on the floor, and that is so we can all stand on this side and thus the other passengers can see their luggage coming, you see, and that way no one is too close to the moving conveyor belt.” The boys looked and saw the line, and came back and stood my their father.
Think about it. This father had actually not commanded his children to think like him, much less ordered them about or tried to physically move them. He simply offered them some very neutral and factual information, and allowed them to draw their own reasonable conclusions. They were not viewed as people to be convinced or controlled, but simply as two reasonable individuals who could be trusted to form their own opinions and draw their own reasonable conclusions.
This man felt no need to argue or scold or tell them what to think or do. Even though they were very young children, probably three and five years old. How lovely. To accept the individuality that lies at the core of every person – an individuality that is not reliant upon any specific held opinion, but rather upon the reasoning ability and the common sense of each person, developed in earliest childhood and fostered throughout their lives. These children were trusted, and trustworthy.
In my birth country, the United States, this is not the common practice. We love to tell children and adults alike what to think and how to think. We have opinions about everything, and there is no direct correlation between what we know as a factual matter, and how strongly held our opinions about that matter are, unless there maybe an inverse correlation. We are focused on individuating, and showing that we have strong opinions, because those opinions make up a huge part of our personal identity. And when someone tries to shake our opinions, it feels very much like a personal attack, so closely do we identify with them. So it turns out that the listener must almost necessarily fight against another person’s words and negate, deny, or resist their stated opinion – about almost anything under discussion!
Then the listener goes on to try and show how the speaker’s opinion is not quite valid, how the listener knows more, and can correct and enlighten the speaker. Somehow, we must stand out and “know” something that we can then posture about. Even if three people read the same article in the same paper, say, about a sporting event, the next day, they will happily misquote it and argue about the relative merits of the players and why and how the game was really won and lost. It truly is a strange cultural pastime, this constant need to separate ourselves and be right by making someone else wrong. It is as if we fear we would be annihilated without our opinions. We cling to each opinion like a life preserver.
I remember seeing a cartoon with a man sitting in front of his computer in surprise calling out to his wife across the room: “Honey, come quick! It’s the weirdest thing! You’re not gonna believe this! All my friends who were experts in national politics have all suddenly become experts on COVID!”
In my experience, my cousins who have lived always in Finland have no such drive to be “the one who knows” or to correct others. I remember my surprise when I asked an older cousin a few questions conversationally, and he had no opinion. He considered, and then said he didn’t have an opinion, because he didn’t know so much about it. At the end of the visit, he told me that one of the things he had become more comfortable with as he aged was accepting that he knows very little in the grand scheme of things, but that he knows a comfortable amount about the things he needs to know, and so that is just fine. He felt no need to have an opinion on every possible topic.
When I taught Asian students in an international program in the US, many of them reported that the most difficult cultural clash for them was the common academic requirement that they “state their opinion and defend it” in other words, take a side, and then argue against the other side. Several students told me they simply did not feel the need to take a side, and could easily see both sides, and had no problem with the ambiguity. They felt it was strange to have to stand on one side or the other of something that was essentially multi-faceted and complex. The very idea of “two sides to the coin” is odd. Few things are that flat and simple. And if you think about it, if you and I hold a coin between us and each of us sees our side, we are still, in the end, looking at the same coin. To argue about it seems a bit ridiculous.
So I luxuriate for a brief and lovely moment in time, which not coincidentally happens to be the present, as I wander in the forest and along lake shores, in villages and summer cottage areas, along bicycle paths and even “in town”, and all the while, I hear my cousins, friends and strangers saying yes to each other in a hundred ways. Nodding, listening, humming, sucking in air in adorable breathy whistles, almost in birdsong recognition of each other. I have no doubt these traditions have been carried forward unbroken since humans first started cooperating in the misty beginnings of what we like to consider societies. I feel so happy to be immersed in this ancient recognition, this socially condoned and constantly reinforced acceptance of the points of view and personal experiences of each individual member of our clan. What utter rest and quiet, what peace and contentment, when each person’s humanity is so constantly upheld and respected. Yes.