Additional Thoughts on Canadian and Finnish Silence

The gap between myth and reality can be quite close; sometimes it is merely a question of perception that creates a rift between the two.

This is the thought I was holding as I came onto the Cindy boat in Turku, Finland, the location where the performative non-action, Canadian Silence would be carried out. The premise of the piece, I reminded myself as I hunkered down in preparation for three hours of Doing Nothing, was based on fact but also touched on a certain cultural mythology – specifically that of “Finnish Silence” (see previous post for the complete intro).

Sitting quietly (as I was) for the duration of the non-action, I didn’t have a chance to discuss the proposition or possible discrepancies that Canadian Silence offered with the participants who came onboard. That time was rather spent staring out the window, watching the rainfall, noticing the surface of the water shift and change depending on wind cycles and strength of rain-drops, observing people walking on the other side of the river, trees blowing in the breeze, and aware of people coming and going inside the boat. In other words, just being.

It was only afterward that dialogue occurred; with a few participants and with a handful of folks who didn’t attend, but are either from Finland, or have recently taken up residence.

Here is what I gleaned: For some locals, Finnish Silence is a kind of cultural stereotype, and not something that necessarily overtly exists; they’re aware of it (i.e.: as a cliché) but not so attuned to it. For others, it does exist and occurs most obviously in nature; people specifically spend time in the forest to find and foster tranquillity. For others still, it transpires in a kind of liminal space within the day-to-day; people don’t name it precisely but its effects are felt as unspoken social ‘rules’ – or even as atmospheric resonance. I received a couple of captivating examples of the latter:

– In the everyday people do not talk when taking public transit. “Sit on a bus while you are here,” my interlocutor suggested to me. “You’ll notice no one speaking. It’s not that we aren’t allowed to interact, it’s that people want to respect everyone else’s space – and sound travels. So out of courtesy and consideration, people tend to sit quietly.”

– A very personal and particular example came from another conversation with a young woman who explained how when her father, a British born rather rambunctious fellow first arrived in Finland, he recalls having gone to his first party. “Oh yeah, ask my dad and he’ll tell you, Finnish Silence is a real thing! He has this amazing story of walking into this celebration and lots of people standing around… not talking! He couldn’t quite make heads or tails of it and didn’t know how to act, or what to do! He said he felt so awkward and out of place. But it’s not something I have experienced in quite the same way.”

So a thing existing exists largely in our perception of said thing. And we could say that “Finnish Silence” is a thing, but an almost imperceptible one. Depending on where you are. Who you’re with. And, quite clearly, where you are from.

Which leads back to the performance’s initial framework; a comparison across cultural planes inquiring, do Canadian and Finnish silence feel the same…?

While my Canadian Silence was, in essence, a contrived state, a figment of my imagination that I wished to place in parallel with my current context, I suppose a more precise question coming out of the performance would be, what is the space between this invitation and the reality of the situation? Am I in fact imposing a temporary state or merely pointing to something that is already there?

… The answer came rather unexpectedly two days later when I found myself in Helsinki, inside the Kamppi Chapel, an elegant and unusual structure that stands in the middle of the city. Not only is it riveting to look at, it also has a very specific mandate: it was built as an offering of refuge to all; a space devoted to… SILENCE.

It would seem a need for quietude – and the necessity for this space of pause beyond a cultural cliché – has therefore been officially recognized here, in Finland.

Methinks Finnish Silence is a thing after all… and I was honoured to be an active initiator, witness and participant.


All photos by Jussi Virkkumaa except Kamppi Chapel above (taken by yours truly).

With special thanks to the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ) for supporting my travel to Finland.

Author: Victoria Stanton

Montreal-based performance artist, writer, and educator Victoria Stanton explores live action, human interaction, video, film, photography, and drawing.

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