“It’s Just Different”: Emotions and Observations about Finnish and English – Elizabeth Peterson

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 5, 2009

Emotions Issue

© 2009 Elizabeth Peterson


“It’s Just Different”:

Emotions and Observations about Finnish and English

Elizabeth Peterson

University of Helsinki


The attitudes people have about the languages they speak offer insights that are just as valuable as how they actually speak their languages. Attitudes and emotions about a language, for example, offer clues as to what constitutes social insider/outsider behavior, what varieties have prestige in a community, or how linguistic changes are perceived by certain groups within a community. This paper presents data from interviews with 68 native speakers of Finnish. The speakers were asked to discuss their views of the general properties of Finnish and English, and what they perceive to be the major differences in the ways they express themselves in both languages. These interviews were unscripted. The same speakers were then recorded producing similar speech acts in both English and Finnish, based on scripted scenarios. The goal of the study is to compare how speakers feel about their languages relative to how they actually speak them. The results are presented in two parts. First, overarching themes that emerged as emotions about and distinctions between Finnish and English are presented. Linguistic politeness emerges as an area about which participants exhibited emotion and opinions. The other section of the paper focuses in particular on linguistic politeness in speech acts (specifically, on requests, the speech act elicited during the interviews).


1. Introduction

This study compares emotions about a native language, in this case Finnish, and a foreign language, English.1  There are many ways in which emotions can be explored linguistically, especially across languages. We could, for example, compare the semantics of emotional words across languages (Wierzbicka 1999), we could compare the emotion related to certain lexical items across languages (Dewaele 2006, Harris et al 2006), we could explore the translation of culturally bound emotional concepts (Panayiotou 2006), or we could analyze discourse that involves emotional themes relating to language and culture.

The study presented here primarily takes a discursive approach to investigating emotional themes in language. For the purposes of this study, an element of discourse (i.e., a text) is considered relevant if it reveals emotions that the speaker holds about either Finnish or English. The most obvious emotions that are likely to be revealed in the discourse are those relating to such emotional states as nationalism, pride, respect, envy, shame, or inadequacy. As the discussion with the participants in the study centers around cultural differences, emotions such as hatred, dread, fear, love, and disappointment are considered, in general, to be less relevant.

The study is carried out in the spirit of the linguistic studies presented in an edited volume by Pavlenko (2006), in which emotional experiences relating to bilingualism are investigated. Studies in that volume focus on expressing anger across languages (Dewaele 2006), expressing intensity or passion (Koven 2006), discussing issues related to translation (Panayiotou 2006), and expressing humor across languages (Vaid 2006).

The crux of any study of emotion and language is that there is a physiological link “between basic emotions and the language that codes and expresses them” (Dewaele 2006: 120). In other words, language is one of the chief tools we have for expressing emotions. When we are talking about speakers of more than one language, this necessarily means that we are talking about personal as well as culturally-bound emotions and ways to express them through the respective languages (Kovens 2006).

As this study compares a native language to a foreign language, the issue of aptitude in the foreign language comes into question; the “ease and comfort” (Pavlenko 2006: 19) associated with speaking one’s first language does not necessarily extend to a second language, in which a speaker may struggle to build a grammatical construction, let alone worry about its pragmatic function.

While this is an important point, it is not totally relevant to this analysis. The bulk of the data is at the discourse level; all of the participants in the study were able to express themselves freely in conversation in English, and they were able to answer questions in English during the interviews from which the data were collected. Thus, aptitude in English was not noticeably a hindrance in getting their views across; speakers who struggled to find an expression in English simply switched to Finnish (this is because I was the interviewer in all cases, and I understand Finnish). A further discussion of the interviews and data collection is presented in Section 2 of this paper.

A second point that bears mentioning is that these responses would no doubt have been different if I were to carry out the same kind of interviews in another region of Finland. Throughout the paper, I use the terms “Finnish,” “Finn,” and “Finland” for ease of expression, but in each case, I am actually referring to Helsinki, where the study was conducted, and to Helsinki speakers of Finnish, not to Finland as a whole.

This study can be considered exploratory in that the interviews were conducted in an open-ended fashion; participants were free to discuss any and all emotions they felt about Finnish and English (or, as relevant, Swedish or other languages that they spoke). The findings from this more open-ended portion of the study are presented first, grouped around specific themes that emerged in the conversations.

To the extent possible, a related goal of the study was to measure actual use of politeness features in Finnish and in English against what speakers felt they did in each respective language.2 To achieve this goal, it was necessary to focus on elements of language that can actually be measured. The larger study from which this interview data was obtained (Peterson 2004) focused on request data. The request data is re-introduced in this study as a means of comparing how the participants felt about certain features, mostly politeness features, compared to how they actually used them. The hypothesis for this second portion of the study is that speakers do, in fact, have distinct politeness codes for Finnish and English, and emotions about these codes influences their language use. This topic is discussed in the latter portion of the paper.


2. Background

The data for this study were collected during the academic year 2000-2001 in Helsinki, Finland. There were 68 native speakers of Finnish, all living in the Helsinki area, who participated in the study. These speakers were approached through existing networks (Milroy 1980); therefore, the study is non-random and non-representative. People who elected to participate knew in advance that they would be speaking to an American researcher in Finnish and English. There were 22 men and 46 women who participated in the study. The average age of the participants was 35. The oldest speaker was 65, and the youngest two speakers were 18 years old.

This group of speakers exhibited what could be considered a high ranking in the “linguistic market” (Bordieu 1984). Participants tended to be involved in relatively public social, political, or professional roles that required use of verbal skills. Many of the participants were university students; there were also journalists, lawyers, teachers, researchers, and finance workers (among other professions).

Some of the speakers spoke as many as five languages. For most, the main second language was English, even though Swedish and Finnish are Finland’s two official languages (English, according to some sources, is the new “third” language; see Leppänen et al 2008). Ten of the 68 speakers spoke Swedish as their first language, as either a home or school language or both.3  Three additional speakers were bilingual in English and Finnish, having grown up either with native English-speaking parents, or having spent a significant amount of their life abroad. Thus, 55 of the 68 participants in the study spoke Finnish as a first language, 10 spoke Swedish as a first language, and three spoke English and Finnish from childhood (i.e., they were concurrent bilinguals). As mentioned previously, all of the participants spoke English, most of them as a foreign language.

Each of the participants was interviewed in person by the author. The interviews were audio recorded and transcribed in a broad fashion (ie, no phonetic detail). The interviews consisted of four parts. First, the participants filled out a demographic data sheet, while at the same time discussing their exposure to English, when they started learning English, etc. During the second portion of the interview, the participants responded out loud to seven scripted prompts in English that elicited requests. During the third portion of the interview, the participants responded to the same seven prompts in Finnish. (A complete version of the prompts in both English and Finnish can be seen in the Appendix.) These prompts were designed to test how a speaker would formulate a request in a variety of different situations. A goal in creating such prompts is to come up with a situation that a speaker can actually imagine could happen; in other words, a speaker should be able to relate the situation to his or her real life.

During the fourth, and final, portion of the interview, each participant and I had a semi-scripted discussion about general impressions of cultural and linguistic differences between English and Finnish and about emotions relating to these perceived differences. It is the conversation data from the final portion of the interviews that comprises the information presented in the first section of this paper. These conversations lasted anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. The majority of the conversations took place in English, although participants often highlighted their observations with examples in Finnish, or supplied unfamiliar English terms in Finnish.  As the interviewer/researcher, I tried to keep my contributions to a minimum, allowing the speakers to freely discuss any topic they felt was interesting.

These conversations were intended to illuminate what it feels like to be a Finn and to speak Finnish. The conversations were thus necessarily general, with topics relating to how it feels to speak a so-called “small” language (meaning a language with relatively few speakers compared to, say, English), what makes Finnish special, a comparison/contrast of properties of Finnish compared to properties of English, and why it was or was not important for the participants to be able to speak English. As previously mentioned, English was a foreign language for 65 of the 68 speakers, but the speakers had a good command of spoken English and were able to converse without impediment.


3. The Conversation Data

The 68 open-ended conversations (described in Section 2) yielded a few topics that were frequent enough to merit mention here. The topics that emerged as dominant themes of discussion are labeled as follows: 1) Finnish honesty precludes small-talk and other perceived superfluity; 2) Finns are law-abiding; 3) the Finnish language is changing; 4) politeness differs between English and Finnish. Each of these topics is presented in turn in this section. I have chosen to illustrate these topics through direct quotes from the participants. As mentioned previously, the interviews took place almost exclusively in English; the quotes are presented faithfully in English as spoken by the participants in the study. When, in the quotations, speakers provided examples in Finnish, the English translations are offered immediately after the Finnish, in brackets ([ ]). The translations are my own. Each subsection concludes with a discussion of the topic in relation to emotions about language.

3.1  Finnish Honesty Precludes Linguistic Superfluity

The “silent Finn” is a stereotype that endures in the Finnish consciousness, reinforced both by Finns and outsiders (see Sajavaara and Lehtonen 1997). In short, the stereotypical Finn is said to be one who values action over speech. This perceived characteristic is something Finns themselves joke about, as well as a stereotype advanced in journalistic and touristic accounts of Finland.

A surprising number of study participants used jokes to describe the supposedly reticent Finnish character. Three people told a version of a joke about a husband and wife with the general set-up that, after several years of marriage, the wife was dismayed that the husband had not told her he loved her. The punch line to the joke was, “I told you the day we got married that I loved you. If I had changed my mind, I would have told you.” A second joke told by two people involved former schoolmates who met each other on the streets of Helsinki. They decided to go and have a beer together. As they drank their second pint of beer, one said to the other, “So how is your wife?” to which the other replied, “Did we come here to talk, or did we come here to drink?”

While accounts such as this can hardly be considered scientific, they do offer an important insight into how Finns perceive themselves and how they wish to position themselves in relation to other cultures. In fact, most participants can be said to have upheld “the silent Finn” stereotype as an indisputable truth. This was the case across age groups, indicating that cultural notions such as this do not appear to be changing with younger generations.

A frequent method to illustrate “the silent Finn” communication style was to bring up the topic of small talk.  A 27-year-old woman, for example, stated, “A couple of years ago when we entered the EU, there was a lot of talk about this small talk, and how Finns are not capable of small talk and how they don’t want to do it. It’s a waste of time since you don’t say if you are well or not [when someone asks “How are you?”], it’s just small talk. … If someone [in Finland] starts talking on a bus or train, people start looking like ‘Is she all right in the head?’” The same speaker, who had lived for a time in Dublin, went on to say that she was shocked there when people in shops called her “love.” “In Finnish, you could never call someone ‘rakas’!” she said.

In terms of the emotional impact, these observations seem quite neutral; the speaker is simply stating what she believes to be the differences between English and Finnish. Perhaps it is relevant here to point out that the speaker is a native speaker of Swedish, and therefore it is possible that she feels less invested in Finnish than a monolingual speaker of Finnish would (and as other quotations in the study seem to support).

A 29-year-old woman, a Finnish native speaker, discussed how the habit of small talk in English can be ill-perceived by Finns: “In the States they are always friendly, but I don’t know if they mean it. If they say, ‘Please come and visit and blah blah blah,’ they would be really surprised if I would come after three months. As a Finn, I would take it that if they came and said, ‘Oh, come,’ that they would mean it.’” This assessment could be considered judgmental toward the Anglo norm and protective of the Finnish, upholding Finnish integrity as superior.

A 38-year-old Finnish-speaking woman also brought up the issue of small talk. She said, “Finns can have difficulty with the American way, because they feel that they are just saying something and they don’t mean it.” Again, the feeling is that Finnish honesty makes talking for the sake of talking uncomfortable.

Another woman, aged 51, didn’t disavow small talk, but tried to explain it in terms of personal preference: “I think that in Finnish we go straight to the point. In English you have all these words that might make it softer, but they don’t mean anything. But our culture is maybe such that we don’t have such little chat. But it depends on the way you were raised, what sort of family you come from, what sort of manners you have.”

These previous two quotations create an interesting contrast. Note that the former speaker uses the term “they” in referring to Finns, although she herself is a native speaker of Finnish. It is no doubt relevant that this woman had just moved back to Helsinki from New York City, and there is a sense that she is apologizing for what she considers an inadequacy on the part of Finns. The latter woman, on the other hand, who had lived in Helsinki her entire life, uses the pronoun “we,” creating solidarity with Finns, and uses such terms as “little chat” that, in the context of the interview, came off as somewhat dismissive of  Anglo norms.

A couple of points bear mentioning in the discussion of the topic of small talk. First, it is noteworthy that such a large portion of the speakers felt it a relevant topic to bring up. Second, there is evidence of a tension (with the caveat that we are looking at only a very few speakers here) in which speakers who feel a strong identification with Finnish culture and language feel a sense of pride and rightness about Finnish norms, whereas speakers of Swedish or people who have lived in an English-speaking environment are more willing to view the supposed contrast in communication styles neutrally or even more favorably for the Anglo norms.

3.2  Finns are Law-abiding

A second topic that was raised frequently in the conversations was closely related to the previous topic, but in this case the honesty extends beyond language to action in everyday life. Quoting from one of the participants in the study, I have termed this notion “law-abiding.”

Again, this is a cultural notion or stereotype that appears to have a strong foothold in the Finnish psyche. A 1974 study (cited in McRae 1997: 154) showed that Finns in five Finnish towns upheld the following qualities as those of the “typical Finn”: trusting, strong, cultured, cooperative, kind, always on time, thrifty, hardworking, honest, and optimistic. Such qualities earn Finland a regular spot on the world’s list of “least corrupt countries” (according to Transparency International 2001–2009), and have even been written about in The New York Times (Hoge 2002).

In the context of this study, several participants discussed the adherence to European Union regulations as an example of Finns’ honest way of life. For example, a 38-year-old woman said, “Finns hold their promises. That’s really unusual, for example, in the business life. Finns are known as the ones that keep the contracts. In the EU, our farmers, for example, are the ones that keep their lots just the size they should be and stuff like that. Everybody else wouldn’t. We’re really law-abiding.” The tone of her assessment is one of wonder but also of national pride: she was pleased to report such facts.

Another woman, aged 29, said, “We are used to obeying all sorts of rules. All sorts of these regulations and directives that the EU makes, Finland is always the first to do them, and on time! In all the media, it is reported how Finns did this without any criticism at all! Sometimes I feel like the whole EU is just laughing at Finns and how they go and do all the things without even questioning.” She felt that this adherence to rules and regulations was bound up with Finland being under Swedish and then Russian rule for many hundreds of years. The feelings that characterize this quotation were wonder and embarrassment; the speaker used humor (she laughed throughout this section of discourse) to deflect and explain what she seemed to perceive as something embarrassing for Finns.

Several other speakers who engaged in the “law-abiding” topic also used humor to make light of what they seemed to consider embarrassing behavior. For example, there were several mentions of how in Helsinki pedestrians seem to wait for the signal to turn green, even if no cars are coming. One speaker said, “If you go when the light is red, you feel all these angry eyes staring into your back, like ‘How dare you?’” She used exaggeration to show this law-abiding characteristic in a humorous light.

In sum, it could be said that the stereotype of the honest, law-abiding Finn is one with which the speakers in the study appear to struggle somewhat. At some level, there is the appearance of pride about Finnish honesty, as evident in the first quotation presented in this section. However, there is also a tendency to wish to explain why Finns seem to be so honest, and to make fun of it in a way that points toward a certain level of embarrassment.

3.3  The Changing Communication Style

A third common theme during the interviews was perceived change in the Finnish language. Linguistic change is often seen by speakers in a speech community as being inherently negative (see Aitchison, 1991; Labov, 2001), yet comments made by the study participants were at times quite supportive of and positive about the changes they witnessed.

One area of change that the participants in the study mentioned was an increase in the willingness to make small talk. One 39-year-old woman said, “Young people are more able to open their mouths now – in any language. They don’t have this barrier that they should be able to talk fluently before they open their mouths. This is the typical Finnish problem with older Finns. … The first thing I noticed when I got back (from living in Stockholm), one of the biggest differences was that women spoke to each other in the loo in restaurants. In Sweden they always did that, but in Finland they started to do that while I was away. Before that usually you just looked at each other through the mirror, looking at each other critically.” This observation appears to be quite positive toward what the speaker sees as progress in the way Finns communicate with each other, and a condemnation of what she views as a more old-fashioned and less desirable way to behave.

Another woman, aged 27, surmised that she perceived changes in the communication style of Finns after Finland became part of the European Union. She said, “[After joining the EU] there was the other side of it that Finnish people now should learn more small talk so they can communicate better with these people in Europe. That’s also, I think, an age question. These older people are not keen on small talk at all, while these young European businessmen from Kauppakorkeakoulu [the Helsinki School of Economics, the leading business school in Finland] are very smooth and do the small talk well.” This woman’s own boyfriend was a graduate of the program she cited, and she seemed to hold his alma mater, as well as the students who went there, in high esteem. Like the previous speaker, this woman seems to value what she perceives as a change toward a new communication style in Finland. She revealed pride and excitement throughout this portion of the interview.

In a related vein, some participants in the study pointed out what they feel is a change in manners in Finland. For example, a 30-year-old male taxi driver said, “I would say that we in Helsinki are less cordial than most people in Europe … Politeness has grown in the last 10 to 25 years, maybe because we want to be more European. More … sivistynyt (‘civilized’). I think Finnish people try to treat strangers better than they treat other Finns. They try to be more polite.” The emotion revealed by this speaker is something akin to shame, in that he contrasts Finnish behavior to such positive terms as cordial, more European, and civilized.

Of special note with regard to these quotations is that the speakers brought up topics relating to what they feel is lacking in Finnish—that is, small talk, “civilized” behavior, etc.—but with a positive assessment concerning change in these areas. Hence, there is an element of pride associated with adaptability in the Finnish culture and language.

3.4  The Importance of Linguistic Politeness

The previous section features the subject of politeness and manners. A related topic that was brought up by many of the speakers in the study had to do with politeness in language.  Speakers exhibited strong feelings about linguistic politeness and were willing to share thoughtful observations. Before embarking on a discussion of these quotations, it is important to point out that, from a linguistic point of view, it is a fallacy to claim that one language is “more polite” than another. Politeness in language is something so culturally bound, so language-specific, that to try to compare systems for expressing linguistic politeness could be likened to a comparison between the merits of a screwdriver and a stapler. Both are good tools, but each is useful only for the right task. Politeness in a language is much the same way: what works perfectly well for one language absolutely does not carry over into another (see Meier 1995 for a warning against “yardstick” cross-linguistic comparisons of politeness). That said, linguistic politeness is a topic that speakers of any language appear keen to talk about, and the speakers in this study were no exception.

The numerous examples of quotations about linguistic politeness include the following from a 38-year-old woman: “In English you are more polite. You say ‘please’ and ‘I just wonder if I could …?’ and things like that, but in Finnish you just demand. Even though it sounds to you [foreigners] that it is not really polite, but in Finnish it’s all right.”

One man, a 54-year-old who spoke Swedish at home (and who was married to an American woman), was very direct and derisive about Finnish. He said, “The Finnish language is not polite, in my opinion. In my opinion, Swedish is more polite than Finnish, and English is more polite even. In England, the language is far more formal. In my opinion, the cultural differences are enormous, and that is what makes the language differences so great.” As a linguistic researcher conducting an interview, this is the type of assessment that makes me nervous, as I find that I am fighting the urge to argue with the speaker rather than allowing him to demonstrate his knowledge and emotion on the topic. One could safely deduce that this particular speaker feels more of an affiliation with Swedish-speaking and English-speaking cultures, and that a native speaker of Finnish who had strong community ties might not express a similar emotion (in fact, no one else among the participants did go on record saying that Finnish is not polite).

People whose native language was Finnish were more likely to simply point out differences between Finnish and other languages, as if they were educating me, the interviewer/researcher, about the Finnish system of politeness. There were many observations, for example, about “little words” in English that don’t exist in Finnish. A 38-year-old woman (not the same woman who is quoted earlier in this section) said, “[In Finland], when you bump into somebody, you don’t say ‘excuse me.’ You say, ‘oh-ho!’ – and that’s already a lot! It doesn’t matter.” Her nonchalant attitude was meant to reassure me that I would not need to acknowledge it if I were to collide with a stranger on the street.

A 26-year-old man brought up the same phenomenon, explaining that when he visited a grocery store in the United States, he was surprised when a woman he had accidentally bumped with his shopping cart turned to him and said, “Don’t you know how to say ‘excuse me’?” In Helsinki, he said, neither he nor the person he bumped into would have acknowledged the incident.

The overriding emotion associated with these and the many other quotations comparing English and Finnish politeness appeared to be a need to explain the perceived differences. The participants in the study seemed compelled to express that Finns are not impolite, but that the language and culture is just different. They were not necessarily apologizing for these differences, but this seemed a very important point that the speakers wished to convey to me, the researcher/interviewer (and also, no doubt, in my role as a foreigner). Many of the speakers went into detail about the grammar of Finnish, comparing it to English and explaining how grammatical features of Finnish could be used to convey politeness. It is these grammatical features that are discussed in the next portion of the paper, and which offer a point of a comparison against actual language use in the form of request utterances that were collected during the interviews.

4.  Emotions about Language vs. Language Use: Politeness

As mentioned, a frequent topic of discussion during the interviews was how the politeness system of Finnish differs from that of English. The participants exhibited a great deal of knowledge about the politeness systems of both languages, and were able to offer concrete examples of how what was considered polite in one language might not work in the other. It could be considered surprising that speakers of a language would exhibit emotion about grammatical features of their language, but with regard to politeness features in Finnish, this does not seem to be an exaggeration, as the quotes presented here demonstrate.

In this section of the paper, we first look at the types of grammatical examples the speakers used to illustrate their comparisons of politeness in Finnish and English, highlighting the emotions associated with these examples. Then, where relevant, we compare the speakers’ own assessments with the results that were gained from the questionnaire data (i.e., the elicited requests) that were also part of the interviews (as discussed in Section 2 of this paper; see also the Appendix).

The grammatical features that speakers tended to discuss are presented in two related parts: first is the importance of the conditional mood in Finnish and second is the importance of the word please in English.

4.1  The Conditional Mood

According to the authoritative Finnish grammar (Iso Suomen Kielioppi¸ hereafter referred to as VISK), when a verb is expressed in the present conditional, the utterance is more hypothetical, with the ultimate outcome remaining open (VISK section 1135). The pragmatic function of a conditional verb in a request, then, is to alleviate directness, giving the idea that the person being addressed has more freedom of choice (or negative politeness in Brown and Levinson’s [1987] terminology).

The consensus among the speakers in this study seemed to be that the conditional mood in Finnish equates to the use of please in English. Many of the speakers found it important to bring up this point. A few of the quotations that demonstrate the use of the conditional in Finnish are presented here.

A 25-year-old woman went into extensive detail describing the difference between please, kiitos, and the use of a conditional verb:

Please is a bit difficult (when speaking English), because in Finnish we don’t use it as much. So I would say that please often comes a bit late for me. I say something like, ‘Do you think I could have a bottle of mineral water?’ and then I say ‘Oh yeah – please.’ I remember like ‘Oh, I’m being rude now if I don’t say it.’ I wouldn’t say kiitos. … Well, I would say ‘Voisinko saada pullon mineraali vettä?’ [‘Could I get a bottle of mineral water?’], and then they would say ‘Joo, ihan pieni hetki, olkaa hyvä’ [‘Yes, just one moment, please.’]. And then I would say Kiitos, or ‘Thank you,’ afterwards. But it’s not the same. … It’s hard to compare, because they are just totally different. The thing is that we always say like Antaisitko, and that means like ‘Would you give’ or ‘Could you give.’ It’s the conditional. It means the same as ‘Could you please.’

It is noteworthy in this lengthy quotation that the speaker appears to be making a very honest and careful attempt at deciphering the distinctions between the forms please, kiitos, and the conditional mood in Finnish. She eventually comes to the same conclusion as was expressed earlier in this section (“screwdriver vs. stapler”): “they are just totally different”—but each tool is equally good for what it is intended to do.

Another example came from a 31-year-old woman: “In Finnish, if you say kiitos, it really means ‘please.’ You can’t use it all the time like you do in English. Or maybe I could say ‘Voisitko olla hiljaa?’ [‘Could you be quiet?’], and the please is in the conditional verb.”  

Whereas the previous speaker was more concerned with sorting out the differences between the languages and forms in question, the latter speaker seems to highlight the honesty of the Finnish form kiitos: “it really means ‘please,’” and in a way criticizes the use of please in English: “you use it all the time.”

Clearly, the speakers in the study consider the use of the conditional mood an important politeness strategy when making a request in Finnish, and one they were eager to help me understand. In contrast, they did not discuss the use of the conditional mood in English. Thus, we can deduce that the conditional mood is a more important strategy for the speakers when they wish to express politeness in Finnish than in English. This was, in fact, supported by the request data that was collected during the interviews (see the Appendix): only 23 percent of the verbs in the English requests were in the conditional mood, whereas 59 percent of the verbs in the Finnish requests were in the conditional mood. While one could argue that this distinction could be attributed to lack of aptitude in English, this does not seem to be the case. All of the speakers were proficient enough in English to be familiar with the conditional mood; in addition, distinctions in the use of the conditional mood across proficiency groups were found to be statistically significant in a multivariate analysis (see Peterson 2004). Rather, it seems to be the case that speakers mark politeness differently in Finnish than they do in English, as discussed further in the next section, which focuses on the use of please.

4.2  Please 

The use of the word please in English was mentioned in so many of the interviews that it merits special consideration in this paper. In fact, so many of the speakers raised the topic of please that the quotations are too numerous to present here. The general feeling the speakers espoused was that please is the single most important resource for sounding polite in English. The assessments offered about please ranged from critical to positive to being confounded by it.

The term used to describe words such as please and kiitos is ‘requestive marker’. This term comes from the fact that such words are described as ’an optional element added to a request to bid for cooperative behavior’ (Blum-Kulka et al 1989). Kiitos is classified as a ritualistic form that helps to mark turns in a discourse, or, at the clausal level, a parenthetical feature that appears outside of the structure of the main clause (VISK sections 1044 and 1072). While semantically speaking these words can be said to have something in common, they differ both pragmatically and syntactically. Please can occupy a number of positions in an English clause, whereas kiitos almost occurs outside the clause, at the end of an utterance (or as a single turn in a conversation). In addition, the word please seems to carry less pragmatic weight than kiitos (see Markkanen 1985).

As illustrated in the previous section, there was a tendency in the interviews to try to compare please to the Finnish form kiitos, as well as to the conditional mood in Finnish.  For example, a 30-year-old woman said:

I think in Finnish we do not use so much the word [that means] please. We just might say ‘Anna – [hesitates] antaisitko kynän,’ (‘Give – would you give me the pen.’). I think that I am more polite in English. I can feel it. We don’t say so much the word [for] please, as I said. I think we say the word kiitos more, but you can’t use it the same. If I translate ‘Would you give me the pen, please?’ – if it’s my friend, it would be ‘Anna se kynä tänne’ (‘Give that pen here’). But I would say that English is more polite. If you translate ‘Give me the pen, please,’ it is then ‘Antaisitko kynän minulle, kiitos.’ But that’s so formal! It doesn’t sound natural.

This speaker makes a false start in the imperative, then switches to the conditional mood in Finnish to equate to please in English—although she does not call it by name in her quotation. She seems to consider the politeness system of English superior to that of Finnish  (“I am more polite in English”; “English is more polite”), which appears mostly to be attributed to the word please in English. As she notes, there is the word kiitos in Finnish, but she calls its use overly formal and unnatural.

This speaker was not the only who seemed to feel a sense of inadequacy in Finnish compared to English politeness, which again is attributed to the use of please in English. A 22-year-old female university student, like a few other speakers in the study, recalled that her English teachers had always pressed upon her the importance of please in English. She recalled that some English teachers from outside Finland even went so far as to say that Finns are rude because they don’t use please. This observation was echoed by a 26-year-old man, who said:

I guess it’s common knowledge that Finns are not as polite as Americans. That’s the stereotype, anyway. … I think in English class we were taught about being polite and we were told that British people are more polite than Finnish people, that they use ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ all the time. So we were told to do the same if we speak English.

These examples illustrate even more convincingly what could be considered an emotion close to inadequacy that is associated with Finnish politeness, a state that appears to have to do almost entirely with the word please. It would appear that the speakers felt compelled to criticize the politeness in their own language when speaking to a native speaker of English, or at least to explain that Finnish and English are different.

More than one speaker mentioned what they felt was an increased penchant for politeness in their Finnish after having lived abroad. A 38-year-old woman who had lived in the United States for several years (she is also quoted in Section 3) said, “… [I]n English you use more of these words like please and thank you and so on. I try to find similar words in Finnish, which do not really exist … Especially when [I] speak to a Finn who also speaks English, I tend to use softer words in between to replace the please and so on. Otherwise it [Finnish] is too direct.” This speaker, too, seems to feel some inadequacy about Finnish not being polite enough, and something that she needs to compensate for in certain social interactions.

Again, the assessments that speakers made were supported in the request data. Please was important in the English data: it was used in 51 percent of the requests. Kiitos, the Finnish lexical item that most closely equates to please, was used in only 23 percent of the Finnish requests. Indeed, there was a parallel between please in English and the conditional in Finnish: just as some of the speakers claimed, these features seem to have a similar function in the languages. Speakers tended to use the conditional form in their Finnish requests, but not kiitos.

5.   Conclusions

This study has employed a discourse analytic perspective to present emotions about language. The study, involving 68 Finns living in the Helsinki region, compared their emotions about their native language, Finnish (some speakers were bilingual in Swedish), with their feelings toward a foreign language, English.

The information was presented as selected quotes from transcribed interviews that were conducted (almost entirely) in English. The topics that the speakers raised most frequently were 1) Finnish honesty 2) the law-abiding Finn 3) politeness 4) features of linguistic politeness. It was claimed in the introduction that the emotions relating to these topics were expected to relate most directly to states such as nationalism or pride, or the lack thereof. For the most part, this proved to be true, while there was also evidence of humor as an emotional state used to deflect embarrassment (for example relating to the supposed law-abiding nature of Finns). Humor did not extend, however, to the discussion of linguistic politeness, a topic which speakers seemed to take quite seriously and about which they wished to try and educate the interviewer with some very insightful and careful descriptions.

While there is some evidence that the participants who spoke Finnish as their only home language wished to defend and explain the Finnish style and perspective on several of these issues, this was not always the case for speakers of other languages (Swedish) or for people who had lived abroad for several years. However, given the small number of speakers and examples, it is important not to make any generalizations based on these observations.

Politeness was one area about which speakers, citing specific grammatical elements, directly discussed their emotions about language. This discussion made it possible to gain insight not only into what speakers thought about their languages, but also to examine if the way they used these features matched up to their emotions. For the most part, speakers used these features as they claimed they did. Speakers felt strongly that the conditional mood was important for sounding polite in Finnish, and they used the conditional mood in the majority of the Finnish requests. They felt strongly that please was an important element in English, and they used please in the majority of the English requests. The emotions tied up with these forms was different for each language, however; in Finnish there was a desire to explain the inherent politeness system, focusing on the use of the conditional mood. When discussing please in English, on the other hand, there was some sense of embarrassment or a sense of inadequacy expressed about the politeness system of Finnish. The study has thus demonstrated a link between emotions about particular linguistic features and how those features get used in actual speech.

The data presented in this study is already 10 years old. It would be interesting to do a parallel set of interviews to see if the same themes emerged as emotional topics in today’s Helsinki.


1 Note, however, that some of the speakers in the study spoke Finland-Swedish as a native language or were bilingual speakers of English and Finnish. The languages tested in the study, however, were Finnish and English, and for the most part these are the languages that were discussed during the interviews.

2 The information presented in this paper is part of a larger study in which the main purpose was to present a quantitative assessment of the grammatical, pragmatic and social features of Finnish requests (see Peterson 2004).

3 This proportion of Swedish speakers is far above the national figure, which is around 6 percent. This study includes a higher proportion of native Swedish speakers for at least two reasons, partly by design and partly by circumstance: Helsinki and the western side of Finland has a higher concentration of Swedish speakers in general, and there was some effort to actively seek out native Swedish speakers to gain results about their linguistic tendencies as a subgroup.



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APPENDIX:  Scenario prompts

  1. You work at a telecommunications company. You ask your assistant to take your phone messages while you are in a business meeting. Your assistant has worked in your department for five years. / Työskentelet tele-alan yrityksessä. Pyydät sihteeriä ottamaan puhelinviestisi sillä aikaa kun olet kokouksessa. Hän on ollut työssä osastollasi viisi vuotta.
  2. You are a secretary, and you have worked at the company for three weeks. Today you want to meet a friend for lunch, so you ask your supervisor if you can leave early. / Olet sihteeri ja olet työskennellyt yrityksessä kolme viikkoa. Tänään haluat tavata ystäväsi lounaalla ja pyydät lupaa lähteä normaalia aikaisemmin.
  3. You are waiting for a bus near your apartment. You have an old timetable, and you don’t know when your bus will arrive. A woman who lives in your building is also at the bus stop, but you don’t know her. She has a new timetable. / Odotat bussia lähellä asuntoasi. Sinulla on vanha aikataulu, etkä tiedä milloin bussi tulee. Nainen, joka asuu samassa talossa kuin sinä, on bussipysäkillä, mutta ette tunne toisianne. Hän selailee uutta aikataulua. 

4.  You are cooking dinner at home, and your (close relation) is in the kitchen. You need salt, and your hands are oily. / Olet valmistamassa päivällistä  kotonasi ja (perheenjäsenesi) on keittiössä. Tarvitset suolaa ja kätesi ovat rasvaiset.

  1. You are on your way downtown on the bus, and your mobile phone’s battery is dead. You need to phone your friend to decide where you will meet. The person sitting next to you, who is about your same age, has a mobile phone. / Olet bussissa matkalla keskustaan ja kännykästäsi on virta loppunut. Sinun pitää soittaa ystävällesi sopiaksesi mihin menisitte. Vieressäsi istuu sinun ikäisesi henkilö, jolla on kännykkä.
  2. You are in the audience at a movie. The two little girls in front of you are talking, and you can’t hear the movie. You decide to say something to their mother. / Olet elokuvateatterin katsomossa. Kaksi nuorta tyttöä puhuu edessäsi, etkä kuule mitä elokuvassa sanotaan. Päätät sanoa asiasta heidän äidilleen.
  3. You are eating at a restaurant. You are already eating your meal, and then you decide you would like to have some more water. The waiter comes to the table. /Olet syömässä ravintolassa. Olet jo aloittanut ruokailun ja haluat tilata lisää vettä. Tarjoilija tulee pöytään.

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