Speech rate in Estonian-Estonian versus Finn-Finn dialogues

Apart from the analysis applied to the dialogue components, measurements were also undertaken in order to find out the speech rates in the Estonian-Estonian and Finn-Finn dialogues, respectively. This was done by counting the words uttered during the first minute of the conversation. It turned out that the Estonians speak much more rapidly than the Finns do: notably, the Estonian average word-per-first-minute rate was 158, whereas the respective Finnish reading was 114.

Material for comparison could be found, e.g. in the survey of the speech rates of some peoples, written by Aino Sallinen (1990, pp. 6-13). The Finns are said to use 70-140 words per minute, while the Americans produce 125-150 words/min and the word-per-minute rate for the English people is as high as 150-190. If we consider that the results just mentioned were obtained from the reading of different texts (news, poetry, prose, a.o.), the Estonians' rate of 158 observed in an impromptu dialogue looks quite impressive.


The Estonian and the Finnish cultures differ in the temporal structuring (time-patterning) of their conversation. A Finn-Finn dialogue is flowing sedately, consisting of relatively long turns alternating with longer pauses and quiet listening. Interruptions are rare, being interpretable as rudeness or as a signal of difference of opinion from the partner's side, causing resentment (v. Sallinen-Kuparinen 1987, Lehtonen 1994).

The Estonians are characterized by rapid speech, a frequent switching of turns, and relatively frequent double speaking. Instead of listening quietly to what the other has got to say, an Estonian will rather express his or her interest in the other's talk by releasing little exclamations, commentaries or specifying questions. An Estonian is more tolerant of interruptions than of too long speaking turns.

As the present study is based on radio usage we cannot contrast the Estonian and the Finnish attitudes to silence: if silence grows too long, it is broken similarly both by the Finnish and by the Estonian interviewers. According to literature Finns tolerate silence well (v. Rusanen 1993). The same can be said about Estonians, which seems to point to the most essential, even though still hypothetical similarity in the Estonian and Finnish communicative ways.

If we use the time-patterning of dialogues as the parameter to place nations in the low- and high-context contiinuum, the Estonians would find themselves tending to low-context cultures, whereas the Finns rather tend to the high-context ones. It would probably be useful to keep this in mind whenever conversation is going on between representatives of the two cultures.

An Estonian should listen to a Finn more attentively, searching the long Finnish deliverance quietly for information, not trying to extract it by endless, often interruptive questioning as is the Estonian way. Having obtained the floor, however, he or she should use it for a possibly composed and thoroughgoing explanation of his or her point, without expecting the partner to ask too many specifying questions. If the explanation is too brief, there is a danger of misinterpretation.

The Finns, on their part, should try and get rid of the "silent Finn" myth, the origin of which seems to lie in certain problems experienced in Finn-foreigner dialogues. The Finns have contributed them to insufficient competence in the foreign language, which delays one in taking one's turn, or due to which the turn of a Finn is interrupted, as soon as his pause is growing too long for his partner (v. Rusanen 1993). As the experience derives from conversations with Americans, or Europeans from low-context cultures, the reason for the failure may well have lain in different cultural norms of making conversation rather than in poor competence in the foreign language.

In the light of our findings "silent Finn" is a word combination that hardly makes sense at all. On the contrary, a Finn speaks a lot and at great length, enjoying speaking as much as listening. Consequently, the problem lies not so much in how to draw a Finn out, but rather in how to breed in him a readiness to change his style of speaking, if necessary for intercultural conversation. Aino Sallinen (1987) has observed that her Finnish informants, when asked to characterize their speaking selves, pointed out that they are too garrulous. Ideal style of communication was characterized as succinct and efficient. This suggests that Finns are aware of their style of speaking being different from that of some other peoples.

The "silent Finn" myth, forced upon the Finns by other nations (Lehtonen 1994) may even create an effect contrary to what is desired: situation permitting, a Finn may start speaking to a foreigner still longer and more vaguely than usual, moving away not only from his or her own speaking ideal, but possibly also from the communicative norms of his or her partner.

As long as it occurs but to a few people that communicative behaviour is cultural, while practically all judge their partners from their own cultural norms, contact of different cultures always entails a danger of misunderstanding. We dare hope that the results of the present study may help cut down on the possible misunderstandings between the Estonians and the Finns, and contribute to the realization that even neighbouring nations who speak cognate languages may have some cultural differences that reflect in the patterns of their communicative behaviour.