Are the Estonians and Finns similar as far as their communicative behaviour is concerned?

As the Estonians and the Finns speak cognate languages they tend to linger in the common fallacy that there are no major differences in the communicative behaviour of the representatives of the two nations. As a result, in an act of communication neither will change his or her usual manner of speaking, even if language-switching is frequent and easy enough. Cases of misunderstanding, however, often generate surprise and even bad feeling.

Yet it has been ascertained that the correlation between language and communicative behaviour is considerably weaker than that between communication and culture (v. also Nakanishi 1986, Tiittula 1993, pp. 9-13). Consequently, on the one hand, high proficiency in a foreign language need not always mean equal competence in the communicative behaviour of the respective culture. On the other hand, success is considerably more likely to be achieved if one learns and respects the culture of the other country.

The greater the grammatical similarity of two languages, the more easily the similarity is (erroneously) associated with other spheres of communication, forgetting the possibility that the cultures using those languages may have passed through quite different ways of development. This also applies to the Finns and Estonians: although they are neighbouring nations speaking cognate languages their past histories do differ. The Estonians have experienced exposure to some more cultures than the Finns have, and - more likely than not - this fact reflects in the speech behavioural patterns of the two nations.

One way to assess the similarity/dissimilarity of cultures lies through the placement of those cultures in the low- and high-context contiinuum. As to Estonians, such studies are still missing, but there are a few available on Finns. The results imply that the Finnish culture tends rather to the high-context group. True, Hall (1976) has placed it among low-context cultures, but according to Widén (1988) it is - unlike the other Nordic cultures - a high-context one. This view is supported by Honkavaara et al. (1992) who studied the style of Finnish books on business, as well as by Tiittula (1993) who investigated the cultural differences between the Finns and the Germans as reflected in business contacts. In the same study Tiittula points out that different spheres of life may be dominated by different ways of communication.

The present study investigates the Estonian and the Finnish dialogues from durational aspect. As one of the basic problems in the way of intercultural communication consists just in an inadequate ability to handle time according to the partner's cultural norms, including lack of skills in the art of building one's conversation up of temporally acceptable deliverances. The results of such a study could be expected to demonstrate the possible Estonian-Finnish differences (or similarities) of time-patterning in dialogues, which in turn could indicate the distance of the respective cultures in the high- and low-context contiinuum. In other words, as far as speech communication is supposed to reflect culture, the studying of speech communication should enable one to draw some conclusions about the similarity/dissimilarity of the Estonian and the Finnish cultures.