This week was Finland's Independence Day and we attended the dinner at the embassy of Finland in Riyadh. In attendance of course were many Finns but also Saudi diplomats and other guests mingling with eachother.
This got me to thinking how different our cultures are when it comes to small talk.
Saudis are masters of small talk and don't seem to get enough of it sometimes! It is an essential part of the Saudi culture. Finns on the other hand don't even have the concept of small talk in their vocabulary. It is seen as something awkward and unnecessary. Finnish people like to get straight to the point without any "nonsense".
So how would the Saudis greet one another and start some neverending Saudi small talk?
They would first offer salaams to which the other participant/s would reply the salaams, prefferably with some additional blessings. While doing this the men will shake hands and in some cases exchange cheek to cheek kisses. Women will also be doing the kissing while holding onto the the other womans shoulders. Needless to say women and men will not kiss eachother!
The Saudi would then proceed to ask how they are, how is life going, how their family is, how their mother, father or brothers sisters are, how are their kids, how is their health, and then repeat some things over and over. This phase will usually take along time because all participants will be asking the same questions from each other. The funny thing is they will continue this cycle without starting to feel awkward about it at all. Additional topics might include work, weather conditions, politics or ongoing public issues.
The typical Finn will greet another with a short simple greeting shaking hands firmly and briefly regardless of gender. There will absolutely be no kissing or physical contact beyond this. The Finnish personal space is a good 2 metres, anything too close will make the Finn feel extremely uncomfortable.
They will ask how they are doing but will never ask a stranger anything about their families let alone a specific family member. This would be seen as intrusive and even inpolite. More likely a Finn would ask about work or just generally what they have been up to. The reply is not meant to be very informative or lengthy, just to be polite and get it over with.
After this there is not much a Finn will say. Perhaps a comment on how the weather is, or an observation of the surroundings. The Finns might be in silence for some while without feeling awkward at all.
This might sound like Finnish people are very rude and impolite, but that is just our reserved nature and in it's own way an act of respect to the other persons privacy. Small talk is just seen as too intrusive. Like Saudis we are friendly people but just more introverted. Saudis on the other hand are very approachable and for them small talk. It's a channel of showing respect and being polite and is a part of everyday Saudi life.