Thursday, February 11, 2010

Is Faroese Silence Rude?

Today I said goodbye to Threes Anna - a Dutch writer and film director (view her website here: She leaves tonight with the ferry Norrøna after having done research for three weeks in the Faroe Islands for a future novel.

Threes Anna and I have met four times while she was here - and we have talked a lot about the Faroes and the Faroese people. Yesterday we talked about the fact that she had sent Emails to a lot of Faroese people prior to coming to the islands but she got no answer back from most of them.

She was not complaining about it - only wondering how it could be, because at first glance it seems like a rude way to behave but when she had met some of these people they turned out to be really nice and sweet people. So she asked if this was a special Faroese phenomena.

It got me thinking. I have heard other foreigners say exactly the same thing. So here are my thoughts about Faroese silence - I wrote it in an Email to Threes this afternoon:

It's true that the Faroese often choose just to say nothing (like not answering Emails!) because that's (in their opinion) the safest way to behave. They really don't think that their opinion matters that much to anyone else. So they choose just to say nothing. Then there is nothing to argue about either. Writing is even more dangerous because you can't see (or foresee) the reaction of the receiver, so people prefer to meet in person before they say anything.

This often proves to function well locally in the Faroes, where nobody expects anything else and people easily bump into each other by chance all the time. Here people also have developed a kind of silent body language between them. They read each other by their body language and thereby know what other people think (or at least they think they know). There is no need for saying that much.

The old men sitting on the bench by the harbour can sit there beside each other all day long saying nothing and still think they communicated very well! :-)

But this does not work well in the rest of the world! That is what people here will have to understand - IF they want to make other people feel more welcome, they need to be better at communicating with words!

I think, though, that the young people understand this better. Many younger people are much more outgoing than the older people. If you had met Sunneva from the bar Sirkus you would have met an example of exactly that.


  1. Dear Elin,
    I fully agree with your viewpoints. There is a general sentiment that "our opinion does not matter to the outside world". But I also believe that there's another aspect to the Faroese not responding to for instance such e-mails. Could it be that they feel a little intimidated when approached by a foreigner, especially when in another language if it's not Danish? You see, what struck me is that when some years back I approached a number of people in connection with a linguistic research project, I had no trouble (almost none at all) in getting into touch with people. Out of a large number of persons only two responded negatively, the rest replied in the affirmative with respect to their willingness to participate/assist. What's more, amongst those that I approached, a large number even helped me to get in contact with more people in their network so that I got the 120 informants that I needed to speak with. I was amazed by the friendliness and the willingness to assist, and also the interest in the project per sé. But then I am Faroese, and to not want to be anything else. I speak and write the language. I experienced people's positive interest in this fact when they learned that I've lived abroad my entire life since the age of 12. All of this makes me wonder if it could be that they felt no reason to feel intimidated; it was a plain Faroese wanting to speak with other Faroese - because of a project. It would be interesting to have your further viewpoints on this, though.
    Best regards,

  2. I think you're very right about the language barrier - and also that Faroese people easily feel intimidated...

    I think that the Faroese have a fear of being embarrassed. Living in a small community it's easy to become a victim of ridicule. Faroese people are probably afraid that they might not be able to spell right or get the grammar right...

    It probably also helps a lot if your query is more concrete and if you ask people to do specific things. Then they know what to do - and they will happily be at your disposal.

    If you ask an open question, it increases the risk of making the Faroese feel a bit stupid. They think it's embarrassing, if they can't figure out exactly what you want. Then it's better just not to respond, run away and hope to be forgiven.

    Like an ostrich sticking it's head in the sand thinking that he problem will go away that way.... Childish, yes, but sadly I think it's true....