David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 10 years.

The preacher’s sermon began at 22:30. The hotel receptionist suggested it might end by midnight, but soon conceded that around 7:00 am was more likely. While evangelical events take place all over the world, in not many countries do they run all night, nor involve such massive speakers that the windows of neighbouring hotels rattle in their frames. With sleep impossible through the din of souls being saved, I lay back and wondered quite why it is that silence means so much to Europeans...and apparently so little to Ghanaians.

It isn’t only all-night sermons. In Africa I’m often kept awake by booming downstairs nightclubs that close at 5:00 am, by radios switched on at 5:05 am, by huge arguments and laughter at all hours of the night, not to mention the dogs and chickens. Even on the bus, I have a preacher delivering a sermon from the aisle on one side of me and teenagers playing music (sans headsets) on the other.

Here in Finland, we consider such acts unthinkable. To make noise is to intrude into the space of others, and as we know, Finns do not intrude. Finns do not knock on the door if they hear gunshots coming from a neighbour’s apartment for fear of breaking the social code of respect, let alone deliver sermons on the bus.

I wonder if silence is part of a larger cultural issue. Life in Africa is immediate, joyous, rowdy and without reserve, in all forms of interaction. People touch, kiss, shout and weep without hesitation or shame. Scandinavians represent the polar opposite to this, with all behaviour considered and analysed until it has been found to be logical, polite and most of all – appropriate.

I value silence, and one of the things I enjoy in Finland is how highly others value it as well. I love the fact that my neighbours turn the music down at a reasonable time of night without my needing to call the police. I find it difficult to write or read or sleep if people are shouting or screaming outside, and like the fact that generally in Finland people don’t shout and scream at any time of the day or night.

Much as I could live without the sermons (and the nightclubs and radios), I wonder if there isn’t also something to admire in Africa’s approach. Perhaps in Europe we simply worry too much about what is appropriate. And perhaps if we thought less about the potential embarrassment of hugging people in the street or talking to them on the bus, we would also experience something positive from the people around us.

I don’t see a lot of thigh-slapping laughter here, and it does look fun. I dare say most of us might enjoy a bit more laughter, more eye contact and smiles in our lives...and might even like getting to know our neighbours. As long as we could do so without losing our taste for peace and quiet, at least.

David Brown