In a comic book produced by the organisation Latvian Literature for the recent London Book Fair, the main character gives a rare smile on realising that the weather outside is perfect. That is, it’s heavily snowing, and thus he’s unlikely to meet anyone out on the roads. As he says, “below zero = below average risk of random encounter”.
The comic is part of Latvian Literature’s #IAMINTROVERT campaign to celebrate – and affectionately make fun of – a kind of social reserve that Anete Konste, a Latvian publicist and writer who devised the campaign, sees as very representative of her nation. “I don’t think our campaign is an exaggeration at all,” she said. “In reality it’s even worse!”
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I understood what she meant as soon as I arrived in the Baltic state. My first day walking through Riga, Latvia’s capital city, was unlike walking through the capital of any other European country. It was more serene. The sun shone brightly as I strolled towards Kronvalda Park, and at times it seemed like the only sources of noise were passing cars and chattering tourists. When I did see some Latvians walking together, they often did so silently and with plenty of space in between. I sensed that these aren’t the most gregarious of people.
This feeling was confirmed on an hour-long train trip from Riga to Sigulda. As we whizzed north-east through thick pine forests, my friends and I alternately admired the scenery and played a film trivia game. We were getting excitable, shouting out answers, when it dawned on us that we were the only ones in the train compartment speaking.
But why are Latvians often so reserved, at least at first? There is no cut-and-dried answer, but studies have shown a link between creativity and a preference for solitude. Konste has seen this first hand in her line of work; in fact, she believes that introversion is especially heightened among those in creative fields, such as authors, artists and architects. Meanwhile, Latvian psychologists have suggested that creativity is important to Latvian self-identity, so much so that creativity is a priority in the Latvian government’s educational and economic development plans. The European Commission has reported that Latvia has one of the highest shares of the creative labour market in the European Union.
Latvians are often self-deprecating about their culture’s tendency towards introversion, a personality type that gets overstimulated easily and prefers solitude, quiet and reflection. Examples abound, from the Riga neighbourhood called Zolitūde (Solitude) to many ingrained habits, like not smiling at strangers. When Philip Birzulis, a Riga tour guide, moved to Latvia in 1994, he was surprised to see that some Latvians would cross the street to avoid passing another person. “I noticed that people were making these decisions [on] how to avoid each other about 5-10m in advance,” he said.
Even the Latvian Song and Dance Festival – a massive celebration that gathers more than 10,000 singers from all over the country – shows signs of introversion in that it takes place only every five years. Birzulis jokingly suggested that it would be too much of a strain otherwise, and commented that this kind of togetherness is very much the exception rather than the rule in Latvian culture.
Being chatty the whole time is seen more as arrogance than being silent from time to time
Konste gave another example of her fellow citizens’ tendency towards introversion. In apartment buildings, “it is very Latvian to wait a little for your neighbour to leave the foyer, and only then leave yourself so to avoid an awkward greeting opportunity,” she told me. (Well, surely many of us do that?)
However, a disdain for small talk does not necessarily mean that Latvians are cold. After all, some of the silent train passengers my friends and I encountered were also quick to offer assistance as we puzzled over a map. As explained by Justīne Vernera, a translator and freelance journalist from the medieval town of Cēsis in north-east Latvia, “In Latvia, not maintaining a conversation the whole time is not a rude or awkward thing. Being chatty the whole time is seen more as arrogance than being silent from time to time.”
While the reserved habits of the Latvian people may be difficult for newcomers to ignore, many Latvians note that theirs is not the only culture with an introverted disposition. Birzulis believes Swedes are much more invested in personal space than Latvians, while Konste points out that Finns are also very introverted. And Evelina Ozola, one half of Latvia’s Fine Young Urbanists, an architecture and urban-planning duo, commented, “In the introversion department we’re really not that different from Estonians.”
It is also important to remember that Latvians are not homogeneous. There are significant Russian and other minority groups in Latvia, with varying degrees of linguistic and cultural integration. There are also generational differences between those who grew up during an era of surveillance and forced communal lifestyles as part of the Soviet Union, and a younger generation raised in capitalism and greater cosmopolitanism. Thus it is impossible to talk of a single, all-encompassing cultural trait – even though the value placed on personal space is one that spans generations.
One clue to Latvian reserve lies in the physical layout of the country, specifically its low population density and lush forests. Ozola explained that “[Latvians are] simply not used to seeing a lot of other people around. It is quite unusual to have to wait for a table at a restaurant or to sit too close to another party while dining. There’s enough space in the country to keep a distance from others.”
Latvians are simply not used to seeing a lot of other people around
It is common for even Latvian urbanites to have an abiding love of nature, making regular escapes to the country. Particularly romanticised in Latvian culture is the image of the homestead: an isolated, self-sufficient, rural complex typically built of wood. The Latvian homestead is included in the Latvian Cultural Canon, a list of 99 items and people considered to be Latvia’s most significant. (Also on this list are grave care and Latvia’s justly well-regarded rye bread.)
Ozola pointed out that while the homestead reality died out in the 20th Century with the Soviet regime’s push for collectivisation, the cultural attachment to the homestead image persists. “Between 1948 and 1950, the proportion of homesteads to all countryside dwellings went down from 89.9% to 3.5%, and thus, traditional living patterns were effectively eradicated,” she said.
But Vernera noted that self-sufficiency is still part of Latvian identity. “We still have this sort of single farmstead thinking: we don’t gather in cafes during the daytime, we don’t approach random people on streets,” she said.
Another dramatic shift has been towards living in (comparatively small) flats. “Latvia is unevenly populated, with most people living in close proximity to each other in urban centres,” Ozola told me, noting that despite being one of Europe’s most sparsely populated countries, nearly two thirds of Latvia’s residents live in apartment buildings. This is one of the highest apartment-dwelling proportions in Europe, according to the statistics website Eurostat. At the same time, a survey conducted by the real-estate company Ektornet found that more than two thirds of Latvians want to live in private, detached homes. Ozola speculates that this disconnect may partly explain why personal space is so important to Latvians.
But Latvians should be careful what they wish for. According to Politico, Latvia’s population is shrinking intensely with outward migration, with one of the steepest population declines of any nation in the world. So a nation that loves space may be getting more of it. Meanwhile, Latvian psychologists are hard at work investigating how psychological traits, including reserve around new people, affect Latvians’ attitudes towards refugees, as inward migration may be an important tool in stemming the population loss.
For visitors and newcomers who are startled by Latvians’ inclination for reticence, Vernera has some advice: “I’d definitely just advise any foreigner not to be scared of the initial silence. Once a foreigner gets to know a Latvian and a certain amount of time passes, we’re really good friends. We’re not a very theatrical nation, so we’re pretty frank in certain parts. We won’t tell everyone that we like them, so if a Latvian says he/she likes you, it’s really true.”
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