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Sunday, May 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A country of hypercommunicators

HELSINKI, Finland — It's common to hear people chatter on the cellphone in the U.S. these days. But go abroad and you notice something different: A large number of people let their thumbs do the talking.

Text messaging, or sending 160 characters or fewer to another cellphone, has become a discreet way to contact someone and, because it takes some tech-savvy know-how, it's a litmus test of sorts on how advanced a nation is in using wireless technology.

In Finland, home of Nokia, mobile phones have spawned a culture all their own. This Nordic country, also the birthplace of the Linux operating system, may not be the center of civilization, but it is home to cutting-edge communication. Of Finland's 5 million people, 98 percent have cellphones and only half have a landline.

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs has said mobile phones have changed visitors' perceptions of the country. "Whereas a few decades ago a visitor might report back home of an uncommunicative, reserved and introvert Arctic tribe, the more common view today is that of a hypercommunicative people who are already experiencing the future that some fear and others hope for: a society where anyone can reach anyone else, no matter where or when," the ministry says on its Web site.

Here is what cellphone use looks like on the ground in one of the more advanced wireless cultures in the world.

— Tricia Duryee

Snippets of text keep multilingual teacher connected

Anna Maija Luomi, 41, is a hypercommunicator.

As a language teacher, Luomi speaks nine languages and relies on her cellphone to keep in constant communication — not through talk, but snippets of text. She considers these text conversations a necessity in her social life and a way to keep family and friends up to date.

On a typical Saturday evening, Luomi will have sent and received 100 messages — and no phone calls — and can even buy tram tickets by text. Over dinner, she easily handles 40 more. She often eclipses the 1,000 free text messages a month in her plan, and her monthly bills easily soar past 100 euros ($130).

At a white-linen dinner overlooking a square in downtown Helsinki, she seems to be in multiple places at once.

An Italian friend who has four children shares that she and her husband went out to dinner — a big deal because it involved getting a sitter, Luomi explains.

A group of friends at a bar keep her informed as a man flirts with one of them.

One message simply informs: "Thank God, I'm not pregnant."

During a couple of hours, Luomi texts in five different languages, including Italian, Finnish and Mordovian, a dialect from the Finno-Ugric family for which she has to use Latin characters because her phone doesn't have the correct alphabet.

Luomi remembers life before texting and doesn't believe it was as good. Now she is in constant touch with friends, which has created stronger bonds.

"You say things you probably wouldn't say if you talked one or two times a week," she said. "I think you have better insight into the way people are thinking."

At this level of intimacy, there is little territory where texting is not socially acceptable. Luomi, who is single, has broken up with someone in fewer than 160 characters ("I think it's better we go our separate ways."), fought with people and wouldn't hesitate to ask someone out.

When is it a bad time to text? There's no bad time.

"At 3 a.m.? Yes, because you would keep it on silent," she said. "If you don't, it's your loss."

Family doesn't follow masses when it comes to technology

The Nygård family — dad, mom and two daughters — lives north of Helsinki in Vanda.

Hasse Nygård, the father, works as a technology consultant for media companies and in his spare time maintains a Web site for Seattle's Swedish-Finn Historical Society.

Hasse said he wouldn't call his family typical when it comes to technology use. On one hand, they rely on cellphones; on the other, they are much bigger computer and high-speed Internet users.

"We aren't following the masses," Hasse said. "It's not according to what our neighbors do; it's according to what you need."

Daughter Annina frequently does her college homework on a laptop and daughter Maria, who studies in Austria, uses one too. On a recent evening, when she called home, the family rigged up an impromptu Web camera trained on the TV to allow her to watch a European equivalent of "American Idol" live on her laptop while talking to them on the phone. Everyone has a cellphone and mother Lenita has two: one for work and one for personal use.

Hasse said he used to read e-mail on the phone but abandoned that because of the cost. Still, the phone is useful for other things. When presenting slide shows on his laptop at client offices, he uses the phone to click to the next image.

The family is all on the same cellular plan, and each daughter is limited to spending 20 euros a month ($25 U.S.), which includes 1,000 text messages. Rarely does either go over in fear of having to cover the cost.

"They haven't crossed the line that often; we are very pleased," Hasse said. "Some of these kids are running up 400 to 500 euro bills."

"That's my friends," said Annina, who prefers to send instant messages on a computer.

Cellphone rules office, but face-to-face talk key

The cellphone rules the workplace in Finland with very few offices having landlines.

That's the situation at Mr. Goodliving, a mobile-game developer in Helsinki and a subsidiary of Seattle-based RealNetworks. The company develops a sports series featuring "Playman," a dreadlocked Finnish character who likes to drink milk and row and has a country house in Finland's archipelagos.

To communicate, Mr. Goodliving's game developers keep in touch a handful of ways. Technical director Markus Pasula listed the options in order from immediate contact to not-so-important: shouting, instant messaging, e-mail and a database program used for tracking deadlines.

And, most important, no one is ever without a cellphone. It is with the cellphone that the team of game developers differs from RealNetworks counterparts in Seattle.

Pasula said that when Mr. Goodliving staffers call a RealNetworks mobile phone, no one answers. When they hang up and try the landline number, they do get an answer.

"One of the big differences, I find, is how difficult it is to contact people on their mobile phone — they don't have them on," Pasula said.

That surprises him: If a worker is at his desk, can't he answer his mobile?

Mr. Goodliving subsidizes employee cellphone bills, which the company finds more reasonable than paying for landlines, said Juha Ruskola, Mr. Goodliving's managing director.

For the most part, though, the managers say as much as they use technology, it is not the key to communicating. Talking in person is always best. In fact, Mr. Goodliving introduced a solution recently — a red leather couch.

The couch, snug in the back corner of a work space, is Mr. Goodliving's water cooler. With wireless Internet access, the employees can work there with laptops.

"We try to meet regularly face-to-face as much as possible," said Harri Granhom, Mr. Goodliving's lead game designer. "We can take care of many things at once."

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published May 14, 2006, was corrected May 18, 2006. A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Mordovian is a Russian dialect. It is from the Finno-Ugric family.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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