It might often seem to foreign people that Finns are a bit cold and quiet people. I am not at all surprised, since we hardly ever speak to people we don’t know, especially to foreigners. It is very common to us to travel in public transportations and not say a word to one another but that is just the way we are; we like our own space. I don’t think it is because we are cold, it is just that we are a bit shy and might often have preconceptions, especially for people from other countries.
I think it would be very helpful for us Finns to get out of this country to travel. Once we open our eyes to other cultures, we can learn and enrich our way of seeing things. Then we might understand why we can seem a bit odd folk to some foreigners.
In my opinion we are ultimately a friendly and kind nation, if you only give us time to get to know us.
Nevertheless, I love my home country. It is in my mind a safe haven. In Finland we recently celebrated our 100th anniversary of Independence. I am thankful and proud to say that I am a Finn. We have a beautiful nature with all four different seasons. My favourite season is the Finnish summer, which is always too short in my opinion. People are the most energetic and generally just happy in the summer time. Summer is the time when people spend the most time outside, enjoying the long days with lots light and warm weather. There are a lot of things to do for people in the summer. You can enjoy different events through the summer all over the country, for example different music festivals.
Summer and Sauna
In the summer we Finns spend a lot of time at Summer cottages. We spend all day outside enjoying the sunlight; go to the lake fishing, do gardening, grill food, warm up the sauna and sometimes also “palju” if you happen to have one in your summer cottage. The Finnish sauna has a sauna stove that warms up with wood and fire. “Palju” in other hand usually looks like a big barrel that is filled with water that you also warm up with fire and wood. It is really kind of like a hot tub but outside, which is really nice since you get to enjoy the beautiful summer nights sitting in the tub.
Every summer we Finns celebrate Midsummer at the end of June. Midsummer is one of the main national holidays in Finland. In midsummer Eve we celebrate the “nightless night” that basically means that the sun is up almost through the whole day and night. In the northern Finland the sun doesn’t go down at all. Midsummer is typically spent with family and friends at a summer cottage away from the cities. Midsummer traditions consist of lighting bonfires by the lake, going to sauna, barbecuing and playing different games outside. If you happen to stay in the city in Midsummer, it might feel as if the cities have been abandoned since almost everybody leaves their homes to go to the cottages.
Midsummer is usually seen as the beginning of warm summer weather and many Finns start their summer holidays on Midsummer Eve.
Finnishness to me means mostly peace and the feeling of being safe. The Finnish nature is unbelievably beautiful and unique. It keeps on surprising you every time.
Having sisu means that someone is unyielding and determined. He/she has endurance and resilience. That’s what the Finns are known for and very proud of. Sisu can be connected with sports. Especially cross-country skiing and ski jump where Finns have succeeded.
Finnish people need their own personal space. It’s not okay to go and hug or kiss a stranger or even an acquaintance. I guess almost everyone is familiar with a picture from a Finnish bus stop where people are standing a meter from each other just because they need their own space. They might do that even if it’s raining and everyone won’t fit under the shelter. Or perhaps it’s just a bit exaggerated.
Finnish people don’t mind being silent. Sometimes it’s even desirable. When you’re driving a car in a bright summer night and listening good songs. Or when you’re enjoying the heat of the sauna. You seldom hear strangers talking to each other in an elevator or in a bus. First foreigners might find this behavior strange and disturbing but during time they might start to enjoy it. Enjoy those lovely moments that doesn’t need to filled with small talk.
I’m trying to wrap my head around the general opinion of Finnish people. If I think about it from an “outsiders” point of view, I see a nation that is doing quite well, people who might be a little bit reserved but who are still very helpful, kind and are open minded.
When talking to people who are not from Finland and asking, “What is your opinion of a Finnish person?” sometimes the answer is that we are shy and quiet and sometimes that we are loud and talkative (this one usually happens if you drink alcohol).
Some have a language barrier with foreign people, maybe their English is not so good, so they seem shy and quiet, even though maybe they would like to get to know the person.
Something that I’ve been wondering a lot is why do the Finns need so much space, where does it come from? Even when we talk to each other we keep our distance. For me, it’s funny, it’s just how we are. A funny example of the need for personal space you can see in this picture where Finnish people are waiting for the bus.
I also recommend visiting a blog called Finnish Nightmares. It is one of the funniest pages ever! There is so much truth in the posts, but it really is just funny!
I will end my post with telling you my favorite thing about Finland.
So for me it really is the summer, going to the cottage with my family, going to sauna and going for a swim in the lake. I can’t experience this often since I usually have been away the summers, so when I get to go, it makes me so happy. The forrest surrounds me and it really feels like you can just forget about all your problems, they seem so far when you are so relaxed.
When I thought about Finland and what finnishness meant to me, these stereotypes about Finns came to my mind. I’m going to present a few of them in the pictures below. What makes the pics more fun is because they are actually so true!
”It’s time for a cup of a coffee.” The Finns are known for the largest coffee consumption in the world with about 2,6 cups per day. Finns usually drink very light roasted coffee, which is lighter than anywhere else in the world. Coffee has always been a part of my daily life and Finnish culture. For example, coffee is served at workplaces (free of charge), at birthdays and at home. Finns must also get their morning coffee and it’s a huge disaster if there’s none of it. TIP: It’s a great way to get to know a Finn by asking him to go for a coffee.
Small talk – there is not even a word for that in finnish. Maybe word “jutustelu”, but it does not exactly mean the same. Most of the Finns are introverts and chatting with a stranger feels uncomfortable, so the silence is a better option. For example, if you’re waiting for a bus on the bus stop, you don’t want that anyone talks to you. Not even asking you about the weather (which is always bad). In my case, I just want to listen to music and survive through the day (especially through a morning without a cup of coffee).
Usually, when some foreigner asks you “How are you?”, we usually start to tell about our bad day at work instead of answering “Fine, thanks!” and asking “How about you?”. Why do Finns behave like this? I have heard an explanation that says because Finns are interested in what other people are saying, they are expecting that the other side is also listening. Finns are also better in listening than talking, and in the Finnish culture it’s inappropriate to interrupt the one who is speaking.
Finns respect each other and a personal space. It’s said that a comfortable space between strangers is approximately 1,5 meters. TIP: When you are having a conversation with a Finn, and you notice that the other one is trying to get further from you, then you’re too close and you should give more space.
Finns prefer to take free seats on the bus, instead of sitting next to someone strange, like in this picture below. Usually, when I get on a bus, first thing is that I’m looking for free seats and if there are none, I might rather stand. In my opinion, Finns do not like to be loud and in a public place that would be uncomfortable. Once, when I was getting off the bus, I pushed the stop button but the doors didn’t open. There were me and a few others, standing and waiting quietly for the doors to open until someone finally had to say something to the bus driver (and that wasn’t me) for him to open the doors.
No small talk in elevators. No laughing loudly and shouting out comments in a movie theather. No asking directions from strangers. Claiming that you would rather stand the whole buss ride to avoid sitting next to the talkative stranger. Pressing the ”close the doors” –button in the elevator repeatedly so that you don’t need to ride it with your neighbour.
For someone outside the boarders of our Lady Finland, these scenarios might sound a bit odd, even unsocial and rude. But to the extent that we need to admit that some stereotypes about Finns are true, these are frequent things in the life of a Finn that don’t seem that bizarre to us. However it’s not that we want to be rude and not meet our neighbours, we just relish the silence and need a bit more personal space.
To Finns small talk is relatively new concept and we’re still learning. When the American or British ask as ”How are you?”, we might start to tell a long story about our not so great day instead of replying with a simple ”I’m fine, thanks! How about you?” as we are expected. In most cases if a Finn asks you about your day, he is usually genuinly interested and wants to know the details. We don’t ask just for fun, instead we only ask when we really want to know.
Same stands for chatting with people in trains, buss stops or the queue waiting for your coffee-to-go. We are comfortable in silence and nowadays we are basically rescued by our smartphones in these kinds of situations, we can stare at the screen while waiting, hurraay! Otherwise you might accidentally make eye contact with a stranger and that might encourage the other party to engage in a light conversation.
All in all we like our silence, but that doesn’t make us rude or unsocial. We like to give people their space and speak when we have something to say. The term describing this is negative politeness. To us, being polite is leaving people alone when no interaction is needed and not bothering them with unnecessary things. Handshake is a very nice way to introduce yourself and no more than a nod and ”hi” is needed when you’ve been introduced to a bunch of people.
And when a Finn asks about your day and smiles at you, they most certainly mean it. And you might even get an invite to their summer cottage. In the middle of nowhere, where you can hear the wind in the trees and the chirping of the birds. That’s our sanctuary of solitude.
Things that pop into my head when thinking about Finnishness and being Finnish are nature, Finnish food and personal space. Of course, there are a lot of more things that I could mention but these are the few that I want to focus on.
The country of thousands of lakes
First of all, the Finnish nature. I don’t know a better way to describe it than saying it´s really beautiful. One of the reasons why a love Finland is because of its forests and lakes. I have heard foreigners speaking about Finland that how fascinating it is when you go to Finland and there are lakes everywhere and that is true. There are around 187 888 lakes in Finland and that’s a lot! It´s nice that in the summer you don’t usually have to go far to find a lake. Of course, it depends where in Finland you live but I would say mostly you can find lakes close to your home.
Then there is also forests which I love. From where I’m from there has been forest less then 1km away from my house and for me it has always been a place where I can go for a walk just to relax. I also like the fact that you can go pick up berries and mushrooms from there and its completely free! Every summer and fall I go to my hometown just so I can fill up my freezer back in Tampere with blueberries and mushrooms. I think that we should appreciate the nature more. 🙂
Salmiakki and Finnish rye bread
When I think about Finnish food nothing special dishes comes to my mind but we do have some extremely good candy, salmiakki. It´s a salty liquorice which most of the Finnish people love and foreigners hate 😀 It´s one of my favorite candies and every time I get an opportunity to offer it to someone who has not tasted it I do it. People’s reactions when they taste the candy are funny to watch. Usually they can’t eat it.
Another thing which I love about Finland is rye bread. It´s not only good tasting but it’s also healthy. I think that is one of the things I´m the proudest as a Finnish person. Sounds a bit silly but in abroad it can be hard to find good healthy bread and not just toast. But it´s just something that I´m used to. If I would have been born somewhere else, I might not like it.
As a Finnish person, I can say that we want to have our personal space. For example, in a bus, we don’t sit next to someone if there is a chance to sit alone. Also, what we don’t do is that when we are in queue we don’t get close to the person in front of us. Someone has said that the personal space between strangers is around 1,5 meters in Finland. I don’t know if that’s true but if someone would get close to me in a queue I would feel uncomfortable and think that they want to cut in front of me. Even though we have our weird habits I love being Finn 😀
What people know about Finland?
Usually Aurora Borealis, Finnish sauna, Land of a Thousand Lakes, wild nature, real Santa Claus, sisu and Finnish design.
I think it’s funny that there are many Finns who have never seen the real Santa Claus or Aurora Borealis. This is because many people from the southern parts of Finland doesn’t go to the Northern Finland on holidays. The more common choice for them is to go to the Canary Islands. Despite the previous, Finns are always proud to tell and boast about the little magic lights on the northern skies and they are seriously arguing that the Real Santa Claus comes from Finland. Seldom they do boast about having clean water, beautiful lakes or magical forests which they are more familiar than with Santa or the Northern lights.
Nature is in some way an integral part of being a Finn. Of course the relationship between a Finn and the nature varies from Finn to Finn. Traditionally nature has played a major role in the Finnish society and in Finnish the way of life. In modern Finland, the relationship with nature has been loosening especially amongst those who live in cities.
In Finland there are many people who love the silence of the nature. People tend to escape from cities to the countryside to have their own space, time and fresh air. There are many people who have their own summer cottage. Sauna is a must-have in summer cottages. People can purify their body and mind in sauna. If they are lucky, the summer cottage is situated near a lake, the Baltic sea or a river. In summer holiday they sort of move to their summer cottages and enjoy the life without stress and just enjoy the midnight sunsets, fishing and swimming. Cities are often quiet during the Midsummer, because Finns are enjoying the countryside – in Midsummer the silence, however, is found from the cities.
Finns do appreciate their own personal space. Good illustration of this is Finns waiting for a bus in a bus stop. It is not rare to see a situations pictured below. Finns won’t get too close to other Finns if there is room for maintaining one’s personal space – even if it requires standing in the rain.
The preference of personal space can also be seen in coffee rooms and in celebrations. Finns tend to hold a coffee cup always with them, because then people can’t hug you and they need to stand clear to avoid spilling the coffee. Maybe that is why Finns do drink the most coffee per person in the world.
Finns need their own personal space. Whether it’s a stranger standing on a bus stop or a friend from the school, it’s always polite to keep your distance. If you don’t know each other that well, it’s common to greet by shaking hands or just saying hello. Hugging is acceptable only between family members and close friends and in some cases at 4 am outside a club. Kissing is always a gesture of love or attraction. So when you are greeting a Finn, don’t stand too close, look too deep in the eyes or especially give kisses on the cheeks.
Finns are also extremely punctual people. If a meeting is set to start at 8, it really starts sharply at 8. Finns hate it when people or public transport are running late. If the timetable says the bus comes to the bus stop at 10.02 and it’s already 10.03, Finns are starting to look around if the bus is really going to show up.
Even though it’s typical for Finns to get annoyed or frustrated about many things, it’s also really uncommon to complain about it. If the food is cold at the restaurant, and the waiter comes and asks how the food is, it’s typical to say the food is good even though it isn’t. Finns don’t want to bother anyone or draw attention, they just usually settle for less and complain later to their friends.
Even though Finns are known to be shy and quiet people, there is one thing that makes Finns go crazy, and that’s ice hockey. When Finland won the Ice Hockey World Championship in 2011 people run out to the marketplace yelling and singing. Some were even swimming naked in the fountain no matter the freezing weather and TV cameras. So ice hockey is like a national sport in Finland and success in that gathers around this quiet population together to celebrate.
Finnish people live in the middle of forests, lakes and peatlands. Everyman’s right is an important part of Finnish lifestyle. Everyman’s right means that all people in Finland can freely walk in forests, pick mushrooms and berries, boat, camp temporarily and so forth. People don’t need a permission from the land owner and neither do people have to pay for anyone to do things that are everyman’s rights.
Salamajärvi National Park 2016. Amazing three day hike in the wilderness.
Of course, when you have rights you also have responsibilities. It is not allowed to harm nature, make fire without permission, litter, disturb animals or hunt without appropriate permissions, etc. I think that everyman’s rights are a very significant for Finns. These rights give us a feeling of freedom. Many people go to nature to relax. Also, many nature related sports are quite popular such as skiing, orienteering, hiking, mountain biking, canoeing and many other. Everyman’s right makes Finns more equal because everyone has the same opportunity to enjoy our beautiful country.
Finland has 39 national parks. National parks encourage Finns and tourists to go to nature and enjoy the beautiful wilderness. Finns appreciate their own space and that is one of the reasons why we want to enjoy the nature in our own peace.
Festivals are a big phenomenon in Finland in summertime. In winter Finns like to keep to themselves, but when the summer finally arrives Finns gather together for all kinds of festivals. Many successful heavy metal bands come from Finland like Nightwish for example.
Nightwish at Himos Park 2016.
Iskelmä music is very popular, too. Mainly a bit older audience likes iskelmä hits and likes to dance tango, but also some young people like it. Finnish summer is filled with all kinds of music festivals and also several other festivals.
“If tar, liquor and sauna will not help the disease is fatal”.
Sauna is always mentioned when told about Finnish culture. Winters in Finland are rather cold and dark and saunas have provided us a hot place to warm up, have a bath, give birth and nurse sick people. There is this old Finnish saying about sauna’s healing powers: “If tar, liquor and sauna will not help the disease is fatal”. In some parts of Finland people have smoked meat in the sauna. Finns have even used sauna to get rid of evil spirits. Most Finns have their own sauna but public saunas are popular, too. Nowadays sauna is used mainly for bathing and relaxing, but still many people have a little sauna elf protecting their sauna.
Finnishness is weird. It’s probably one of those things I could try to explain for someone from outside Finland for years, and still not manage to grasp the purest essence of it. Yeah, yeah, there’s ice hockey, sauna, metal music, nature, salmiakki, moomins, yada yada, but essentially, I have to confess I have no idea how to explain the Finnish mindset properly. And really, I thought I had a clear concept of it inside my head, since I’ve worked and spent plenty of time with other than native Finns for a few years, and you’re bound to come across the fundamental differences by that, in one way or another.
I’m not big on stereotypes, such as being quiet (I’m not – most of time), being extremely honest (that I am, but not all Finns are), or loving sauna, salmiakki, coffee, ice hockey, moomins and metal music. Well, I do love all of those things – my passionate affection to the magical black liquid substance that keeps me awake knows no boundaries, I still find the moomin family as lovely as I did over 20 years ago (and our kitchen may or may not feature a few moomin-adorned items), sauna is a borderline sacred place, and one of the first things I did after getting accepted for exchange to Tilburg was to google the town’s hockey team, Trappers (which is a pleasantly well-succeeded one in the NL’s scale, too). My working life and free time have largely revolved around music and especially metal music, but while extremely Finnish, being one of the country brand’s newer flagships, it has brought me a lot of friends from abroad. You see, Finnish metal scene does not live up to the closed and closed-minded, reserved community stereotype. In case you’re not a terrible far-right redneck who can’t stand any foreigners ever (except if they’re Iron Maiden or Metallica), as a Finnish metalhead you likely have at least a few friends from abroad. The bands reach out early on their career, end up playing in nearly every corner of the world, but in their music maintain “the Finnish touch” that tells you where they’re from. It’s a thing in their sound and lyrics you can pick up, but not really describe: it just sounds Finnish. The same goes with a lot of Finnish photographers – when I studied photography, I learnt quickly to recognize “Finnish eyes”, a way Finnish photographers look at world, and could see from a bunch of photos which ones had been taken by a Finn. These days I wouldn’t recognize them as easily, but I was surprised to learn one of Instagram’s most famous nature photographers was a Finn; Konsta Punkka’s photos look so… worldly? Really, he could be from anywhere, just judging by his photos. It’s not a bad thing, per se, just surprising.
To some extent, I feel that things like that have been said as compliments for quite long in Finland – “it doesn’t look like it’s from here”, meaning that for instance a movie, or a music production, looks and sounds like it’s made in “the big world”. Realizing that made me think of some controversies in Finland and being Finnish: we’re extremely proud of what we do and have here, our quirks and specialties, but at the same time praise someone for not seeming like you’re from here. We’re proud of our language, but rather switch to English with all non-natives than teach them to speak or write it.
But so, stereotypes. For what foreigners know, Finns are quiet and shy, except we’re not. We’re actually pretty loud and obnoxious at times, but we just get irritated when someone else (be it a Finn or a foreigner) is, at the wrong time at least. We’re also usually helpful and glad to do the effort of showing you the right way to train station, tell you what it says in the cheese packaging in grocery store and whatnot, if you ask us – we probably won’t ask if you need help, because we don’t want to interrupt (or think it’s not our business). We’ve often been described super modest, and ok, at least I’m usually not good at taking compliments, but is there really a way taking one gracefully? Anyway, the options are usually either “oh it’s really nothing” sort of approach, or being an outright douche about your looks, achievements or whatever (though this probably applies to some amount of people everywhere). If you find a middle way, you’re basically a superhuman. Apparently we can’t do small talk and can come off as rude, or at least blunt or even stupid, but believe me, after years of being taught we can’t do polite small talk and teachers paying extra attention to that, we’re at least constantly thinking about how to small talk politely. We might also apologize for not knowing how to do that, while trying to talk about weather.
You might have heard that personal space is kind of vital for us, and yes, that one applies. When we first meet someone we like to keep them at arm’s length, and with casual acquaintances, like most classmates or work buddies, we maintain some distance. If we become friends, the amount of touching increases significantly – it’s all about getting to know and trust someone, being comfortable with them, and knowing you can let them inside your circle. So there’s absolutely nothing personal if a Finn backs off or doesn’t touch you after a handshake, they just don’t know you yet. Other stereotypical characteristic that still holds is the Finnish silence, and my, do we love that. I’m damn talkative, and it’s not all that uncommon among Finns than people seem to think, but the ability of being completely silent with someone in the same room, I cherish that with all my heart. It’s easy to be quiet all by yourself, but a friendly, unforced silence with someone is almost like meditation. And yes, you can (usually) tell it apart from silent treatment easily, just watch the mood. Also, you might hear that the easiest way to bond with a Finn or get them to open up is over a few drinks, but that doesn’t apply to all, of course. Some keep their distance even while drunk. What about heavy drinking in general? Yeah, we do that, I’m not even going to try to deny it. But again, it’s not for every Finn even, so being surprised if someone tells you they’re absolutists would be rude.
And nature, that’s a huge deal. People here have been genuinely worried about city kids not learning to move around in the wild, or at very least learning to tell one tree, plant, or animal in their close surroundings from another, and to me that’s sort of a weird (and a bit scary) concept to begin with. Even though I consider myself a city person and have lived in mid-sized and big towns and cities – on Finland’s scale, which is not all that much – for most of my life, knowing my way in the woods, recognizing edible berries, and knowing how some wild animals are supposed to behave are kind of no-brainers to me, things you are just supposed to learn as a kid. It could be that if Finns separate themselves too much from nature, they’d lose something essential for being Finnish. Not everyone likes to hike, hunt or fish, or go berry and mushroom picking (I don’t enjoy those too much, either), but I believe that all Finns enjoy the closeness of a forest and flowing water more or less. So perhaps it’s the constant presence and acceptance of something wild being out there that makes us how we are? Then again, there’s already (adult) people who seem to be very afraid of the wild, almost hysterically so.
What also seems to be important is the balancing between darkness and light. It’s rather dark for most of the year, so when the sun starts to show up more in the spring, not just the nature but also Finns sort of “wake up”. Suddenly we’re all busy seeing friends and spending time outside, whether it’s at summer cottage, beach, bar terrace or a festival. After the weather starts getting colder and the leaves start to change, things slow down, almost like hibernating. But the nice thing about winter is how snow lights up the darkness, northern lights colouring the sky, how stars look brighter, and how every place is adorned with Christmas lights and candles. The light during winter is different, but all the more beautiful within the darkness. And the darkness isn’t so bad, either – it can be like a blanket, hushing you in to spend time with yourself and family, a permission to slow down and focus on things you don’t do during summer. By Christmas time, the winter solstice falls near, too, so it also means that we’re turning from darkness towards light again, and that – if anything – is a thing to celebrate. As much as midsummer’s nightless night calls for celebration, yuletide and new year’s have equally lot to do with light. When you look at the whole picture, a lot of important things during a Finnish year revolve around light, waiting for it to return or its constant presence.
So yeah, I don’t know if I just scratched the surface here. There would be so much more to this and then some, and I could still feel the whole concept of Finnishness could be explained with a few well-built sentences, but I hope here’s at least a start.