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.
As being a Finn, it is somehow hard to find a specific characteristic from Finnishness but at the same time it is hard to choose only couple of them. Finnishness is this entity, built with sisu, honesty, neighbor jealousy and modesty.
Education is also one part of Finnishness. No one is left outside in the field of education. Finland offers free education to all of its citizens so that everyone has equal chance to become something big, or small, if that is what they want!
Finnish mentality is something that I often laugh at, even if I am a Finn myself. Finns do not want to brag about themselves (even though they secretly like if they are admired) but at the same time they want to be the best, or at least better than their neighbors.
Let’s have an example. My neighbor has bought a new car. First thought: ‘’why he needs to show off? Such a dork…´´ and the next thing is to by myself a new car. After someone compliments my new shiny car, the immediate answer: ´´ It’s an old and dirty junk. It was kind of a cheap too…´´.
This is why I love Finnishness. Try to be better than everyone else but don’t show off.
The most common things about Finnishness is shyness, quietness and big personal space. In some way these all are so true and I can relate into them a bit too well. But hey! Every other nationalities and nations have their own characteristics too. For example, being loud and super outgoing. This is why Finns are needed! If majority of nationalities tend to speak a lot and they love being around each other, Finns are the ones who will listen and populate the rural areas in the hope of some personal space and quietness.
Finns would rather sit naked in a hot room than have a conversation, but if you do happen to talk to a Finnish person, expect brief to-the-point answers and silence. Don’t try to fill the silence with small talk, it will only make things worse. Unless it’s about the weather, then go right ahead. By the way, it’s raining while I’m writing this and it’s forecasted that tomorrow is going to rain too. The weekend is supposed to be nice though. I should also mention that “summer” doesn’t last very long and Finnish people love to complain about it. Before the warm days people complain that it’s too cold and during warm days they complain that it’s too hot.
Moving on to personal space, something that is very important to Finns. We like to keep our distance from other people. For example, in public transport, people prefer to sit alone and avoid sitting next to someone they don’t know and would rather stand. If you want to mess with people, sit next to a stranger and start a conversation, see how they react. Nothing confuses a Finn more than a strange person initiating conversation.
All of this is thrown out the window when alcohol is introduced into the equation. Offer a Finnish person a drink and you’ve made a friend for life. Alcohol is a big part of the Finnish culture, for better or for worse.
These stereotypes might give the image that all Finns are quite reserved, shy and like to be alone and for the most part, stereotypes are based on reality. However, once you get to know Finnish people you’ll find out that they are one of the warmest, most loyal and sincere people you’ll ever meet, even though they might not want to portray that picture of themselves.