Before you start to read this post, please play the following song from Youtube while reading. By doing this, you will share the same song and ambient I had while writing. The song is a Samish yoik, which reminds me of my home in Northern Finland.
The older I get, the more I romanticize the quietness the Finnish forests, lakes and rivers so kindly share us. No matter how big the city you are living here in Finland, you don’t have to travel far to find a cabin or cottage next to a quiet lake more or less isolated from neighbors. The further north you go, the less you find other people or distractions created by the modern mankind.
If you count the words “quiet” and “quietness” I used in the latter chapter, you might understand where I’m heading at. It does not seem to be just a stereotype that Finnish people love to embrace the moment of being alone or surrounded by people they feel comfortable with. Try to have a chat with a shy Finnish person – you won’t find yourself having a word rich dialogue.
BUT, try to get yourself with a group of Finnish strangers into one of those cabins mentioned before for an extended weekend – man, you might surprise yourself! It could contain a few (read many) brewskies, definitely many sauna rounds, while between skinny dipping yourself into the lake (or ice hole, carved open with a motor saw during the winter) and I almost bet my bottom that the Finns have opened themselves to you. They might talk with you over the nights, laugh and cry and sometimes both at the same time. But once again, this means having them Finns in a comfortable place. It’s not easy to tame a typical Finn, haha.
I have not traveled around the world ten times, but I have traveled and experienced different cultures. What I’ve seen is that we Finns tend to really follow the rules excluding IKEA manuals. You can see that buildings are built exactly as the regulations say. The law is the law. From my point of view I can say that it feels more safe and equal when you know that everybody has the same laws and articles to obey, and everybody’s following them.
Sure we can also find tragiomic examples of obeying rules too tight. You can be sure there are no bars serving even a single drop of alcohol after 3.30 am. In the motorway, don’t you dare driving too fast or not use the blinker when switching lanes – straight middle finger or a honk is pointed at you my friend. Sitting in a train in a two pair seat, on the wrong side of these two equally same spots, I can assure you that a typical Finn will for sure wake you up 2.38 in the morning to say: “Could you move, you’re on my spot” (happened to my friend, haha). Now I am actually currently in a train on my way to Helsinki-Vantaa Airport and some a-hole is talking too loudly on his phone (for other people normal voice level). Typical Finnish reaction to unnecessary attention, haha.
When interviewing a Finn after a won game in sports, I promise you that he won’t say anything of their team of being just simply the best, unbeatable and how they’ve been winning every game during the season and will continue their path of victories. The Finnish player would probably say something, that today was a better day for their team, but there’s still a lot to do to make the team play more efficient and basically better. Finns are modest. Everything that’s done better than average is considered as bragging. Try to speak about your achievements. Haha, the boaster stamp achieved. We let the achievements to speak for themselves. It’s a vice and a virtue to be this modest.
At the end of the day we can find ourselves being quiet, modest and rule-followers. It is really what you can expect from a country where there’s less than 5.5 million people spread all over the 338,424 square kilometer area causing the density being only 16 persons per square kilometer. Just to compare with Macao, the number one in density of population, it’s 21,352 per square kilometer (Wikipedia). So no wonder we tend to keep by ourselves. But believe me, give a Finn some time and you might make a loyal friend for the rest of your life.
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.
One of the biggest cultural differences that I have noticed between Finns and rest of the world is that we can be perfectly at ease with silence even though we are in company. I noticed this especially when I lived for a week with a French family in Belfort, when the mother thought something was wrong if we Finns were quiet during the car ride. We had thought it a bit odd instead, that the mother had tried so hard to keep up small-talk — we were perfectly happy with just appreciating the passing scenery. When we explained this to the French family, they told us that they felt really weird if things were silent, especially if you didn’t know the people very well. Silence for them, was a mark that something was wrong.
In addition to Finns being a silent bunch, we normally are not that well versed in the art of small-talk. I had a course in the University of Eastern Finland, where our American professor tried to hammer us some basic dos and dont’s in especially the Anglo culture. First of all, the professor told us, Finns are too honest and straightforward. If someone asks us how we are, we genuinely answer how our day has been; usually the ‘how do you do’ is however, just a polite expression.
There is also something else that stayed in my mind from the course: in the Anglo culture there is a habit of saying the person’s name a lot when you are talking with them. I had never noticed before, but we Finns don’t generally do that. For that reason, our professor emphasized to us, that we should really pay attention to people’s names when they are introduced, as it is expected to use them later in the conversation as a sign of respect.
Apart from being quiet and having to work on our conversation skills, we Finns sure do love our summer cottages. Maybe it’s because we want to escape to spend our sparse summer months somewhere with even less people, maybe it’s because usually the sauna in the cottage is superior to the one at home. When I was younger, most of our summers were spend in the cottage, and though I go there myself much rarely now, my parents still flee there right when the first a bit warmer weekend comes in the spring.