My Experiences of Finnishness

As a Finn myself I have always somewhat resented the Finnish person stereotypes. Shy, reserved, quiet and cold (unless there is Koskenkorva). This is partly due to not being able to relate to them, but mainly because they all seem quite negative. They make us Finns seem like boring, unadventurous people, which most know; we are actually far from. I mean come on! We sit in a 100 degree room butt-naked, beating each other with twigs, just to minutes later jump into a freezing pile of snow. And this is just a basic Sunday.

A few years ago after backpacking on the other side of the world, I found a new perspective to look at all these stereotypes. I soon came to realize that all of those adjectives also have a brighter side. Maybe we are not shy – just observant. Maybe not reserved and quiet – just independent and respectful of peace and boundaries. We are not really cold – but appreciate honesty and authenticity, which we would like to identify before warming up. Koskenkorva is a nice way to start the party, but not a necessity for us to have a laugh. In fact, Finnish humor is one of a kind, and our close relationships warm and jolly.

In Finland we value our nature and family, our cultural roots and individuality, our education and health, our achievements and overcomings, and peacefulness and safety. The four seasons, sauna, our hockey team, summer cottages, salted licorice, lakes and forests are just some of the most beloved Finnish gems. All in all, Finland is a beautiful country with a great story, and us Finns are more than the age-old clichés. As with all other nationalities, stereotypes are often over-simplified generalizations that can be cracked beyond the surface.

 

Finnishness and the cabinfolk

Having been living in Finland for my whole life, I’ve always thought of it as the optimal place to live in. Huge green forests, thousands of lakes that are just made more beautiful by the chilling winters. If you’re lucky enough, you might even catch a glimpse of the northern lights.

A view from a lake near Pälkäne we saw while hiking

The Finnish people have a mentality of keeping everything to themselves, not talking to strangers, but at the same time, they usually have a very tight group of a few people, with whom they share everything. Seeming a bit cold to strangers and being warm with your own friends is very common. But at the same time, if you ask a Finn for help in anything, you can be sure we’ll help you in every way we can.

Part of Finnishness is being proud of what we have. Not in a way of showing off your flashy Ferraris or wearing a lot of bling, but more with the simple things. Simple things like the nature, our work, and what we’ve made ourselves, with our own hands. A big thing that combines these 3 things, is building your own house, in a forest a few kilometres away from a city centre, a life goal of myself as well. Also having a cottage, or a mökki, further away of anything is a big thing to be proud of, and to enjoy in your own peace and quiet.

     
Pictures of a lakeside mökki

The sauna culture is also a very important part of Finnishness to me. Just being naked alone in the sauna with a can of beer, is a great way to wind down from all the stress of the workday. With friends, the sauna is a place to talk about whatever comes to your mind, there’s something in the sauna that makes people more honest, and that deepens friendships. There’s also a bunch of public saunas, usually in the swimming halls, the gyms, or near lakes, for ice hole swimming in the winter. In addition to the sauna being a place to relax or deepen friendships, it is also very beneficial for your body, due to the heat shock. It is no fluke, that there’s an estimated 2 million saunas in Finland, with a bit over 5 million people.

 

Finnishess

I think it’s not possible to dive into the topic of Finnishness without quoting the statement of J.V. Snellman he wrote in his text in 1861:

“We are not Swedes, we do not want to become Russians, so let us be Finns.”

So, what it means to be Finnish? Finns have a quite long history of being known for the love of nature, understanding the silence, and seeking it. To one group it is about being proud of our hockey teams, embracing oneness when our teams bring our existence to the world map. To me, as someone who doesn’t watch ice hockey, I still truly enjoy seeing happy people on the streets being friends with one another for one evening. What’s left when the glory disappears?

With Finnish mentality comes a good mixture of being loud and goofy with our closest friends and family members but then observing the people we don’t know yet, looking out for other’s motives and ways of thinking. Slowly letting others into our minds and homes. I think it is hard to make friends in Finland, even if you are Finnish yourself. The other side of the coin is that once you break the ice and earn that trust you have found a treasure for a lifetime.

It is the love for autonomy and freedom but still wanting to know what others think about us so we can upgrade ourselves. It almost seems like robotic behavior sometimes; we are warm robots whose politeness can come our way when trying to make friends. We are too polite for our own good. It’s like having only two settings in the remote controller where we switch from being very polite to being very stubborn once our personal borders are crossed. Some people love it when they see our honesty and stubbornness and some people are in confusion about why we turned our tables.

We love people like Kimi Räikkönen and Seppo Räty because of how normal they are to us, but are afraid of people like Jimmy Kimmel because of his almost unnatural smile and presence. It’s a game of chess, wanting to know what’s inside of the opponent’s head but not wanting to let our guard down right away. In that sense, I think we have a lot in common with Nordic and Slavic people.

At the same time, it feels very proud to be Finnish but at the same time, it is just our everyday life and how in tune we are with ourselves and our surroundings. Dreaming about owning a house where we can drink our morning coffee totally alone. It is not being loud in public about our opinions but still having strong values even though it seems the opposite to others. It is being annoyed when someone brags about their great family history meanwhile being totally obsessed with our own family roots. It is enjoying the short summers we have but accepting the darkness that comes after it. It is loving the normal life with its sorrows and joys, with the good and bad qualities we are very self-aware, just like everybody else around the world but in our way.

Finnishness Throughout the Years

Over the past twelve years I’ve lived in Finland, I’m never found such tranquillity in a place such as this, not like back home in Scotland. At the beginning it was hard, not to mention experiencing a proper cold winter and full of darkness but over the course of my life, growing up during my teenage years, to early adult years — It really has dawned on me that this is a home all on it’s own; for the people who breath in the fresh air and truly value what Finland has to offer. One of the most interesting parts of when I moved here was actually being pretty outgoing and talkative: As Finland is more of a peaceful and calm place to set up camp but to truly live and study here, I started to become myself more calm and shy and sort of adapting to their culture. Of course personal space doesn’t bother me too much but it’s definitely taken a transitioning turn to let me become sort of Finnish myself in a way just by living here so long.

Under the Finnish Sun

In terms of ‘Finnishness’ — It’s just a beautiful thing on it’s own. You’ve got your cottages to grant you a sense of escape in the nature of the forests, you’ve got your saunas burned with the likeness of some lovely smelling wood. In terms of other countries relying on technology as a huge thing in society, Finland would happily live without electricity in their cottages and not to mention; picking berries in their forests and building their own houses out of wood. Sure, Finland is relatively dark half of year but during summers, they truly bring such spirit — Especially during their midsummer festivals where skies never go dark, they celebrate all weekend and come together and celebrate. Common space isn’t always a huge factor, perhaps in cities or on public transport — but that wouldn’t stop anyone from going to the sauna fully undressed and squashing up next to each other just to enjoy the hot burning air which helps their blood flow and jumping into the snow right after.

Adventures Throughout Finland

My time in Finland has been ever so amazing, just a few years ago I had never been to Northern Finland and I took a weeks trip up there with a bunch of students and it was really magical. Trees covered in snow, visiting the Santa Claus village, petting reindeer and husky rides. So Finnishness, for me atleast is not just one particular thing: It’s a feeling you get when you experience so much at once and gives a sense of adventure you couldn’t find anywhere else.

Of “Finnishness” and the escape of small talk

Finland. My home that is now two seas away. Country of thousand lakes surrounded by green forests filled with mushrooms, berries, wildlife, and pine trees.

Long winters have over time turned warmer making them even darker while urbanization has in most cases made the distances between neighbours shorter. People still have the need for their personal space, so they are eager to escape to their happy place at the countryside summer cabin whenever possible. The long distances of rural past not long ago have given people a healthy do-it-yourself mentality compared to many of the other Europeans. They often prefer to do quite a lot themselves instead of buying a service. Traditionally out of necessity, but now to prove themselves, to save money, or just for a hobby. Self-service mentality rules at restaurants, and pub culture is only taking baby steps. Due to long periods of freezing weather, even friends just walk past one another on the streets only quickly nodding their heads to each other instead of stopping for a small talk. When you keep moving, there are better chances of not getting frostbitten toes, and the Finns are aware of it. They will see each other when the weekend comes at their common friend’s place for board game and beers. They rather gather around at someone’s flat than go to pub where music is too loud, beer is expensive and both (the music choices and the tap beer) suck anyway. At the friendly gathering they can have the questioning where they were heading the other day (in case they can’t naturally pick up a more meaningful topic) while enjoying their time at much more comfortable setting than would be commercially available.

PHOTO: H. Myllymäki – While his Scottish neighbours use a service to take care of their garden that might be available just by asking from the landlord, a Finn gets a lawnmower and has uniquely ugly patch of grass on his yard. In addition, he also records his own sound effects instead of using a commercial sound bank, thus tying work and “pleasure” together on the same sunny afternoon.

There you have it. The basis of what makes Finns appear untalkative, grim, socially awkward, and generally bad people by the standards for social situations in many other countries of the world. Why the streets are empty after six o’clock on the weekdays and you can fit into a pub on the main street after nine on a Saturday night. Whereas truly I’d say, Finns just don’t have a culture of hiding behind empty words such as a phrase “professional standards” at a commercial company selling a service for a mundane job. To me, that’s the essence of so called “Finnishness”.

Finnishess

In Finnish summer the biggest and one of the best things is to go to the summer cottage. There we spent weekends and hopefully weeks of our summer. Especially midsummer is the time when everyone goes to the cottage. And because of that, all the cities gets empty. Usually Finnish cottages are by some kind of water. And there is not that much ”modern” comfort as we have in our homes. This also depends whose cottage it is. Some people make it modern and some make it more oldish (without electricity etc.)

Dock, Lake, Finland, Dark, Evening, Water, Nature, Blue

What to do in the cottage then? Just chill, drink, eat grilled food and go to sauna and swim in the lake. It is a place to spend peaceful holiday with friends and family (usually with friends it goes more partying than just chilling).

Smoke Sauna, Summer, Holiday, Lake, Nature, Scenic

I think one of the important things in cottages are that they have to be ”in the middle of nowhere” further away from the cities. In the nature where is silent. Finnish summer is one of the most beautiful things what we have. And even better if it’s warm and not snowing.

What Finnishness is

When people hear about Finland, they think about snowy winters,  vast forests, endless amount of lakes, the Finnish sauna, the almighty Nokia and probably even polar bears (yikes). These things are mostly nature-related but I think the true Finnishness is in our personality. We have great national pride and that really shows when we achieve anything significant.

Everybody unites at the point of victory and even though we might be regarded as a tad shy and quiet, nobody is quiet when we qualify for European championship in football or win the ice hockey world championship. That’s the moment when everybody unites and celebrates as a one big group, which is the purest form of Finnishness if you ask me.

Even though the Finnish bureaucracy might be annoying at some points, travelling around the world has shown how well everything works in Finland (except VR), and that’s something we should be proud of. As some wise guy has once said “It’s a lottery win to be born in Finland”!

Finnishness

To me Finnishness is not things or places like sauna or rye bread or world championship in hockey in 95′. Finnishness can’t be pointed out, it’s within the person. Sure, sauna, kossu and domestic violence are very much Finnish things but going to a sauna while getting wasted on kossu and beating your wife afterwards don’t really reflect what finnishness is really about. (This was an obvious joke, c’mon)

Finnishness is the sum of culture, history and a way of life an individual inherits. It’s about being proud of the nature we have, understanding the history of this country, hating when your neighbor buys a nicer car than you have, willing to pay 100 euros just so your neighbor doesn’t get 50 euros, not telling anyone and living a normal life when you win 90 million in a lottery. It’s about talking about the weather on a first date,  standing 5 meters apart when waiting for the bus, avoiding public human interactions and teaching only swear words to foreigners.

Finnishness is loving Finland and the culture within it, being a part of it. And you know what, it’s pretty great.

 

Finnishness

For me, Finnishness means a lot of different things, but the first thing that came to my mind is the dramatic contrast between seasons in the wilds of Lapland.

Spring brings finally back the light and life after a long, harsh winter. The first rays of sunlight glister on the snow, the snow melts away, and the birds sing. This time is great for snowmobiling trips across the ice of the still frozen lakes and rivers, forests or over fells.

End of Winter

As summer comes closer, the nights get lighter day by day. The landscapes that were just a few months ago covered by ice and snow turn slowly green.

When summer arrives, so do the countless mosquitos and the time of the nightless nights starts. This time of the year is excellent to experience the wilderness of Lapland by trekking or other means of outdoor activities.

Midsummer in Lapland

The first frost and the shorter nights mark the end of summer and the start of autumn. Now it is time to harvest the berries and mushrooms in the forest. The landscapes change colour from green to shades of yellow, orange, red, purple and brown. This phenomenon is called Ruska. Nature starts to prepare for the coming winter, insects disappear, birds such as the swan head direction south.

Ruska

With the first snowfall, the landscapes begin to turn white, winter is here! Winter is the most extended season in Lapland. Christmastime is the darkest time, there are only a few hours of daylight. This time of the year is excellent to observe northern lights across the sky.

Northern lights

Difference between finnishness

I was borned in Eastern Finland near the National Park Koli. I have been living  there my first nineteen years of my life and enjoyed it a lot.  After high school it was time to move forward to study some interesting for me, so I moved to West Finland Southern Ostrobothnia.

People are different in different parts of Finland. In East Finland we used to talk lot about our personal life and happenings, but in West Finland it takes time to make friends and get the trust to invite you in someone others homes. People in Eastern Finland are more open and take people as friends really quickly. We like to be open minded and show our personality straight.

I´m posing naked at Koli and it’s okay for me. So I understood very quickly, that no need to go further out to sea to fish, as us Finnish people like to say, to understand difference between our little country and how people feel and think about your talking and acting about your personal life.