Tag Archives: finnish mentality

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”.

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.

A few things about Finnishness

What is Finnishness? In my opinion Finnishness can be summarised with three things: sauna, nature and a lack of small talk. Here’s how those things represent finnishness.

Sauna

Sauna is perhaps the most known part of the Finnish culture around the world. Sitting naked with strangers in a hot room may sound bizarre for non-Finnish people, but for Finns sauna is sometimes a place to relax and shake of the stress after a hard week of work, sometimes it’s a place to socialise and have a few (or more) drinks with your friends. It’s pretty much the only place where talking to stangers is considered normal. For Finns, having a sauna in your home is something considered almost self-evident. It is estimated that there are two million saunas in Finland, which is a lot for a population of 5.3 million. The best way to experience sauna is at a summer cottage by a lake, with a possibility to take a dive in the cool lake water.


A sunset over a lake in Northern Finland

Nature

The Finns live close to nature. Approximately 75% of Finland’s area is covered in forests. Finland is often called “a land of thousand lakes”, which is actually an understatement (which is usual for Finns), considering there’s  over 187 000 lakes in Finland. Where ever you go, nature is close, whether as a small lake or as a piece of forest. The temperatures and climate between different seasons varies a lot. In summer the temperature can climb up to 30 degrees celcius and accordingly during winter it sometimes gets down to -30 degrees. The changes between the seasons require a skill to adapt to different situations, something the Finns have mastered.

No empty words

In most Western cultures people use small talk to avoid awkward moments of silence during a discussion, but not Finns. Moments of silence during a discussion aren’t really considered awkward, and they are certainly considered better than saying something you don’t necessarily mean. For an example, when asked a simple “how are you”, we have a tendency to answer literally.

Cartoon by Karoliina Korhonen

The lack of empty words means that when Finns say something, they almost always actually mean it. Finns are really honest people, and when they say they’re going to do something, they will do it. One of the most important traits for Finns is something called “sisu”, which is a concept of extreme determination and perseveranse.

The Finns’ relation to nature

The Finnish nature is something that Finnish people are really proud of. It’s an important part of the Finnish culture, national identity and everyday life. In Finland the nature is all around you no matter where you are. Even in the cities you can find forests and lakes and experience the Finnish nature. After all, 78% Finland’s total area is covered by forests and 9,4% by lakes.

Lake Saimaa, Finland. Photo by Katariina Korhonen

Enjoying the nature often means clearing your mind, having alone time and relaxing but to different people it can mean different things. One of the best parts about Finland’s nature is that you can experience and enjoy it in so many different ways: you can go biking, hiking, picking berries or mushrooms, swimming, canoeing, camping, skiing – you name it. The Finnish nature has a lot to offer and so it has something for everyone.

Välijoki, Finland. Photo by Katariina Korhonen

Finnish people have a kind of built-in need to be in touch with nature. The Finnish nature represents peace, safety, silence and purity, which are essential values to Finns. I think, the Finnish nature answers to the need of silence and peace that Finns have. In my opinion, the Finnish nature reflects the Finnish identity and mentality. Finns are often described to be silent, persistent and though, which, I imagine, comes from having roots in the majestic Nordic nature.

Snowy forest in Välijoki, Finland. Photo by Katariina Korhonen

 

Bus stops, personal space and Santa Claus

Every time someone talks about Finns, it’s always ice hockey, sauna, midsummer’s eve, long winters, Lapland…

But when you think about Finnishness – what makes a Finn – you might have to go out on the street and look at the “agreeable gaps” between people on the bus stops:

Kuvahaun tulos haulle finnish people on a bus stop

One thing that sets us apart and builds on what can be considered “Finnishness”, is our unannounced respect for other people. Of course there are always outliers, every society has its share of people who lack mutual respect, but there still lies an almost subconscious habit of keeping and giving personal space to one another. A feeling that makes us try and not to be a bother to others, even up to the point of sometimes being afraid of it. We don’t greet with cheek-kisses, we don’t sit next to people on the bus if there’s an empty row available and we most definitely don’t strike conversation with strangers – not that we don’t like them, but because we feel like they might be bothered or thinking about something really, really important.

Not every Finn likes ice hockey or sauna either. And being Finnish doesn’t mean you have to live up to the exaggerated reputation of being introverted and afraid of change. That’s why I think Finnishness stems more from what kind of people we are rather than what we do, our values, and our ability to take the best out of the worst situations.  On the contrary to what others commonly say, I do not think that Finns are slow to open up or skeptical towards other cultures. We just happen to have this stubborn, serene piece of home inside all of us that we won’t trade away so easily, a piece which keeps us level-headed and appreciative of the simple comforts of living. Nothing like sitting indoors on a dark, wet November afternoon and realizing you’re happy just because you’re at home.

Also, we have Santa Claus and a dark sense of humor. Maybe an unfair advantage?

People among the thousand lakes, fir forests and neverending supply of salmiakki

Yeah, judging by the title alone, this text is going include starker stereotyping and more heavy-handed symbolism than a Finnish joke book containing nothing other than jests about swedes.

See? Got there already.

For a good while of my younger, adolescent life I didn’t pay that much attention to how my mind came to be the restless, nihilistic beehive that doesn’t give me a moment’s peace, yet as I came to know people outside of my national consciousness of rye bread and wife carrying, they offered me insight on how peculiar and occasionally simplistically insightful our small little nation beneath the northern star can actually be, even if our tongue sounds a mix somewhere between Sindarin and R’lyehian.

And yes, that wonderfully nerdy comparison is an actual sentence from my foreign friend’s mouth.

Stuff like phone throwing competitions, air guitar championships, cultural significance of “kalsarikännit”, aforementioned wife carrying and downright abysmally confusing amount of flag days are minor local oddities that always catch an eye of  those who are not that accustomed to these latitudes, but they still often remain as ephemeral oddball attractions. Those are merely the results of the “Finnishness”. I try keep the actual quotations in appropriate minimum, but what I have come to gather from the feedback of my friends outside of Finland, our charm lies in emotional honesty. We are stoic, serious people in work or whenever it is required and are willing to express our utmost jubilancy on the moment of simple, individual elation or when our small country raises to the world stage for that beautiful 15 minutes of stardom as our team wearing the lion sigil on their chests have managed to put a rubber puck into a net in an ice rink. We drink, rejoice, regret going to work next morning, we start planning for our summer holiday, continue working, rinse and repeat. Yet low and behold: We are content.

We are a small nation. A freaking miniscule entity in a stage where United Nations cover 193 countries under its banner. By some miracle this little slice of the north has gained a reasonably respectable authority among other countries and much of it is thanks to that straightforward cultural identity and sauna diplomacy that has to be the one word that defines Finnish political program during the Cold War. God, you just got to love history. Others compare doomsday weapons and space programs, we Finns pool in our resources and have structured our diplomatic channels to go through a sweat box that forces even the toughest men to open up their souls.

If my that last sentence would be taken out of context, some might consider us Finns as sort of deranged. Well, yeah. We are actually proud of that. Midnight sun and dark, lightless abyss of winter months would drive anyone insane, we just have a couple thousand year head start and we have found a way to capitalize it. Slight insanities keep life fresh and straightens the perspective on what actually matter. We are a small, stubborn, to many seemingly hostile collective of mämmi-eaters, reindeer breeders and people from Rauma among others, but besides that we appreciate honesty, hard work, unity and that spark to jump right into that madness that makes life worth living.

Also hockey. Hockey and beer. And salmiakki.

Torilla tavataan.

More trees and more lakes. There is no escape.

 

Humble and honest

The icy shores of lake Pyhä

Finnish people are humble and honest, but not very talkative. We don’t make a big deal out of ourselves. Finnish are gentle and thoughtful like the Moomins. Our education and public health care system are high-class and funded by taxes. In Finland we have a very good waste recycling system and we appreciate our nature. The Finnish passports is one of the best in the world: You can get to 175 from 218 countries with the Finnish passport without a visa.

A frosty winter day

The nature has a huge impact in the Finnish mentality. We live in a country of 200 000 lakes and almost every family has a summer cottage (by the lake of course). The best way to spend the summer vacation is to go to your summer cottage, have a sauna, swim and eat barbecue food. The Finnish sauna there is hot (preferably 80 to 100 Celsius) and the best ones are heated with wood rather than electricity.

Pure and bright waters of the lake Saimaa

Finnish people are people of the woods: We pick berries and fungus from the forests during the fall and spend our vacations doing activities in the nature, such as skiing, fishing and hiking. In Finland we have these Everyman’s rights, which allows us to hike, pick berries and camp in the nature, no matter who owns the land, as far as we don’t make a damage or disturb others.

Finnish summer

In Finland we have four seasons, which all come with their unique beauty. In the Finnish Lapland the sun doesn’t set at all during the summer and in the winter the polar night lasts about 50 days during which the sun doesn’t show at all. But you don’t have to go all the way to the Lapland to experience the beauty of Finnish nature: In the winter, if your lucky, you can spot the aurora borealis for example in Tampere also. The Finnish summer is short but lovely: The people come out of their shells, there’s a lot of laughter and joy, and people spend their time outdoors as much as they can.

The springtime in Finland

Finland has it’s own national epic, the Kalevala, compiled in the 19th Century by Elias Lönnrot from Karelian and Finnish folklore and mythology. The tale begings with the traditional Finnish creation myth and is followed by a lot of magical spell casting and singing. There are stories of lust, romance, betrayal and seduction and the nature is present throughout the story in the scenery and dialogue. J. R. R. Tolkien has told that he has taken inspiration from the Kalevala to create the elf language to his famous fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.

A beautiful summer night in Tampere

On a nightout, Finnish people love to drink beer, tell bad jokes and sing karaoke. Finnish is the only language that has a word for getting drunk at home wearing only your underwear, it’s “kalsarikännit”.

 

Life as a Finn

Finnish people are pretty individual. We might have a close relationship with our family and friends, but otherwise we might be circumspect and distant. We like to keep our own space and not to come too close to other people.

Finns are really exact. If we agree to do something on a certain date, we will do that. And we like to be on time, rather 5 or 10 minutes early, and we don’t like if someone else is late from an agreed time.

 

We are effective and we don’t like to keep our customers waiting. That’s why you can assume fast service almost everywhere you go.

Finns do not like to talk about money or politics.

There’s no small talk, and it doesn’t represent rudeness or a lack of interest.

There are no hierarchies. Everyone is equal and deserves the same amount of respect.

 You can buy wine only from Alko, which is a State Alcohol Company. We don’t tend to drink wine often, for example with a dinner. Alcohol itself is served more like on special occasions.

In Finland there’s no big income or social differences. A plumber and a lawyer can be great friends and no one thinks it’s shameful or weird.

 

Fun fact: In Finland there’s a verb called ”kursailla” and it means that when a host asks you to sit on to the table to drink coffee and eat, no one will do that. Usually the atmosphere is also really tense. I think it’s because everyone wants to show as much hospitality as possible, and we think it’s rude to be the first one drinking and eating.

Pictures attached are taken from Finland, Tampere and Nokia. They represent very well Finland’s different seasons.

Forest and metal

Finland is the home to many lakes, forests, and most metal bands in the world per capita. It is fair to assume that these are connected as folk melodies and instruments are a very common asset and nature an equally common source of inspiration and lyrical theme in Finnish metal music. I think the phenomenon has its roots in Finns being a very down-to-earth people with a close connection to nature, as only some decades ago most of the population lived in the countryside.

It is a common misconception that Finns are a very depressed people. Statistically they’re not. I think Finns just appreciate their personal space and only speak when they actually have something to say, and this might give the impression of a very reserved people.

When talking about Finnish music, most of it, maybe excluding hip hop which I know nothing about, does sound more depressive than the international hits. That’s why I think metal suits Finland very well. Finland’s black metal scene is also very interesting and deeper underground than that of the more  commercially successful Norwegian cousins.

Moonsorrow playing in Tampere

Nature sets the mindset

Finland – the land of thousand lakes, lush green nature and shy people who are hard to get to know and go to sauna a lot. As a Finn, I’ve heard this a gazillion times and as all of those notions are true, there is more to us Finns than meets the eye.

As there are so many forests and lakes, it is natural (pun intended) that our culture has become so closely entwined with it – in the past as provider of food and shelter and today as a sanctuary where people can rest and forget the hectic outside world. The feeling you get from watching the sun set behind a lake, seeing the Northern Lights dance upon a frosty winter sky or just gazing at the stars in dark autumn night is just indescribable and it has had a profound effect in us.

There are even studies about how walking in a forest will lower your blood pressure in 20 minutes and I believe that we Finns have known this all along, nature gives us peace of mind and we just want to enjoy it. That background added with the traditional Finnish logic of if you don’t have anything meaningful to say, it is better to be quiet and say nothing at all. That can easily show differently on the outside and is at least partly the reason why Finns are so unfamiliar with small talk.

I remember reading an article about which European citizens travel the most and was really surprised to find Finns in the top 3. The article explained that Finns don’t travel abroad that much but the reason that put them in top places of list was, of course, summer cottages. And there was a staggering number of 502 900 of them in 2016. So that’s where we are, not talking and going to saunas most of the time.

My theory is that the nature has shaped us into who we are and how we see the world and personally, I couldn’t be happier.