Why do Finns sometimes feel that they are the odd ones out in Europe? Well, our neighbors in Scandinavia seem to have their own thing going on and Russia’s culture is also very different from ours. Finland is geographically separated from the rest and the language is kind of weird too. Not to mention the metalhead coffee vampire stereotype. Still, besides pop culture always arriving here late, it’s been pretty nice living in this “special” Finland bubble.
When meeting a foreigner, Finns often ask “Why would you choose to come here?” as if it was the strangest thing that someone would want to visit this country. Admittedly I’ve also asked this before. But secretly Finns actually love Finland and Finnishness. We just don’t think anyone else would for some reason.
This excessive modesty seems to be deeply rooted in our culture. Finns only say they speak a language when they are almost fluent in it, and sometimes they need an outsider’s perspective to realize what they have. I’ve been so lucky to have met many exchange students during my studies at TAMK. They have opened my eyes more to what was always there. This is something I would love to do for my future friends during my own exchange!
If I ever get the chance, I will take my foreigner friends to the heart of Finnishness for me: mökki (summer cottage). There is something so authentic and calming about mökki. I think of last midsummer. Light pink shades reflecting everywhere at midnight as we drive to the place that feels like home. The surface of the sea is still and the warm air hits my face. This is it – the dream that I’m living, and would love to share.
Not that long ago, I caught myself asking this question from this Irish guy who had just moved to Finland. What he answered is not relevant, but I think this question shows pretty well the humility of us Finns. We know that we are a small nation in the Northern part of the world, and we work hard to make people notice our existence. Still it always seems to amaze us if someone knows something about our culture or if someone is willing to be a part of it.
Just about a month ago I read this article about the quotes that describe the Finnishness the best. One of them was “Ei minua varten tarvii keittää” which can be translated to “There is no need to cook just because of me”. Finnish people are usually very modest and they do not want to bother other people with their needs. This can be seen in everyday life, for example in public traffic. People do not want to sit next to people they do not know and they certainly do not want to communicate them. Even when they are sitting next to the window in a bus and want to get out. Some brave individuals might say something to the person sitting next to them, but most of the time they are expressing their need to get out by coughing or moving restlessly. Sometimes, in worst cases, this might lead to travelling couple of extra bus stops, but that is OK as long as you do not have to talk to strangers.
The modesty can also be seen in other situations. I often overhear people talking about the problems they are having, for example with their family or co-workers. Other people have annoying habits and the Finns like to complain about them to their friends. This sounds really normal and it happens everywhere, right? The difference is that we do not do anything about it. Again, we are trying not to bother others with our own needs. This might lead to bigger problems later when the little annoying things pile up and people need to confront them.
The humility and modesty can also be seen in the following situation. Try to compliment a Finn. Or try to tell them how wonderful their country is or how well something works. Normally people would say “thank you”, if you compliment them and they might even carry on the conversation about well-working public transportation or good healthcare. “What is the reaction you get from a Finn?” you might ask. Instead of “thank you” you will get some mumbling about how “it is nothing” or “this old thing” or some argument how there should be more busses from Hervanta to Tampere City Center.
In Finland it is very common that people speak at least two languages. We are taught English and Swedish in school and many people speak at least English pretty well. The problem with learning languages as a Finn is again our modesty and our perfectionism. We often compare ourselves to native speakers and get frustrated if we are not on the same level as them. Many of my foreigner friends have told me that they find it easy to communicate in Finland and that almost everyone they have met has spoken really good English. Despite of the good level of English, people are too shy to speak it, because they do not trust themselves to be good enough.
All this modesty in humility hides the fact that although we always find something wrong with Finland, we are secretly very proud of it. It is our “isänmaa” – “father’s land” and we want people to know us and our country. We are happy if someone asks something about Finland, knows someone Finnish or has visited our country. It is a topic that we do not get tired talking about. Especially when we are a little bit drunk. But we will not get into that in this post.
In conclusion, we are always comparing ourselves to “bigger” or “better” things and often forget or ignore the fact that we seem to have it all figured out pretty well.
When I started thinking what Finnishness means to me, these four words popped into my head; nature, modesty, equality and security.
Nature is something that I have learned to appreciate ever since I was little. I think it is one of the most important things to me when thinking about Finnishness. Although Finland might not have the most exotic landscapes with mountain ranges and big waterfalls, our nature is beautiful because of its simplicity and because we get to experience all four seasons. We get to have snow in the winter and in the summer, we can just sit at our summer cottages dock and watch the sun set behind a calm lake. We have a lot of forests and lakes so even if you live in the city, you never have to go too far to be able to take a walk surrounded by a quiet environment.
By modesty I mean that I see us Finns as people who are not generally that out there with bragging if one succeeds in something. At least in our everyday lives. We usually do not want to make a fuss about ourselves. Too much modesty can sometimes also be a bad thing, but generally I think it helps us stay the right amount of humble and realistic.
In our society equality is relatively high. It is so important that we are a welfare state where health care and education are provided for everyone. This narrows the gap between social classes. We strive to better the positions for minority groups and the equality between man and woman is mostly good.
Finland is one of the safest countries in the world. In general, our crime rates are relatively low when comparing to many other countries. Of course, you should always be careful especially in bigger cities since there might be bag snatching for example but risks for facing a bigger crime is low.
Appreciating our home country is important. Traveling and seeing the world is something a lot of us want to do but coming back to Finland is always one of the best feelings there is.
Finns have their own quirks like every nationality. For me, this blog post was hard to write because there were so many topics already covered in previous posts. However, I found some topics to write about.
Need for private space is very obvious. Finns don’t want to get close to strangers so if there is space, it gets evenly filled. In a student restaurant, for example, we don’t go to sit opposite to a stranger. An unwritten rule is that we always leave at least one or two empty chairs in between whenever possible! In case of a smaller table with only four chairs we maximize the distance by leaving the nearest opposite chair to the stranger empty. This way we avoid looking the other person straight in the eyes which would be uncomfortable. The attached simple illustration tries to show this need for private space.
Modesty shows in many ways in Finns behaviour. There is always someone better than us for doing a task. For example, when inviting guests to your place and serving food for them, it’s common to say that “I hope this is eatable” etc. It means that the guests could probably cook better than us. Another example is when you’re going for a date with a Finn. Please start discussing about your mutual interests instead of stressing to what you can do the best even when you’re very good at it. As a professional ice hockey player you should try to downplay your abilities, at least a bit.
One common hobby that many Finnish people have is to collect stuff. Whether it is something small or big or something in between, you can always find someone who collects the same items like you. For example, in Finnish Huuto.net auction website there is over 250000 collectibles now being sold. Some collectables I’m aware of are:
Newspaper articles which have spelling errors
Ice hockey cards
Glossy, often embossed, image (kiiltokuva)
Of course, I’m now generalising all this. Not all Finns are what I just wrote but sometimes you have to do stereotypes.
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.
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.
10% of Finland consists of lakes, rivers and ponds, and 78% of the country is covered in forests. Originally, almost one third of Finland used to be swamp area, Hence the name: Suomi, which roughly translates to swamp land. It only makes sense that Finns highly respect and value nature.
I spent my childhood in a small town in the countryside where they not only teach kids biology but also encourage, or force them outside to actually get to know different plants, animals etc. Even in wood crafting classes we make homes for birds. In winter we sometimes went ice fishing on a nearby lake during gym classes.
Finnish cities have lots of trees, bushes and plants everywhere. There are quite a lot of parks too even though you don’t need to venture far from any city to find forests and “proper” nature.
In the countryside towns and areas most people have at least some kind of gardens that consist of apple trees, blackcurrant shrubs, flowers, vegetables among tons of other plants. People like to live and be surrounded by at least a bit of nature.
Finnish love for nature has a history too. Like in many other countries, nature was worshipped in Finland. In Finnish mythology each part of the nature (water/lakes, forests, thunder, underworld etc.) has it’s own deity. Furthermore, forests were believed to be homes to wisps, elves, and other mysterious and even scary creatures.
Nowadays the believers of the “old gods” or that pagan religion are very few but the respect for nature hasn’t gone away. Forests in the early autumn are swarming with berry pickers desperately trying to find the best blueberry and lingonberry locations. A bit later come the mushroom pickers. People go jogging in the forests and almost all Finns know how to swim which is easily taken for granted.
One could say we are really proud of our nature.
Despite being proud of many things, especially things that are recognised world wide, Finns tend to be really humble people. Many Finns lack the skill of being proud about themselves in public since it’s easily considered as narcism or bragging.
If we are given something the first things we say are something like: “Oh you shouldn’t have brought anything!” or “I really don’t need anything”. If kids are given money as a present they’re taught to offer it back first telling it’s too much – or at least I was.
But the modesty of Finns isn’t as simple as it seems. It is true that we don’t want to look bad and we tend to stress a bit too much what others think about us, but the other reason for modesty is that we respect people who have done us something good (a compliment for example) and highly appreciate anything someone’s given us. Nothing is taken for granted. And the Finnish way to do this is to kind of like decreasing their own value in order to increase the complimenter’s. If that makes any sense.
In a nutshell, Finnish modesty comes from deep appreciation and respect towards someone who’s done something good to us. It’s not like we feel bad about ourselves and think we don’t deserve anything.
Finland is a country where considerable weight is attached to the spoken word – words are chosen carefully and for the purpose of delivering a message. Finns place great value on words, which is reflected in the tendency to say little and avoid ‘unnecessary’ small talk. As the Chinese proverb puts it, “Your speech should be better than silence, if it is not, be silent.“ The conception that Finns are a reserved and taciturn has changed and does not retain the same validity as it used to, certainly not with the younger generations. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Finns have a special attitude to words and speech: words are taken seriously, and people are held to what they say. Finns rarely enter into conversation with strangers, unless a particularly strong impulse prompts it. As foreigners often note, Finns are curiously silent in the metro, the bus or the tram. In lifts, they suffer from the same mute embarrassment as everyone else in the world.
Finland mentioned! Let’s meet at the town square!
Honesty is highly valued in Finland. It is important to always keep your promises and adhere to agreements. For Finns, dishonesty is the worst vice imaginable. Work and diligence are held in high regard. Equality and fairness are important values for Finns. In Finnish society, everyone is equal and must be treated fairly. Women and men are equal. Punctuality is important in Finland. When you have a meeting, it is essential to arrive at the agreed time. If you have made an appointment with an official or doctor, for example, it is especially important to be there on time. Modesty is a significant value in Finland. People tend not to distinguish themselves in a group. They avoid loudness and bragging. In Finland, it is good manners to take others into account and listen to them. Finns are not very quick to strike up conversations with strangers. For this reason, Finns may initially appear quiet and cold. The Finnish style of speech is direct and straightforward. Finns tend to state things directly and honestly. In Finland, it is expected that people truly mean what they say. Finns often speak slowly with long pauses in between. Silence is not undesirable but natural, and quiet moments do not need to be filled with speech. It is uncommon in Finland to show your emotions in public. It is considered rude to raise your voice when speaking, especially in a public place.
President Sauli Niinistö riding a velociraptor
Like Asians, Finns take off their shoes after they have entered someone else’s house which can be considered as somewhat weird behavior to some people. Tipping has never fitted very comfortably into the Finnish way of life. This may have originally been due to the traditions of a religion which emphasized frugality. Today, the rather blunt reason for not tipping is that the price paid includes any unusual instances of service or politeness i.e. the view taken is that “service is included”.