When I describe Finnish people to others, I usually just say that we’re quiet or shy. I don’t personally really think that, but compared to other nations we really seem like it. But I think what really defines us more than “quiet” is “honest”. There’s no need for courtesies or small talk: we just say what we have to say and that’s it. It might come across as shy, quiet or reserved but to me it’s all I need. The concept of small talk was so unfamiliar to me that I’ve really had to put my back into learning it! I still struggle with it from time to time. It’s also hard to tell sometimes if a foreign person is qenuinely interested in talking with me or if it’s just small talk. Usually with Finns I don’t have to worry about that, which is relieving. If somebody asks you how you’re doing and you answer with how you actually feel, it’s only normal and even expected.
Even though the way Finnish people speak can be a little short on words, our language is really versatile. It’s wonderful that a lot of Finnish people can speak many different languages beside Finnish, but sometimes I wonder if others have noticed the beauty of their own language. I find constant joy in all the wonderful little phrases and words that have gained their meaning in the older times but which are still used today. Sometimes while talking I realize what the words we use actually mean. For example “marraskuu” means “November”, but what it literally means is “moon of the dead”, but you never really stop to think about it!
To me Finnishness culminates in how our language could bend into so much to best fit what we’re feeling inside and yet we choose to say so little. Only the necessities.
That… And the completely bright nightless nights when you can just sit on a dock watching insects fly over a lake, hear a faint cuckoo from the forest and smell the smoke coming from the chimney of a sauna. That too.
Travelling to and living in different countries can really make you appreciate the culture you have grown up with. At least for me that is the case. Listed below are a few “features” of Finnishness which I really appreciate especially compared to other cultures and countries.
One unique feature of Finnish culture is the value of personal space, as shown in the picture below. This actually is a common sight at bus stops in Finland and it is hard for some people from other cultures to understand. A part of Finnishness is appreciating the quiet moments and not feeling the pressure to socialize if it is not necessary.
People can just quietly pass each other and still acknowledge the person they are passing, in the Finnish culture, without it being considered rude. In some other cultures it is common to greet people on the street or at the bus stop, this is considered common courtesy. For example passing a person in a supermarket at an aisle in the US, they would say “Excuse me”, this was strange to me because there was plenty of room for them to pass and in Finland people would just quietly pass behind the person.
This ties into the lack of small talk in the Finnish culture and a key part of Finnishness for me. People can take the same bus with the same people for a year and never talk to each other because there is no pressure for that. This might be perceived as shyness or being rude which might be hard to explain to other people. Instead it should be considered as a good feature in people, because once a Finn starts a conversation with someone else it usually has a purpose and is not just forced small talk. Also when asking someone how they are, a Finn truly wants to know how have you been and are expecting a better answer than just “good”.
The other thing I really appreciate in Finland is the nature. I know this is a common answer among Finns but there is not many places that have similar nature opportunities like in Finland. You do not need to go far to find a quiet piece of nature, even if it is just the park or a small patch of forest. There are always trails near by where you can for example take your dog for a walk and it is not hard to find.
The distinctive four seasons are also very valued here, even if the summer is short and winter is dark. I could not imagine myself living somewhere where I could not experience both the warmth of summer and the beauty of snowy winter.
These are the things that come to mind when talking about Finnishness to myself. I hope people visiting Finland get to experience these in a positive way and Finns remember to appreciate these features even in the darkest times of winter.
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.