No small talk in elevators. No laughing loudly and shouting out comments in a movie theather. No asking directions from strangers. Claiming that you would rather stand the whole buss ride to avoid sitting next to the talkative stranger. Pressing the ”close the doors” –button in the elevator repeatedly so that you don’t need to ride it with your neighbour.
For someone outside the boarders of our Lady Finland, these scenarios might sound a bit odd, even unsocial and rude. But to the extent that we need to admit that some stereotypes about Finns are true, these are frequent things in the life of a Finn that don’t seem that bizarre to us. However it’s not that we want to be rude and not meet our neighbours, we just relish the silence and need a bit more personal space.
To Finns small talk is relatively new concept and we’re still learning. When the American or British ask as ”How are you?”, we might start to tell a long story about our not so great day instead of replying with a simple ”I’m fine, thanks! How about you?” as we are expected. In most cases if a Finn asks you about your day, he is usually genuinly interested and wants to know the details. We don’t ask just for fun, instead we only ask when we really want to know.
Same stands for chatting with people in trains, buss stops or the queue waiting for your coffee-to-go. We are comfortable in silence and nowadays we are basically rescued by our smartphones in these kinds of situations, we can stare at the screen while waiting, hurraay! Otherwise you might accidentally make eye contact with a stranger and that might encourage the other party to engage in a light conversation.
All in all we like our silence, but that doesn’t make us rude or unsocial. We like to give people their space and speak when we have something to say. The term describing this is negative politeness. To us, being polite is leaving people alone when no interaction is needed and not bothering them with unnecessary things. Handshake is a very nice way to introduce yourself and no more than a nod and ”hi” is needed when you’ve been introduced to a bunch of people.
And when a Finn asks about your day and smiles at you, they most certainly mean it. And you might even get an invite to their summer cottage. In the middle of nowhere, where you can hear the wind in the trees and the chirping of the birds. That’s our sanctuary of solitude.
Finnishness – what it is? Each of us is different, but generally we love our own peace and space. Many Finns dream of their own cottage in a quiet place without the city noises, and possibly with no neighbors at all. Finnish National Landscape could be a summery calm lake, cottage’s sauna, and a loon that breaks the otherwise perfect silence. We enjoyed the quiet of the nature and we respect the personal space of others. We don’t bother even there is silence with other people. Many foreigners may keep us as boring and calm and become anxious of a quiet moment. While the Finns get anxious when someone comes too close to us or an unknown person starts chatting with us.
Small talk is an abomination to many Finns – we do not have it in Finland, so we do not know how to act in these situations. Often Finnish respond very briefly and unnaturally conversation to partner or talking too much. In both cases, the Finnish feels uncomfortable and of the conversation. We aren’t intentionally rude we just do not know what should we do.
Finns do what they have promised. Being Finnish also includes to be at the agreed place at the agreed time – not late, but not too early at all. This is why it is sometimes hard for us to understand the concept of time in different cultures or even if the bus is late.
Although the Finns can sometimes seem like toneless and serious we can also lark around. It tells many special competitions such as Air Guitar World Championships, Wife Carrying and swamp soccer. Air Guitar World Championships is known internationally and the event attracts participants from around the world. Today, many countries have even qualifying for the finals.
Wife Carrying is also well-known competition in the world. In this competition a man carries a woman through an obstacle course as quickly as possible. The Wife Carrying World Championship is held every summer.
Finnish Sisu (a word that can’t be translated directly, but which could be described with the words: tenacity, perseverance and willpower) partly based on The Swamp Soccer World Championship also attracts competitors from around the world in Finland. Those competitions reveal that Finnish humor is very personal and the Finns are adept users of sarcasm.
I believe that Finnishness and getting to know Finns requires perseverance and patience from a foreigner. However, after winning the trust of Finns people get a reliable and long-time friend.
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.
Finnishness is a combination of many characteristics and stereotypes. These are my opinions about Finnishness and I am proud to introduce myself as a Finn and also tell people about these characteristics when I’m travelling.
Finns are punctual and honest people especially when it comes to business life. People arrive to a business meeting 5 to 10 minutes beforehand and if something is agreed you can trust that the Finnish business partner keeps his word. Don’t be hurt if a Finn address you with your first name since that is the common way to address even strangers. In business life you might call your manager with his/her first name and that is totally normal. You might also want to know that Finns don’t brag about themselves and usually success should be kept to yourself because otherwise someone might feel bad or even jealous.
People really appreciate their personal space and you should remember this because otherwise a Finn might feel uncomfortable. Using a public transportation is a good example. You shouldn’t stand too close to the person next to you at the bus stop and also everyone likes to have the seat next to them free if there only is still room in the bus. Oh, and small talk is sometimes difficult for Finns so you can try to speak about the weather if the person next to you doesn’t look to indifferent and is willing to continue the conversation. It’s funny how this personal space and inability for small talk doesn’t apply in sauna. Finns turn out really social in sauna and I don’t really know the reason for this.
Finnish nature is clean and really one of a kind because its four seasons. In the fall season you might be delighted with all the fall colors that you can see in the leaves and also in the ground. In my opinion Finns hibernate during winter because people usually stay at home when it’s cold, snowing and dark outside. On the other hand, this is the best time to play ice hockey which seems to be the Finnish national sport. Spring is the second best season because you can see more and more light and you can go outside without freezing. But Finnish summer is the best, people are more positive and they’re spending their leisure time outside for example in their summer cottages or at festivals.
Finnish food is something really special. We seem to love salty liquorice and rye bread. These are the foods I usually miss when I’m travelling. If you don’t want to shock your foreign quests I would say tasting Karelian pasty with egg butter might be a good start exploring Finnish cuisine rather than make them taste for example Mämmi. Mämmi is rye pudding and people usually eat it with cream and sugar.
Finns would rather sit naked in a hot room than have a conversation, but if you do happen to talk to a Finnish person, expect brief to-the-point answers and silence. Don’t try to fill the silence with small talk, it will only make things worse. Unless it’s about the weather, then go right ahead. By the way, it’s raining while I’m writing this and it’s forecasted that tomorrow is going to rain too. The weekend is supposed to be nice though. I should also mention that “summer” doesn’t last very long and Finnish people love to complain about it. Before the warm days people complain that it’s too cold and during warm days they complain that it’s too hot.
Moving on to personal space, something that is very important to Finns. We like to keep our distance from other people. For example, in public transport, people prefer to sit alone and avoid sitting next to someone they don’t know and would rather stand. If you want to mess with people, sit next to a stranger and start a conversation, see how they react. Nothing confuses a Finn more than a strange person initiating conversation.
All of this is thrown out the window when alcohol is introduced into the equation. Offer a Finnish person a drink and you’ve made a friend for life. Alcohol is a big part of the Finnish culture, for better or for worse.
These stereotypes might give the image that all Finns are quite reserved, shy and like to be alone and for the most part, stereotypes are based on reality. However, once you get to know Finnish people you’ll find out that they are one of the warmest, most loyal and sincere people you’ll ever meet, even though they might not want to portray that picture of themselves.
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”.