Below are some observations that I have made on Finnish culture after living with Finns for close to 2 decades. Weirdly some of the characteristics I have adopted for myself and only find them peculiar when I look at them from an outsider’s perspective. Others I reject on principle but accept that this is the way things are done in Finland.
Finns have a very homogeneous culture and at their core they believe their way is the best way. I will let you be the judge of that. Let’s get into it.
Silence is a virtue
People mistake the Finnish love of Silence with shyness. It is not, Finns hate small talk – they see it as an undesirable and ingenuine manifestation of people being uncomfortable with silence. If you ask a Finn how they are, there is an expectation that you really want to know and that you will hang around for the answer.
If you want to talk about the weather in Finland you are in luck because discussing the weather is actually a favorite pastime for Finns. They do not see it as small talk, but a genuine topic of interest. Weather plays a huge role in determining what people can do in their free time and there is an interest in understanding it.
People speak slowly and deliberately in Finland. When a question is asked there is often a long pause of up to 20 -30 seconds before people answer so patiently wait for a response. If they did not understand the question they will ask for clarification.
In Finland, people do not speak unnecessarily. Speaking for example in an elevator is disturbing everyone else’s peace. If you do not have a good reason to disturb everyone, like urgently needing directions, then just say nothing.
When you are in nature and you see someone walking on the path. Do not look at them or talk to them. They have come out to be in nature for solitude and peace and it is unfortunate that you have accidently run into each other. The best way out of this situation is just to pretend you did not see them.
One of the first things you will notice about Finland is how educated everyone is. Even the daycare workers usually have a Master’s Degree in education. People with a Bachelor’s degree are almost seen as dropouts. One of my Australian friends remarked when he was hired into a Finnish company that they introduced him to colleagues by his education which he barely remembered instead of his 30 years of relevant experience. Even on a Finnish CV, the first thing you see after the personal details is a person’s education.
Education is free in Finland from first grade right up through university. Compulsory education as of 2020 was made to 18 years old. It is this strong commitment to education that has seen Finland become a wealthy knowledge society.
Equality in Work and Family life
Gender roles are almost absent from modern Finnish culture. Finnish women are independent and empowered and society does not force them to make a choice between career and family. Both men and women are usually working full time. A large percentage of leadership roles in society are held by women. Strangely there is still a degree of pay inequality for women which has yet to be fully addressed. (I have been told in the last few performance meetings at work that my pay will not be increased as we need to increase the salaries of the women in the team)
It comes as a surprise to many observers that regardless of how physical the job is, you will see both women and men working. This includes traditionally male-dominated industries like construction and transport. There are some jobs almost exclusively done by women, most notably where it involves the dignity and comfort of women; Gynecologists, Midwives, and Maternity nurses as well as pool changeroom cleaners. The latter is because the pool changeroom is cleaned during operation hours and Finnish men don’t object to women coming in and cleaning but women don’t tolerate men in the changerooms.
Both parents in Finland almost always work. Kids are put into daycare usually at around 1 year old. The concept of part-time work is not widespread in Finland. School starts for kids at 7 years old and it is very normal that children take responsibility for getting themselves ready and off to school on their own. Men and women share the cooking/cleaning and parenting responsibilities according to their preferences. There is an expectation of equal contribution.
Finnish women are famous for dressing their men down in front of friends or in public, if something is bothering them they usually don’t hold back. This can be a bit of a problem for foreign men but Finnish men take it in their stride.
Friendship for life
The definition of Friendship in Finland is stricter than in most places. It’s almost like there is an underlying expectation that your friends be would be willing to donate a kidney if needed. People usually establish a small tight group of friends from school or military service and keep those friends for life. They see no need to establish new friends along the way.
There is an unwritten rule that work colleagues cannot become friends as this would blur the lines between work and pleasure. No one goes for a drink after work unless it is a work-sponsored event. If you want to make a Finnish friend it is usually necessary to meet through hobbies or other activities and even then most Finns would still only regard you as a friend. For this reason, ex-pats usually make friends with other ex-pats.
If you do manage to make some Finnish friends then don’t just rock up on their doorstep for coffee, everything is by appointment only.
Drink to Get Drunk and Eat to Get Full
The well-established food culture found in other parts of Europe is relatively new to Finland. Traditionally the Finns have been more interested in not starving to death than necessarily how it tasted. This has of course changed as people have more time and money to appreciate the good things in life.
Food in Finnish homes is usually served to the table and people take what they want. It is not common to have alcohol with meals during the week unless it is with friends or celebrating something. Wednesday night is known as “Little Saturday” and is a popular time to meet up with friends.
Binge drinking is a pastime not only enjoyed by the young but those of all ages. Except for the more cultured, it is always quantity over quality. Beer and Koskenkorva (vodka) are the favorites.
Interestingly there is no concept of responsible drinking and driving. If Finns plan to even have one drink they take the bus or taxi. Also, the idea of a beer for lunch at work is looked upon with horror. Both of these habits are a good thing, especially with the risk of one drink turning into many.
Rules, Rules Rules, Rules
There is a joke that “everything is forbidden in Finland unless it is explicitly allowed”, and there is some truth to that. The upside to this obsession with rulemaking is that there is very little ambiguity on how people should behave – everyone follows the rules and life is generally harmonious.
There is a big difference in the perception of rules. Rather than feeling they have been made up by some distant body, there is a feeling that the rules have been co-created within the community.
Naming and shaming is big in Finland. There is often facebook groups called “puskaradio” (the grape vine) where people gossip and complain about others who have “broken the rules” in some way.
In some cases, there are strict consequences associated with rule-breaking. For example, in apartment buildings, the strata can impose fines or forcibly evict people found to continuously breach the rules. Police can also be involved in seemingly minor things.
Everyone is an Introvert (even me)
Introverts definitely have the numbers in Finland. Even Finnish extroverts would be labelled Introverts on an international scale as this well known Finnish joke points out. “How do you tell a Finnish introvert from an Extrovert? The introvert looks at his shoes, the extravert looks at yours.”
People go out of their way to avoid talking to each other. For example, if someone hears their neighbors in the hallway they will wait inside until the neighbor has left. Or if someone has something to say, they will rather leave a note than talk in person. In many cases, people do not even know who their neighbors are.
If someone does speak to you and you don’t know them, the assumption is that they are a foreigner or drunk. Things are a little different in the summer, especially when the weather is good. An exception to this is people with dogs, they will talk to each other for some reason.
The National Perception
There is a joke which goes like this: “There is an Englishman, an American and a Finn and they see an Elephant. The Englishman says I wonder how I could hunt this Elephant, the American says, I wonder how much I could sell this Elephant for, and the Finn says I wonder what this Elephant thinks of me?”
Finns care how others perceive them on the international stage, and rightly so. They have worked hard to build an international reputation for honesty, work ethic, equality, and transparency.
You may find Finns try a bit harder to be nice to foreigners so as to leave them with a positive impression.
Jealousy secretly lives in the closet
Finns have built a socialist society with equality at its core. They pay heavy taxes because they want everyone to have equal opportunities. While strongly believing in this system many secretly struggle with seeing their neighbor driving a nicer car than them or hearing that one of their colleagues just bought a new boat. Somehow deep down seeing others have more than them feels like someone is cheating the system.
Because of this tendency towards jealousy, many Finns will go to great lengths to hide wealth from friends or colleagues so as not to stir up emotions or resentment. Even money and wealth between spouses is sometimes not fully disclosed which can seem a bit odd to an outsider.
One Customer at a time please
The concept of lining up and waiting your turn is a common one for westerners but Finns take it to a whole new level. When a customer is being served they get the undivided attention of the person serving them. At times this can seem ridiculous when there is a big line of people and there is a customer taking their sweet time figuring out what color sweater they want.
In most countries, the attendant would at least try to answer some questions from others or tell the customer they will come back in a while, but in Finland, everyone is expected to silently and patiently wait. Oddly often the person causing everyone to wait appears oblivious to the fact. You have to experience this to fully appreciate the absurdity.
The Good Samaritan probably wasn’t Finnish
This last Finnish characteristic grates on me the most because it is a loggerhead with my own upbringing. There are many cases where it is obvious that someone needs help and Finns will just walk past without the slightest intention to help. Examples can be a kid who has lost a bicycle chain or someone that has broken down in the middle of the road.
If you specifically ask a Finn for help you are likely to get it but you have to ask. If the case is serious, Finns might proactively call the police or ambulance but they still tend not to want to get involved. I have traveled a lot in Russia and other parts of the world and you will usually see people very proactively helping if there is any kind of problem.
I have struggled to understand the root cause of this; maybe Finns feel they pay their taxes and that should cover everything, maybe they feel they are not qualified and a professional should be involved or maybe it is that they don’t want to get in other people’s business, I really don’t know.
Like the bible parable, very often the Good Samaritan in Finland ends up being a foreigner.