Finland and Finns

I have had a fuller social life here than anywhere else. Granted I am studen age, but even outside of the student community I have felst as though Finns are easy to get to know if you make the initial effort and are willing to put in the time. People are pretty open here despite the stereotypes.

-Grantee 2015

On this page

 

In addition to the information on this page, you can also read a great article discussing the customs and manners of Finns here.

I found the most problematic aspect that I needed to adjust to was to read the New York Times in the afternoon rather than the morning.
- U.S. Scholar Grantee 2016-2017

Identity

Finns have a strong sense of national identity. They would be happy if visitors knew something about the achievements of well-known Finns in sports and culture.

This is rooted in the country's history - particularly its honorable wartime achievements and significant sporting merits - and is today nurtured by pride in Finland's high-tech expertise. Being realists, Finns do not expect foreigners to know a lot about their country and its prominent people, past or present, so they will be pleased if a visitor is familiar with at least some of the milestones of Finnish history or the sports careers of Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren.

Finns would be happy if visitors knew something about the achievements of Finnish rally drivers and Formula 1 stars, or if they knew that footballers Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypiä are Finns. Culturally oriented Finns will take it for granted that like-minded visitors are familiar not only with Sibelius but with contemporary composers Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg, and orchestral conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sakari Oramo and Osmo Vänskä. While Finns are aware that Nokia is often mistakenly thought to be a Japanese company, this misconception is viewed forgivingly but with pity. They are proud that Linus Torvalds, the inventor of Linux, is a Finn.

Visitors should also be prepared to encounter the other side of the Finnish national character – Finns are chronically insecure about whether the wider world is aware of the achievements of this northern nation. Finns love reading things written about them abroad, and visitors should not feel uncomfortable being asked repeatedly what they think of Finland. However, although Finns are ready enough to criticize their own country, they do not necessarily wish to hear visitors doing so.

Though it will take a lifetime to understand the history, cultural intricacies, and value systems of Finland (and even longer than that to fully speak the language) every step is cumulative. It is important to get out there and to associate, to be willing to ask questions, and to reflect on cultural assumptions and actions that might be unique in the U.S. Take what you read of the Finnish character with a grain of salt. Interesting cultural changes, some easy, some difficult, are on the way.

Talking with a Finn

Finns place great value on words, which is reflected in the tendency to say little and avoid 'unnecessary' small talk. Often Finns are better at listening than at talking.

The conception that Finns are a reserved and taciturn lot is an ancient one 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. "Take a man by his words and a bull by its horns," says a Finnish proverb.

Words are taken seriously

A Finn will carefully consider what s/he says and expects others to do so too. S/he considers verbal agreements and promises binding, not only upon himself but upon the other party too, and s/he considers that the value of words remains essentially the same, regardless of when and where they are uttered. Visitors should remember that invitations or wishes expressed in a light conversational manner (such as: "We must have lunch together sometime") are taken at face value, and forgetting them can cause concern. Finns are not perhaps masters in small talk yet, but they are getting there.

If someone invites you for coffee, dinner, sauna, or anything, then do ti! Finns rarely say things like "yeah, we should get together sometime..." without meaning it. Take social opportunities when you can get them!
-Grantee 2015

I think it can be hard to meet people. Take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself - if someone invites you to an event, go! Even if you're tired, even if it doesn't seem exciting, go. That's how you meet people. Also, if someone suggests you meet up for coffee sometime, follow through with it! People wouldn't offer if they didn't mean it. These are the ways to break into a community that can otherwise seem kind of closed off. - U.S. Student Grantee 2014-2015

Make the first move

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. However, a visitor clutching a map will have no trouble in getting advice on a street corner or in any other public place, since the hospitality of Finns easily overrides their customary reserve.

With coworkers or anyone you have contact with, you really have to make the first move. Most Finns are lovely, but are unlikely to talk to you first. -U.S. Student Grantee 2013-2014

The pace is slower

In a conversation, interrupting another speaker is considered impolite. A Finn does not grow nervous if there are breaks in the conversation; silence is regarded as a part of communication. Finns usually speak unhurriedly, even in their mother tongue (the pace of news reading on Finnish TV is a source of amusement for many foreigners), and although many Finns are competent in several foreign languages, they may be wary of the speed at which these languages are spoken. Nevertheless, Finns can become excited and voluble, given the right situation.

The quietude of the Finns could sometimes be difficult, as was the conversation flow. But it was also a great experience and way to learn to be with others. -U.S. Student Grantee 2013-2014

Discussion topics

Having once got to know a stranger moderately well, Finns are quite willing to discuss any topic; generally not even religion or politics are taboo. Finland is one of the world's leaders in the reading of books and newspapers and the use of libraries, and thus the average Finn is fairly well informed on what is happening in Finland and in the world. Finland's membership in the EU has increased interest in other EU countries, and the common currency, the status of agriculture and the effects of Community legislation are viable topics of conversation wherever two or three Union citizens come together. Though Finns enjoy complaining about the niggling directives of 'Brussels bureaucrats' as much as the next man, in general they seem to approve of EU membership and recognize its benefits.

Shared hobbies are a natural topic for conversation and exchange of opinions in Finland as elsewhere, and it can be easy to strike up a lively conversation with a Finn about culture and the arts on the one hand and about sports on the other. Sports is a particularly feasible topic.

Talk to people at your host institution! Finns are generally very friendly and polite, albeit shy. If you take the initiative to introduce yourself and have a friendly conversation with a colleague or coworker (or fellow student) over coffee, you won't go wrong. -U.S. Student Grantee 2013-2014

Be on Time

Finns are punctual people and, in one sense, prisoners of time. As is the case elsewhere in the world, those holding the most demanding jobs have tight daily schedules; missing appointments can cause anguish. Agreed meeting times are scrupulously observed, to the minute if at all possible, and being over 15 minutes late is considered impolite and requires a brief apology or an explanation. Concerts, theater performances and other public functions begin on time, and delays in domestic rail and bus traffic are rare.

In general, busy lifestyles have come to stay and a diary full of meetings and negotiations is a matter of pride and a status symbol in Finland rather than a demonstration of poor scheduling. In such an environment, the time allocated for the entertaining of guests is one of the most important indicators of the value attached to the occasion. When a Finn stops glancing at his watch and suggests something more to eat or drink, or even a sauna, the visitor can rest assured that a lasting business relationship, or friendship, is in the cards.

Names and Titles

When introducing themselves, Finns will say their forename followed by their surname. Women who use both their maiden name and their husband's surname will state them in that order. Although Finns are conscious and proud of any official titles they may have, they rarely mention these when introducing themselves. In contrast, they do expect to be addressed by their title in professional and official contexts: Doctor Virtanen, Managing Director Savolainen, etc. Foreigners, however, are not expected to follow this practice, with the exception of the titles "doctor" and "professor" if these are known to the speaker. Otherwise, foreigners can safely address Finns using the English practice of calling them Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms, Sir or Madam, as appropriate.

The familiar form of address in Finnish (i.e. the second person singular pronoun sinä, as opposed to the formal second person plural pronoun te) is commonly used, not just between friends and acquaintances but among strangers too. It is usual nowadays for people in a workplace to address each other as sinä, up to and including senior management, at least in larger workplaces. Using sinä is common today in service occupations, too, although older people may resent the implied familiarity. However, young people still tend to address middle-aged or elderly people by the formal second person plural if they do not know the persons well.

Although the use of the familiar sinä is common, using first names requires a closer relationship. It is relatively easy to get onto first-name terms with a Finn, especially if it is evident that the parties will continue to meet regularly for business or pleasure. However, it is felt appropriate that the use of first names is specifically and mutually agreed upon. The use of first names is always proposed by the older or more senior person to the junior, or, in the case of equals, by the woman to the man; the agreement is enacted by shaking hands, making eye contact, with each party saying their first name aloud, and nodding the head. Raising a toast with schnapps, wine or champagne lends a festive air to the occasion.

Remembering names

Apart from this, Finns are not nearly as demanding in remembering names as many other people are. It is not usual to address people by name when greeting them (regardless of how familiar one is with them) or in the course of a normal conversation. Addressing by name has trickled into Finnish culture from the American practice, but as nice as it is to hear one's name spoken, Finns will not be offended if they are not addressed by name.

Business cards

Businessmen and persons in public office are expected to distribute business cards as a means of ensuring their name and title are remembered. There are no special rituals related to exchanging business cards in Finland. For a visitor, receiving a business card provides a convenient opportunity to ask how a name is pronounced or what a cryptic title might mean.

Greeting

When meeting, Finns shake hands and make eye contact. Handshakes are brief and firm, and involve no supporting gestures such as touching the shoulder or upper arm.

When greeting, the parties shake hands and make eye contact. A deep bow denotes special respect - in normal circumstances, a nod of the head is enough. Children are greeted by shaking hands too. Embracing people when greeting them is rare in Finland.

Finns can kiss as well as the next nation, but they don't so when greeting. Hand-kissing would be considered very awkward, don't do that. Friends and acquaintances may hug when meeting.

Gender

There is a high degree of equality between the sexes in Finland, as can be seen in the relatively high number of women holding advanced positions in politics and other areas of society. Finland's first woman president was Tarja Halonen (from 2000 to 2012), who was Foreign Minister before being elected to the highest office.

There are also numerous women in academic posts, and in recent years visiting businessmen have also found increasing numbers of 'the fairer sex' on the other side of the negotiating table. The Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland accepts the ordination of women, and there are women priests in numerous parishes. The first female Bishop Irja Askola was elected Bishop of Helsinki on June 2010.

Chauvinistic or patronizing attitudes towards women are considered unacceptable especially in the academic setting. Women do appreciate traditional courtesy, although ultimately they appraise men on the basis of their attitude towards equality. Women are usually independent financially and may offer to pay their share of a restaurant bill, for instance. A man may politely refuse such an offer, but it is equally polite to accept it.

In international contexts, or when using foreign languages, particularly English, Finns have become accustomed to politically correct language in which traditional masculine terms are replaced with gender-neutral ones (e.g. 'chairperson'); or the third person singular pronoun is offered in both forms (he/she) when they exist. In Finnish the latter problem does not exist. Instead, the third person singular pronoun hän covers both genders. There are also many titles ending with the suffix -mies (man) that are not considered gender-specific. It is appropriate for visitors to follow the established practice of whatever language they are using.

Languages

As a nation with few close linguistic relatives, Finns take care of their language competence by studying a wide range of foreign languages.

A Finn's mother tongue is either Finnish, Swedish (5.6% of the population are Swedish speakers) or Saami (some 8,000 native speakers). Finnish belongs to the small Finno-Ugrian language group; outside Finland it is understood (and to some extent spoken) in Estonia. And in Sweden, too, Finnish is spoken among the large number of Finnish immigrants. Finns take care of their linguistic communication by maintaining a wide range of foreign languages in the school curriculum.

English is widely spoken in Finland and in the business community some companies use it as their house language. German is no longer widely taught but many Finns in their 50s or older learned it as their first foreign language at school. French, Spanish and Russian have grown in popularity both in schools and among adult learners. Membership in the European Union and the related practical and social demands have increased the need to study European languages, at least in the case of Finns who travel in Europe on business or are studying abroad.

Educated Finnish speakers, particularly those working in the public sector, speak Swedish to some degree while the majority of all Swedish-speaking Finns speak Finnish too. Only in some coastal areas and in the autonomous province of the Åland Islands is Swedish the dominant language, indeed in Åland it is the only official language. The status of Swedish as the joint official language of mainland Finland can be seen in the bilingual names of public institutions and in street signs, the latter case depending on the percentage of minority language speakers resident in a given municipality, and in the Swedish-language programs on radio and TV.