Finnish culture is all about letting you say whatever you damn well please. The people are kind and liberal, even more than you might expect. Here is your lesson number one in Finnish culture:
Don’t worry too much about it.
As a foreigner, you get even more of a free pass. There is very little chance that you actually offend anyone no matter what you do. That being said, whether you are taking a quick trip or you are planning to move to Finland, knowing the quirks people have is always a good thing.
That way you avoid the culture shock and you would have a much smoother experience. Hence, our guide to Finnish culture (which is kind of long overdue, too).
The Myth Of The Cold Finn
Finland is way up in the North. Go look where Helsinki is on a map, and you’ll see what I mean. And Helsinki is considered a “Southern” capital! Make sure you check out our article about how to get from Helsinki to St Petersburg, too.
The cliché is that Nordic people are about as warm as their climate. Although that might kind of still hold true, it depends on what you are comparing them to and even more importantly, what your definition of cold is.
Here is the thing:
Americans and some Western Europeans are very big on small talk. Chatting up a stranger or a near stranger (like your neighbour, work colleague, or a friend of a friend) is normal and even desirable.
If you keep to yourself, you are perceived as cold and unfriendly. If that is your mindset then yes, Finnish people can come across this way.
But consider this Finnish proverb:
Take a man by his words and a bull by its horns.
Finns consider very carefully what they say and mindless banter just to fill the silence is anything but cool. You would notice how comfortable people are with silence.
That being said, if you appear to be lost or need help, they would be quick to ask what’s wrong and offer assistance. Hospitality is one of the most amazing traits of Finnish people.
By the way, going back to that proverb, it also means that promises, even ones you gave lightly, are taken very seriously. For instance, you would probably think nothing of saying ‘Yeah, we should hang out sometime.’ to a friend that you have no intention of hanging out with anytime soon. Don’t do it.
Finnish culture is as straightforward as it gets. To see an example of this, look no further than Formula 1 Finnish driver Kimi Raikkonen:
The Language (A.K.A. Will They Understand Me?)
The mother tongue of most Finns is, unsurprisingly, Finnish.
Around 5.6% have Swedish as their first language and there is also Saami (one of the oldest languages in Europe) with around 8,000 speakers. Finnish is nothing like other languages in the region.
It belongs to the Finno-Ugrian language group where Hungarian and Estonian also belong. It does have some words that come from English or French but other than that it is completely different.
You would not be able to make out what any words mean, I can guarantee that.
Most Finns also speak pretty good English, as well as Swedish. Swedish is also the second official language of the country (and the only official language in the Åland islands) and you get all street signs in both Finnish and Swedish.
Unlike Finnish, Swedish is a North Germanic language. You could kind of figure out what signs in Swedish say.
Ultimately, though, you would probably have no language issues in the first place.
Finnish culture puts a lot of emphasis on education. As I mentioned, most Finns are tri-lingual and some even speak four or five languages. There is a growing number of Finns who learn German or French, while Spanish is yet to become as popular.
In general, though, provided that your native language is a fairly popular one, you would not have problems finding Finns who speak it. It is one of the fun aspects of the education system they have.
Food And Eating Habits
We might have mentioned that in previous ‘culture of’ articles (or in every single one of them), but food says a lot about Finnish culture.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and it can be quite unhealthy, too. It usually involves open sandwiches with a substantial amount of butter on them. The toppings aren’t very diet-friendly, either.
Hard cheeses are a favourite and so are cold cuts. Make sure you also try typical Finnish porridge. Hint: it has a lot of butter and usually some lingonberry or strawberry jam.
After breakfast, it’s soon time for the coffee break.
Finns consume the largest amount of coffee per capita in the world. Coffee breaks are inevitable and they would often be the best time to make friends with your colleagues. Don’t expect decaf to be an option and don’t let the five cups per day most Finnish people have shock you.
If you can’t handle it, stick to the cinnamon rolls or buns that accompany the coffee.
Lunch and dinner both happen pretty early, with lunch being served between 11.00 and 13.00 and dinner around 17.00 to 19.00. If you want to grab a bite after work you better hurry.
Finnish culture embraces work-life balance and that holds true for restaurant employees as well. Most establishments wrap up the evening rather early and they stop serving food around 45 minutes to an hour before they close.
It would be best to make your dinner reservations for 18:30 or 19:00 at most.
Restaurants that serve foreign cuisine tend to close later but you are here for the makkara (pork sausages), the salmon, and the awesome variety of cheeses, right?
Speaking of Finnish cuisine, it has been heavily criticised by some Europeans, notably ex-prime minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi and France’s former president Jacques Chirac. Chirac said ‘After Finland, [Britain is] the country with the worst food.’
Well, you don’t have to agree with him. In fact, plenty of foodies don’t and these claims were met by a bunch of food reporters praising Finnish food.
Don’t mention Berlusconi to Finns. Because…
Finnish Culture: National Pride And Identity
As open-minded and liberal as the Finnish might be, they are still very much patriotic. It’s a weird situation, too.
On one hand, they are very appreciative of foreign culture and they take pride in accepting others, in multiculturalism if you will. On the other, they have a very strong sense of national identity.
There is one sure way to a Finns heart and that is knowing about their history or sporting achievement. If you also happen to have read some Finnish classics or seen some of the staples of Finnish cinema, even better. Here are a few pointers:
- Frans Eemil Sillanpää got the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature. So far, he is the only Finn to receive the award. Since his work is centred around what is quintessentially Finnish (he won ‘for his deep understanding of his country’s peasantry and the exquisite art with which he has portrayed their way of life and their relationship with Nature‘), it would be a great perspective of Finnish culture for you, even as a foreigner.
- Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren are Finnish runners and Olympic gold medal winners. Know their names at least and Finns would love you.
- Know about Finland’s independence struggles against Sweden and Russia. It is the historical reason for the Finnish national pride. Their nation has had to fight long and hard to become a separate state.
Along with the sense of identity, though, you also have this chronic fear of not being known. It is like being the wallflower in high school but on a national level.
They expect Finnish culture not to be known by foreigners and that is why it’s so easy to impress Finns even with the most basic of knowledge about their country.
The Finnish Welfare State
Being a welfare state is not a bad thing in the eyes of Finnish people. The country currently has one of the best, most generous social security systems in the world.
It hit a high point in the 80s and they have had to make cuts since but Finland still takes good care of it’s citizens.
Not all of it is good, though.
Many young people are unmotivated and often plain lazy. True, they get a good education but they aren’t very entrepreneur-minded. The consequence you see on a day-to-day basis is that you would not impress anyone by how much you earn.
As cliché and unbelievable as it may seem, everyone is rich in Finland. The country is very expensive, too.
That’s a wrap on our article about Finnish culture. Let us know what you think about it by sharing your thoughts in the comment section below.