We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Finland: Top Things to Know
A strong national identity (“we are not Swedes, and we do not wish to become Russian, so let us be Finns.”)
Surrounded by strong neighbors for centuries, and absorbing influences from west, east and south, Finnish culture as a distinct identity was only born in the 19th century: “we are not Swedes, and we do not wish to become Russian, so let us be Finns.”
The Finnish founding myth and national epic is the Kalevala, a collection of old Karelian stories and poems collated in 1835 that recounts the creation of the world and the adventures of Väinämöinen, a shamanistic hero with magical powers. Kalevalan themes such as the Sampo, a mythical cornucopia, have been a major inspiration for Finnish artists, and figures, scenes, and concepts from the epic continue to colour their works.
Finns are artistic people
From music to architecture, Finns have a strong respect for art and artists, creating an awesome environment for art to flourish.
Classical composer Jean Sibelius symphonies continue to grace concert halls around the world. If Finnish pop, on the other hand, has only rarely ventured beyond the borders, but heavy metal bands like Nightwish and HIM have garnered some acclaim and latex monsters Lordi hit an exceedingly unlikely jackpot by taking home the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006. If you’re now asking what Eurovision is (an annual European Olympics for pop songs), no need to bring this up at a party.
In the other arts, Finland has produced noted architect and designer Alvar Aalto, authors Mika Waltari (The Egyptian) and Väinö Linna (The Unknown Soldier), and painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, known for his Kalevala illustrations.
With the establishment of Kiasma, the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1998, contemporary art has become an everyday topic of conversation.
A country with a strong work ethic
While Finland’s state religion is Lutheranism, a version of Protestant Christianity, the country has full freedom of religion and for the great majority everyday observance is lax or non-existent. Still, Luther’s teachings of strong work ethic and a belief in equality remain strong, both in the good (women’s rights, non-existent corruption) and the bad (conformity, high rates of depression and suicide). The Finnish character is often summed up with the word sisu, a mixture of admirable perseverance and pig-headed stubbornness in the face of adversity.
A relaxed, quiet, genuine country
Finns generally have a relaxed attitude towards manners and dressing up, and a visitor is unlikely to offend them by accident. Common sense is quite enough in most situations, but there are a couple of things that one should keep in mind: Finns are a famously taciturn people who have little time for small talk or social niceties, so don’t expect to hear phrases like “thank you” or “you’re welcome” too often. The Finnish language lacks a specific word for “please” so Finns sometimes forget to use it when speaking English, even when they don’t mean to be rude. Also lacking in Finnish is the distinction between “he” and “she”, which may lead to confusing errors.
Occasional silence is considered a part of the conversation, not a sign of hostility or irritation. Being loud in crowded places like public transport or a restaurant is considered rude. If you ever ended up to argue with someone, the social norm is to stay calm during an argument. Arguing loudly with a stranger is considered very rude. Personal space is important, and standing very near someone can make Finns feel uncomfortable. All that said, Finns are generally helpful and polite, and glad to help confused tourists if asked. The lack of niceties has more to do with the fact that in Finnish culture, honesty is highly regarded and that one should open one’s mouth only to mean what one is about to say. Do not say “maybe later” when there is no later time to be expected.
A visitor is unlikely to receive many compliments from Finns, but can be fairly sure that the compliments received are genuine. Especially younger Finns speak usually excellent English due to the policy of subtitling foreign language movies and TV series instead of dubbing them. Another highly regarded virtue in Finland is punctuality. A visitor should apologize even for being a few minutes late. Being late for longer usually requires a short explanation. 10 min is usually considered the threshold between being “acceptably” late and very late. Some will leave arranged meeting points after 15 min. With the advent of mobile phones, sending a text message even if you are only a few minutes late is nowadays a norm. Being late for a business meeting, even by 1 or 2 min, is considered rude.
Hold on the hugs unless you’re family, but bring gifts
The standard greeting is a handshake. Hugs are only exchanged between family members and close friends in some situations, kisses, even on the cheek, practically never. If you are invited to a Finnish home, the only bad mistake visitors can make is not to remove their shoes. For much of the year, shoes will carry a lot of snow or mud. Therefore, it is customary to remove them, even during the summer. During the wet season you can ask to put your shoes somewhere to dry during your stay. Very formal occasions at private homes, such as baptisms (often conducted at home in Finland) or somebody’s 50th birthday party, are exceptions to these rules. In the wintertime, this sometimes means that the guests bring separate clean shoes and put them on while leaving outdoor shoes to the hall.
Bringing gifts such as pastry, wine, or flowers to the host is appreciated, but not required. In Finland, there is little in the way of a dress code. The general attire is casual and even in business meetings the attire is somewhat more relaxed than in some other countries. Topless sunbathing is accepted but not very common on beaches in the summer, while going au naturel is common in lakeside saunas and dedicated nudist beaches.
Russia and other sensitive topics
Even though it is unlikely that you’ll seriously insult anybody in Finland, given the relaxed culture, certain topics of discussion can sometimes be slightly sensitive.
Despite its proximity to Russia, Finns generally don’t prefer being called Eastern Europeans, but rather Nordics or North Europeans.
Although once a part of the Russian Empire, Finland fought against the Soviet Union in WWII and has remained unaligned since the Cold War, and referring to Finland as belonging to the Russian sphere of influence most likely won’t be appreciated. A majority of Finnish men still serve for some time in the Finnish armed forces, and expressing strong views on the military or on wartime history can sometimes stir up emotions. Also war veterans are highly respected in Finnish society.
Even if jokes concerning Finland’s rather high levels of depression, suicide and alcoholism may be common among both Finns and foreigners alike, it’s nevertheless good to remember that these are serious social problems that affect many people and excessive humorous remarks may not always be received well.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Finland, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Finland food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Finland? Please comment below.