Some good advice about Finnish culture

by , under All categories, Enrique

Some people who move to Finland for the first time may suffer from a generous dose of culture shock like in any country.

In the thirty years that I have lived in Finland on and off, the best advice I can give you and the Finns is the following: What is normal in your culture may be abnormal in another — and viceversa.

One of the most common observations I hear from some foreigners that live in Finland is that Finns are “cold.” Even though some may greet you with a laconic “hei,” it does not mean that they are “cold.” It only shows that some Finns greet that way because it is normal in their culture.

The matter that surprised me the most about Finland when I moved here was the Finns’ view of the people who lived in different parts of the country. “The Hämäläinens are slow,” one would say as it it were a scientific fact, while another would affirm: The Savolainens are all crooked people. Never trust a Gypsy – they are all thieves!”

Certainly such simplistic definitions of a so-called regional character, which does not exist, also must have rubbed off on how some Finns see foreigners today.

But all those types of so-called fictional behavior “traits” are nothing more than stereotypes and not based on any empirical study. They are only cultural fairy tales.

  1. Jonas

    I think these things exist in many countries. I’ve lived in Sweden and UK and they both had similar stereotypes of people from different regions of the country. People from Pohjanmaa are stingy, just as the UK thinks people from Scotland are and the Swedes say that people from Småland are.

    They are just in a similar veign to those stereotypes people have of certain nationalities; the Swedish men are all wimps, the Swiss are all boring, the French don´t like to wash themselves, the Spanish (sorry) are not good at coming on time etc etc.

    Are there really no stereotypes that of people who live in e.g. Madrid, Catalonia, Galicien etc amongst Spanish people? Spain has probably far more distinct differences between its regions, after all. I bet you have a stereotype of the Portuguese and French, no?

    That said, there are also positive stereotypes… e.g. the French are good cooks, the Italians good lovers, the Germans organised, the Danes good fun etc…

    Of course, all of it is based on stereotypes and not on study. Although, sometimes, there does seem to be a minor grain of truth in a broad sense in some stereotypes. Finnish culture is definitely more ´macho´in relative terms compared to Sweden´s, for example.

  2. De Tant Blomhat

    Oh Enrique stpot on. You forgot though the “envy” factor. Nobody is “allowed” to be “better than others” – its such an ingrained part of the psyche people try to appear more modest than their neighbor. And this kind of “peer pressure” has effected legislation as well. For a foreigner it will come as a total shock anyone can get their “private” tax data for example with one phone call – or by visiting the tax office. As that information is “public” – actually again “Finland is not unique” in this manner as its also similar in Norway and Sweden as well. Of course this is “a thing everybody knows but nobody tells you”.

  3. De Tant Blomhat

    – Although, sometimes, there does seem to be a minor grain of truth in a broad sense in some stereotypes. Finnish culture is definitely more ´macho´in relative terms compared to Sweden´s, for example.

    Why in Finland, Norway and Denmark Swedish men are referred to as bøsser or homo… also might have to do with the 1940-50’s court scandals and the post-war affluence causing jealousy (Janteloven after all is not a Finnish invention), but Swedish men dressed… humm… whats the word… “metrosexual” even before the term came fashionable. And it is definitely “less macho” even we think that the machismo is a Mediterranean thing… in Finland I don’t think we call it macho though even it has the same elements.

  4. De Tant Blomhat

    Heres a pearl for Enrique…

    pp51: Kaarlo Hänninen “Geography and Local Studies for Single Homeroom Schools” printed by the ‘Temperance Society Print’ in Helsinki 1929

    “The Tribes of the Finnish Nation:

    The Finns had separated into two tribes when they arrived here. Into the Tavastians and Karelians. The former settling into the west, and the latter to the eastern parts of our country. From these have later on formed the Savonian, the Ostrobothnian, and the Kainu tribes.

    A TAVASTIAN is built big and strong. His eyes are greyish-blue, his hair blond. By nature he is less talkative and solemn than the Karelian. In his work he is industrious and practical. He is an epitome of a Finn. He is very inspired of farming.

    A KARELIAN has a slender build and is taller. His eyes are darker and his hair brown and often curly. By his nature the Karelian is peppy, talkative and industrious. He however lacks the percistency of the Tavastian in his work. This can be witnessed in that he is not as interested in farming as the Tavastian. Instead the Karelian makes business willingly. Karelians love song and dance.

    The PROPER-FINLANDIANs are a Tavastian tribe, which have been mixed with the Swedish population. A Proper-Finlandian is taller than a Tavastian. He is lively and speaks a curt dialect.

    The OSTROBOTHNIANs are a peculiar tribe, who seem to have formed as a mixture of the Tavastian, Savonian and Swedish tribes. The Ostrobothnians are vigorous, brave, fiery and braggy. They are steadfast in farmwork and skillful in handiwork.

    The SAVONIAN tribe has probably formed as a mixture of the Tavastian and Karelian tribes. The Savonian is by nature playful, his dialect is pronounced in a peculiar manner.

    The SWEDISH belong to the Germanic family of nations as do the Danes and Germans. They are tall, slender, narrow-featured and straight-backed. By nature they are gay and additionally love cleanliness. The Swedish living in our country are classified by their abode to Åland, Nyland, Turku and Ostrobothnia Swedes.

    LAPPS live in the counties of Enontekiö, Inari, Utsjoki and Sodankylä as well as the Russian, Swedish and Norwegian Lapplands. By their industry they are classified as Reindeer or Fisher Lapps. The Lapp is short and scrawny, the face is wide, the cheekbones protruding, the nose flat, their hair brown or black. The Reindeer Lapps live in wooden huts or leather tents that they move from one place to another.The Fisher Lapps live in wooden cabins.”

    pp51: Kaarlo Hänninen “Geography and Local Studies for Single Homeroom Schools” printed by the ‘Temperance Society Print’ in Helsinki 1929

  5. De Tant Blomhat

    So if that book was used in the 1930’s in schools then you might start to understand why older people might have some peculiar ideas of things… shows your “classic” stereotypes that these days would be racist and you think this was a *schoolbook*!?!? Wow, we can only be glad that times have changed since then.

    Some of those stereotypes are though close… I mean you cannot deny the Savo dialect and the way of conducting a conversation being different from that of say someone from Joensuu or Oulu – its how your location effects “what is normal” as you say. So even regionally there still are some differences… Finns can be “tribal” first and only second “national”…

  6. De Tant Blomhat

    – the Spanish (sorry) are not good at coming on time

    But it *is* a fact that in different cultures the “concept of time” can differ. I was in Barcelona and there is a “multimedia spectacle”… in Spanish and Catalan it said “starts on the hour, be there a quarter before” in German it said “starts every hour at 00, but it is advisable to be there atleast 15 min before” and in French it was “starts at even hour, but be there half an hour before”…

    And I had an Italian come yell at me the 5 past train had left when he went to the station ten past… which is funny as the trains in Italy seemed to be better in time than the ones in Finland.

    But there is a “concept of time” definitely that differs between cultures.

  7. De Tant Blomhat

    – The Savolainens are all crooked people.

    And Enrique “crooked” here means more the manner of discussing. The way of conducting speech is different in Häme and Savo. You ask a question in Häme and the way there is you think before you answer – whereas in Savo you will give a counter-question or ana ambiguous roundabout answer whereas in Häme you won’t say anything unless you know. Hence the “slow” and “crooked”. And say in Pohjanmaa the answer can be a curt one-word – whereas in Karelia it is expected to have a bit iof small-talk. Each respectively think the other one is being “rude” – one talks too much and one is blunt. There *are* regional differences – Finland isn’t one uniform faceless mass.

  8. Jonas

    Hank W, I think people have long forgotten the Swedish king’s sexual adventures. Finland is a little more macho than Sweden (but also probably DK and N) probably because we’re just a more recently urbanised society. Industrialisation happened a little later here. You can see this masochism seep through into even official decision making. The Finnish church allowed women priests much, much later than the other Scandinavian churches, for example. We also took longer to afford homosexuals rights etc.

    As much as the stereotype of Swedes is as being soft etc in Finland, the stereotype of Finns (and indeed even in Norway and also Denmark to extent) in these countries emphasises ‘machnoness’ and fighting etc. As well as alcohol often (even though our habits aren’t there really that significantly different).

    Stereotypes can be quite interesting in so long as one doesn’t start taking them to seriously, or use them to cause offence. Well, that’s what rich, upper class, arrogant, better person me thinks. 😉

  9. DeTant Blomhat

    What is one point I think all of us missed in these “cultural stereotypes” is that they are all “learned traits”. They have nothing to do with ethnicity or nationality… its your peers and parents who teach you… and the human is adaptable (say look at the wolf children for example)… But then again can you “unlearn” and “relearn”… its easy (just like languages) when you are young but harder at an older age. And what is “normal” always depends on the surroundings. So its more of a “cultural” thing as these days you have subcultures that cross borders and nations and religions… I’m getting a CD of an Indian Heavy Metal band which for me shows that a subculture can be global! So I don’t understand why Enrique claims there wouldn’t be any regional differences – they are subcultures.

    And Jonas – very appropriate freudian slip 😆 brgds, H.

  10. DeTant Blomhat

    – I think people have long forgotten the Swedish king’s sexual adventures.

    Yes but no, I was talking of where the whole thing *originated* from – then when you repeat the mantra often enough the original story gets forgotten but it becomes a “truth”. Urban Legends are one of these similar phenomena – there may be an actual happening or an actual incident but it can also be a re-written joke or a fable or a combination of both. I have for example heard the “stolen dead grandmother wrapped in a carpet” in a “rel life witness” story that happened to some Estonian family in Georgia back in the “good old days”. I was enjoying the story but when I implied its an old story just well localized I got such disbelief… the American family in Mexico didn’t convince them… its “global folklore”. So if you have a stereotype there may well be a fully true incident or a few old jokes told attached to some group and once a few generations tell the stories they become a “stereotype”… And then for a person never met with a people – is the urban legend considering that jews do not eat pork a stereotype? So if it is in fact a cultural/religious command so what is the difference between a “stereotype” and a “fact”? It “keeps you safer” to assume that you don’t flip a ham on the table doesn’t it? If say you have not had any education and never met a person so you don’t know. So I wouldn’t be so dismissive of stereotypes really…

  11. DeTant Blomhat

    – the stereotype of Finns (and indeed even in Norway and also Denmark to extent) in these countries emphasises ‘machnoness’ and fighting etc. As well as alcohol often (even though our habits aren’t there really that significantly different).

    Ah, but here you must remember the facts behind it all. It wasn’t “cosmopolitan city slickers” that moved over to Sweden back in the 60’s. It was the postwar “big generations” escaping from the smallhold farms and as it (stereotypically) true that the countryside villagers are a bit more conservative and macho… even moving to Helsinki you’d hear disparaging remarks of the “lande” and the knife-weilding Oulu peoples – so imagine then moving from an agrarian environment to an industrialized “city slicker” environment there is a double whammy you’d get the culture shock of not only “moving to a city” but also “moving to Sweden”. Which I don’t find it dissimilar of the shock of many foreigners moving to Finland. Though if they come from a huge megacity then moving to “small town” even Helsinki let alone somewhere like Pieksämäki is a total shock in itself… but it was the same for me when I moved from Helsinki to Porvoo… city vs. small town and I wasn’t having problems with the language(s)… took me a year to “acclimatize”. And when I moved back I felt like a “lande” in Helsinki.

  12. Enrique

    Jonas, it is funny thing about stereotypes, but since we are above that we can laugh at ourselves. It is good medicine. I have noticed more differences than stereotypes. Some of these differences, like with the Basque Country and Catalonia, there are linguistic differences. I think the Spaniards consider the Portuguese as small brothers and there is a lot of suspicion with the French because of historical reasons never mind the Moors that once conquered most of the peninsula. Among Spaniards, there is very much racial suspicion with the Moroccans and Arabs. Even though some Spaniards do not like to admit it, a lot of cultural traits from the Moors rubbed off Spain. One of the words is “ojalá,” which means let’s hope. Note the word Alá, the Muslim god. There have been polls carried out. One of the closest affinity that Spaniards have is to Latin Americans, even though this is not always the case and the least to Africans.
    Spain offers an interesting case: You have Latin Americans who speak Spanish, are Catholics and have an affinity with Spanish culture because they were once part of the Spanish Empire. Even so, it does not mean that Spanish culture is open to all Latin Americans. I always think about the Latin Americans in Spain and come to one conclusion that linguistic and cultural affinity are not always the things you need to become well integrated. It has a lot to do with the person and how the majority culture accepts you.

  13. Enrique

    DeTant, the envy factor is a big issue among some Finns. I sometimes think — this is my personal, subjective opinion — that Finns are so modest because they do not awaken envy of others. This may be more in small towns versus big ones. The wrath of envy is a pretty mean beast to contain, no?

  14. DeTant Blomhat

    -I sometimes think — this is my personal, subjective opinion — that Finns are so modest because they do not awaken envy of others. This may be more in small towns versus big ones. The wrath of envy is a pretty mean beast to contain, no?

    Very much true. Its I think a bit of church in there and the “lutheran ethics”

    “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

    Or .. Finnish Commandments: “Thou shalt not be better than thy neighbor”

  15. DeTant Blomhat

    Yes Enrique an of these “ethnic slurs” I give you a nice example why it is that the “locals decide” vs. “foreigners dictate”. Its the same almost in Finland but in Estonia its more evident.

    In Estonia a Caucasian (that is from Caucasus) is called a “must” (black) or if really slur “mustperse”. It generally means muslims or anyone “from the south”.. a “moor” and it is a racial slur. Of course people teach the children not to call anyone “must”… However someone from Africa is properly a “neeger”, scientifically without any kind of prejudice. So then come some “stupid foreigners” and object of being called “neeger” and insist of being called “must”… which to the people means you demand being called something that is not allowed to be printed in the newspaper!

    In Finland a Roma is “mustalainen” and they call us “valkolainen” so I guess its 50/50 but it is already a “reserved word”. But as “neekeri” is offensive-sounding (any word can be used to offend) then you need to invent new terms to avoid confusing the old generations.

    In Spanish you have it *so* easy.

    And yes, I also agree classifying people by their skin color is quite not today. And as a sidenote – calling me a “caucasian” is calling me “black” so it is highly offensive calling me a n***r, so the Americans also “got it all wrong”. I have the same right to impose my own language on other people than they have on me, don’t you agree? So if someone tells me to Adhere to “American standards” I’ll ask them what will a Spaniard say for black, and since when did Americans dictate Finnish grammar?

    I think if people would for one minute take their brain in hand and *think* that the language depends on your environment and other people do not share the same linguistic background before getting “offended” there would be much less name-calling. People will invent more words if one is banned. Can’t we all just get along?

  16. DeTant Blomhat

    Oh and in Swahili a “white person” i.e. “muzungu” is literally “person without skin” so I just wonder *how* they came to *that* conclusion…

  17. Enrique

    Yes, DeTant you have a point. It’s pretty funny. But don’t you think that if we live together in the same society, we could at least agree what we will call each other. If you lived in the USA in the 1970s it was quite confusing. Negro was out and Black was in. Some liked to be called Afro Americans. It’s ok to call a person a n****er if you are black but not ok for a white person to do so. I know that in Finland neekeri is offensive to blacks but it does not mean the “n” word. However, it sounds a bit like Negro, which is passé in the USA. In Argentina, gringos are not from the United States. In Buenos Aires a gringo was an Italian and in northeast Argentina it is any fair-skinned European from Germany, Finland, Poland and the like. The Finnish descendants in Argentina accept the word gringo as a general term. It is not offensive to them. However, I guess it all boils down to agreeing what we will call each other.

  18. DeTant Blomhat

    Well the difference is that “we” all agree and the “outsiders” don’t come and start “dictating” us – as you said a gringo can be a gringo and means a different thing even locally. So thats why I object to “imposing your own standards” upon people because say now there comes three people from different places all who insist in being called of what the others think is offensive then it is a huge mess. Maybe people ought to stop getting offended all the time, a thick skin helps a long way in getting a long in strange environments.

    Yeah, the Americans invent bizarre new words all the time and trends change each decade almost. Reading teenagers on the net these days I need to have an online dictionary to understand what they are writing about, nevermind the appalling grammar. Though the Finnish language is inventing all kinds of new terms as well… Soon you can’t hire a street sweeper but an asphalt cosmetologist.

  19. Enrique

    I know things can get pretty ridiculous in the states. However, what you call other groups is a first important step in establishing respect and doing away with labels that were imposed from outside. As you know, the Lapps are called Sami/Saami, Eskimos are Inuits, Gypsies are called Roma etc. Nobody is imposing anything here. It is only a way of showing respect for those people.

  20. DeTant Blomhat

    Yes, and howcome you still call us Finns? Just out of disrespect? See now how offensive you can be just because I want to be stupid. 😉

  21. DeTant Blomhat

    No we didn’t call ourselves that in English – English was not a language in Finland. That is what *other* people call us – like the Swedes and then the term got loaned top other languages. Same thing as Deutsch are called Allemans or Germans and Shquipetaris are called Albanians. Its just “their name in another language”. What makes someone more special than others if we are supposed to be equal? We cannot say Ryssä for a Russian but use a Venäläinen which is just *opposite* of the trend of using “native origin” words. So nobody IMNSHO has any reason to get offended…

  22. DeTant Blomhat

    BTW regarding Finnish “bluntness” – the thing is Finns don’t bother waving a finger… they whack you with the biggest sledgehammer… or what do you think of this polite opinion of the BSD crowd?
    http://article.gmane.org/gmane.linux.kernel/706950
    (and thats a civilized cosmopolitan Finn-Swede for you)

    So that kind of language is “normal” so pussyfooting over terminology is a bit… hrm… people claim Finns are “rude” and I’d say “you ain’t seeing nothing yet”. Finnish language has a lot of very descriptive phrases which translated into English don’t quite carry the same… hrm… level of understanding.

  23. Enrique

    That was a very interesting link you gave. I read it with great interest. It tell a lot about our preoccupation, or obsession in some cases, to security on a national level.
    Possibly the “bluntness” you mention is one issue. It may be the “normal” way of acting among some Finns. This is cool if you know the person and are good friends with him. However, what about if you told the foreigner: “Look, I hate small talk and do not like to pussyfoot with my ideas. I say things as they are.” Maybe then the foreigners would understand your “bluntness” and not take it as an insult, even if it is ok to be that way among some of your friends. Do you get what I mean? Or did I confuse you even more? 🙂

  24. DeTant Blomhat

    – However, what about if you told the foreigner: “Look, I hate small talk and do not like to pussyfoot with my ideas. I say things as they are.” Maybe then the foreigners would understand your “bluntness” and not take it as an insult, even if it is ok to be that way among some of your friends. Do you get what I mean?

    Ah, but I don’t need to explain that to a Finn so why should I explain it to a foreigner? After all – you are demanding they be treated *equally*. You don’t go explaining things everybody knows like as to small children to grown up people now do you? Its my country – my rules – the foreigner gets insulted out of his own ignorance. Its his own fault trying to impose his own set of rules on me. It is the onus of the foreigner who has to figure out how the locals act – theres 1000’s different cultures in the world – we cannot figure out them all out. Of course – if I go to foreign places I do wear such a warning label and act according to the rules of enhgagement in that country. After all I am not that stupid as to expect foreigners to act like Finns.

Leave a Reply