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Cultural facts about Finnish people and their way of life

Picture of Barona employee Maria Duca.
Maria Duca Palarie Barona
People in Finland crossing a street in Helsinki

So, you have found yourself in Finland or are considering moving to this peculiar country that sports reindeer as police officers and is full of highly ambitious people who regularly compete to find out who can sit in the sauna the longest. Finnish culture is not best known for making easy and fast friendships with the locals, nor for the most lively social life, especially if you come from a more southern country and are used to something very different. However, the Finnish way of life is known for other kinds of positive traits characteristic of its people.

You will likely experience deep and meaningful connections and lasting friendships in this small northern country, but this requires that you are aware of the challenges and social rules that come with the Finnish lifestyle. If you know the most basic expectations and unwritten rules that are tightly connected with the social norms in Finland, you have all the means to create meaningful connections and a fulfilling social life, which naturally makes up for a satisfying life both at work and outside of the office.

We have collected a Top 10 List of the essential cultural facts and social norms for everyone outside the Finnish borders and culture. With these pointers, you know what to expect and how to win the Finns’ trust and – eventually – hearts. Here it comes!

Trustworthiness – It pays off

Trustworthiness is an essential characteristic of the Finnish lifestyle. Finns expect that, generally, you can trust each other and what has been promised. This mentality applies on many different levels. One example: if you’re traveling by train and need to visit the toilet or the restaurant cart, you can do this without packing your belongings. You can – almost without exceptions – trust that your belongings will be where you left them when you return to your seat. Ok, perhaps taking your phone and wallet with you is clever, but you can quite confidently leave everything else, including a laptop, on your seat.

The same applies to cafés and restaurants. If you, for example, work in a café, it’s common to leave your laptop and bag by the table when you visit the toilet. Of course, it depends a bit on the place, but generally, you can trust the other guests not to disappear with your things and make a run for it. Another example: if you lose your phone, wallet, keys, or other possessions, you usually get them back since Finns generally bring things like that to the police or a lost and found office.

The same trustworthiness applies to promises that are made, as well as verbal contracts. Finland is known for the fact that verbal contracts are binding as well as written ones. When a Finn promises you something or makes a verbal contract with you, you can generally trust that they won’t back down on their promise.

This trustworthiness is what Finns also expect from you. If you do well, you can gain the trust of Finns and make your way into their good graces. If you do not follow these rules, it might be hard to regain trust.

Space – both physically and mentally

You might have noticed Finnish people getting uncomfortable when someone physically gets close to them. There might be a drop of anxious sweat dripping down the forehead of a Finn if someone doesn’t respect their personal space. This applies to all kinds of physical gestures, like standing too close, hugging, and giving a kiss on the cheek. To close friends and family, this naturally doesn’t apply, but if you don’t know the Finn in question very well, it’s always a good idea to stick to a handshake, however much you’d like to give in to your instinct and give a hug or a kiss on the cheek. If you want to raise a Finn’s blood pressure, being very touchy-feely does the trick.

Also, mentally, Finnish people expect you to butt out and don’t go nosing about their private matters. Finns do tell you about their personal things if they feel like it, but this is not a culture where butting in people’s business is appreciated. Finns need their space also mentally.

Loudness – Or preferably stillness

This is probably something you have already noticed or at least heard of. Finns are people that value quietness – and very much so. To fit in, you must recognize the situations and places where silence or at least hushed voices are expected and welcomed.

For example, a public sauna or public transportation are places where loud voices and shouting are frowned upon. Finns find it disrespectful and extremely annoying if you disturb their peace by being loud. For example, talking loudly on the phone or listening to music without headphones on public transportation won’t make you new friends. You will most likely get angry glances, though. Of course, there are also situations where Finns like to get loud. Regardless of their usual quietness, Finns also know how to party and let loose.

Punctuality – So simple yet effective

If you want to annoy a Finn, be late! Finnish people are generally very punctual. This means they are either on time or arrive five minutes before expected. If you know the people well and it’s a casual get-together, it won’t be an issue if you arrive a few minutes late. Still, you are expected to apologize if you don’t make it on time and preferably have a good reason (or excuse) for being late. If it’s a business meeting or showing up at work, you don’t have the luxury of being late. When Finns expect you to be there at 12.00, it means 12.00 sharp. Or preferably five minutes before.

No littering – Respecting nature

If you’re intent on receiving loads of unnecessary minus points from the Finnish people, leaving your trash in nature is the simplest way. Throw a soda can into the lake or toss a plastic bag into the woods, and you can be sure you are not making any friends. It’s not even a huge exaggeration to say that you will probably make enemies with this disrespectful behavior. So, make a mental note: whenever you spend time in a forest, by a lake, or even in the park: clean up after yourself! That will score you points.

Finnish People relaxing in the park. A group of Finns laying on the grass and relaxing

Invitations and buying rounds – No need to worry

Has a Finn invited you to a bar or restaurant to meet up? Good for you! However, before you go, it’s good to be aware of some rules of the Finnish culture to ensure the evening turns out as pleasant as possible. Firstly: Finns rarely pay rounds for their friends in bars and even more rarely at restaurants. Also for the cases when they have invited you to join them. Secondly (and this is good news for you): they don’t expect you to pay for anyone else either. So, before you start worrying about money issues, don’t! Just pay for yourself, and that is generally the way to go. However, if someone wants to buy a round, return the favor.

Honest but polite – Achieving the right balance

Finns are generally honest people, and you can trust their word. Finnish culture values honesty, but at the same time, Finns are very prone not to offend anyone. They also expect this from others. And Finns can be pretty hurt if you open up entirely with negative opinions about the Finn in question. If they show you their new summer house they have renovated themselves, it’s best not to tell them what a horrible job they have done and how you would’ve done it yourself instead. Just nod, say something polite, and keep smiling.

It takes time to see a Finn’s home – It’s not about you

Have you met some friendly people and made friends with them? Great job, you have clearly done something very right! However, you might wonder why no one has yet invited you to their home. Don’t worry; this has nothing to do with you. This has more to do with the Finnish way of life. Kids usually meet at home for play dates, but grown-up Finns tend to spend time with each other at cafés, restaurants, or other public places outside of the house. At some point, you might get an invitation to a party or get-together at someone’s home but don’t take it personally if it takes a while. It’s just how the Finns are wired.

Home and family-centered – What the Finnish people value most

Although Finns are not big on inviting people – at least new acquaintances – to their homes, they are, however, very keen on staying at home themselves. There is even a saying that presents the Finnish lifestyle well: Away is good, home is best. As the Finns are, generally, not the most sociable people, they feel the safest at home, where they don’t have to talk to anyone if they are not in the mood. Finns are also very couple- and family-centered. They like spending their free time with their partners and immediate family. Friends are usually not that tightly involved in the everyday lives of adult Finns who have families. This is also something you shouldn’t take personally.

Bonding – Be patient

And finally: be patient. Finnish people take their sweet time to open up to new people, and they are not to be rushed. But when you finally win them over and can call them your friends, you are in for a treat because Finns are loyal friends. When a Finn sees you as a friend, they don’t take it lightly, and you have probably made a friend for life. Job well done! Just remember not to start littering, arriving late, shouting on trains, or kissing them on the cheeks; that might put your new-found friendship to the test.

We at Barona take your well-being in Finland very seriously and want to support your integration into the Finnish culture. Read more about Navigating Finnish etiquette and social norms and Social Life and Integration with the Local Community in Finland.

Illustration photo - Working in Finland. Man holding a phone and talking in Helsinki.

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