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Customs and Traditions in Finland

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Finland is an easy country to visit. Finnish customs and manners are clearly European, with only a few national variations, and attitudes are liberal. There is very little chance of a visitor committing fundamental social gaffes or breaches of etiquette that would fatally damage relations between himself and his hosts. Such breaches are viewed by Finns with equanimity if committed by their own countrymen and with understanding or amusement if committed by foreigners. Codes of behaviour are fairly relaxed, and reputations — good or bad — are built up over time as the result of personal actions rather than conforming to certain norms or standards. It is difficult in Finland to make or break a reputation on a single occasion.

Generally speaking, Finland is a country where considerable weight is attached to the spoken word — words are chosen carefully and for the purpose of delivering a message. Indeed, there are very few other culture-specific considerations that visitors need be aware of. Finns place great value on words, which is reflected in the tendency to say little and avoid ‘unnecessary’ small talk. As the Chinese proverb puts it, “Your speech should be better than silence, if not, be silent.”

Identity

Finns have a very strong sense of national identity. This is rooted in the country’s history — particularly its honourable wartime achievements and significant sporting merits — and is today nurtured by pride in Finland’s high-tech expertise. Although Finns are not generally well versed in the history of other countries, they may well be disappointed if a visitor proves to be unfamiliar with the turning points of Finnish history or the sports careers of Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren. Visitors would be well advised to know something about the achievements of Finnish rally drivers and Formula 1 stars, and would be expected to know that football players 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 orchestra conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Sakari Oramo. While Finns are aware that Nokia is often mistakenly thought to be a Japanese company, this misconception is viewed forgivingly but with pity.

Visitors should also be prepared to encounter the other side of the Finnish national identity: 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.

Religion

As far as religion is concerned, there are very few dangers for visitors to Finland, even on subjects that in other cultures might be particularly sensitive. Most Finns belong to the Evangelical-Lutheran Church (about 84%), while 1.1% belong to the Greek Orthodox Church. Most people are fairly secular in their views, and religion plays no significant part in everyday life in Finland. Despite this, the Church and its ministers are held in high esteem, and personal religious views are respected. It is difficult to observe differences between believers and everyone else in everyday life, except perhaps in that the former lead more temperate lives. Finns are not terribly well informed about other religions, and so visitors should be aware that not even the most common customs and requirements of other religions are necessarily understood.

Sex equality

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. At the time of writing, the President of the Republic is Mrs. Tarja Halonen, 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.

Chauvinistic or patronizing attitudes towards women are generally considered unacceptable, although such attitudes do persist in practice. Women do appreciate traditional courtesy, although ultimately they appraise men on the basis of their attitude towards equality. Women are usually independent in financial matters, 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, 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 alternatives (he/she). The latter problem does not exist at all in Finnish, where the third person singular pronoun hän covers both genders. There are also many titles ending in –mies (man) that are not considered gender-specific. Indeed, at the time of writing the Speaker of Parliament is a woman, but she is nevertheless addressed as puhemies (literally ‘speech-man’). It is appropriate for visitors to follow the established practice of whatever language they are using.

Talking

The conception that Finns are a reserved and taciturn lot is an ancient one and does not retain the same validity any more, 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 word and a bull by its horn,” says the Finnish proverb. A Finn will carefully consider what he says and expect others to do so too. He considers verbal agreements and promises binding not only upon himself but upon the other party too, and 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 often taken at face value, and forgetting them can cause concern. Small talk, a skill at which Finns are notoriously lacking, is considered suspect by definition, and is not especially valued.

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.

Finns are better at listening than at talking, and 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 newsreading 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. Many foreigners have wondered at the effect the sauna has on Finns: in this familiar environment, they may suddenly become embarrassingly open and candid.

Mobile phones

The increasing use of mobile phones is revolutionizing the image of Finnish communications skills. The ubiquitous, ostensibly witty ringing tones of the phones demonstrate how eager people are to talk to each other, especially when they are not face to face. One foreign journalist described a scene that he considered typically Finnish: a lone man sitting in a bar with a beer and speaking into a phone. A Finnish version of small talk? Communication without intimacy?

The emergence of mobile phones has led to a loosely defined etiquette regarding their use in situations that could be disturbing or dangerous to others. Using mobile phones is prohibited in hospitals and on board planes, it is inappropriate at meetings, and positively barbaric at concerts, in theatres or in church. Mobile phones have no doubt changed visitors’ perceptions of Finland. Whereas a few decades ago a visitor might report back home of an uncommunicative, reserved and introvert Arctic tribe, the more common view today is that of a hyper-communicative people who are already experiencing the future that some fear and others hope for: a society where anyone can reach anyone else, no matter where or when.

Languages

A Finn’s mother tongue is either Finnish, Swedish (5.6% of the population are Swedish-speakers) or Sámi (some 7,000 native speakers). Finnish belongs to the tiny Finno-Ugrian language family; outside Finland it is only understood (and to some extent spoken) in Estonia. As a nation with no close linguistic relatives, Finns have protected their mother tongue by enshrining a wide range of language teaching in the school curriculum.

English is widely spoken in Finland and is very common in the business world; some international Finnish companies even use it as their house language. German is less common, although many Finns in their 50s or older learned it as their first foreign language at school. French, Spanish and Russian form a growing part of the linguistic repertoire of pupils and adult students. Membership of the European Union and the related practical and social demands have increased the pressure to study European languages, at least in the case of Finns who travel in Europe on national or corporate business.

A curiosity we might mention is Latin, which is featured in the weekly Nuntii Latini news report broadcast by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE). The Latin news reaches Latin enthusiasts all over the world via satellite and shortwave broadcasts and is extremely popular.

Most educated Finns, particularly those holding public office, speak both Finnish and Swedish. Almost all Swedish-speaking Finns speak Finnish too; only some of the coastal regions and the autonomous island province of Åland are exclusively Swedish-speaking, Åland officially so. The status of Swedish as the country’s second official language can be seen in the bilingual names of public institutions, companies and many towns and cities, and in the Swedish-language programms on radio and TV. Swedish-speaking Finns have a distinctive culture, arts and social life of their own, marked by numerous Scandinavian traditions. Tensions between the official languages are rare, and it is not difficult for visitors to orient themselves in a country of which it was once said that its people “keep silent in two languages”.

Names and titles

When introducing themselves, Finns will give their first name followed by their surname. Women who use both their maiden name and their husband’s name will state them in this order. Although Finns are very particular about any honorary, academic or professional titles they may have, they rarely mention these when introducing themselves. By contrast, they do expect to be addressed by their title in professional and official contexts: Doctor Virtanen, Director General Savolainen, etc. Foreigners, however, are not expected to follow this practice — with the possible exception of academic titles — and can safely address Finns using the English practice of Mr/Mrs/Miss/Sir/Madam, or any equivalent thereof.

The familiar form of address in Finnish (i.e. the 2nd person singular pronoun sinä, as opposed to the formal 2nd person plural pronoun te) is commonly used, not just between friends and acquaintances but with strangers too. It is also 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.

Although the use of the familiar sinä is common, using first names requires a closer and more personal 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 leisure. However, it is felt appropriate that the use of first names is specifically and mutually agreed upon. For a Finn, an explicit shift to a first-name basis is permanent.

In the 1990s, there was a trend, even among young people, towards a more formal etiquette incorporating the formal te form of address, reserving sinä for more intimate relationships only. Agreeing on a closer relationship has its own charm when approached according to Scandinavian etiquette. 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. Neglecting an acquaintance thus entered into is considered a gross error, as is forgetting the other person’s name.

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.

Businessmen and those in public office are expected to distribute business cards as a means of ensuring their name and title are remembered. Finns engaged in international duties usually have other versions of their business card appropriate to the circumstances. 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 honorific or title might mean.

Greeting

When greeting, the parties shake hands and make eye contact. A full bow denotes special respect — in normal circumstances, a nod of the head is enough. A Finnish handshake is brief and firm, and involves no supporting gestures such as touching the shoulder or upper arm. When greeting a married couple, the wife should be greeted first, except on a formal occasion where the hosts should first be greeted by the spouse to whom the invitation was addressed. Children are greeted by shaking hands too. Embracing people when greeting them is rare in Finland. A man greeting someone in the street should raise his hat; in the cold of winter, a touch of the hand to the brim of the hat is enough.

Finns can kiss as well as the next nation, but they rarely do so when greeting. Hand-kissing is rare, although women find it charming. Friends and acquaintances may hug when meeting, and kisses on the cheek are not entirely unknown, although this habit is not generally found in countryside areas. There is no special etiquette regarding the number of kisses on the cheek; however, most Finns feel that three kisses is going a bit far. Men very rarely kiss each other in greeting, and never on the mouth in the manner of their eastern neighbours.

Eating

Finnish cuisine is a mixture of European, Scandinavian and Russian elements; table manners are European. Breakfast can be quite substantial. Lunch is usually taken between 11.00 and 1.00, a typical lunch break at work lasting less than one hour. The once common extended business lunches have shrunk to 90 minutes or two hours. Dinner is eaten at around 5.00-6.00 at home; in restaurants, evening meals are served at around 7.00-8.00. Many restaurants stop serving some time before they actually close, so it is worthwhile checking the opening hours when booking a table. Concerts and theater performances usually begin at 7.00 or 7.30, and audiences adjourn to restaurants at around 10.00.

Restaurant menus and home cooking rarely involve dishes that Western visitors would not be acquainted with. Increased nutritional awareness has made the traditionally heavy and fat-rich Finnish diet lighter, and the better restaurants can cater to a variety of dietary requirements. Ethnic restaurants, constantly increasing in number, add to the growing choice. Alcoholic beverages are commonly consumed with food, although at lunch these days they feature very little if at all.

At a dinner party, the host determines the seating order if necessary. The guest of honor is seated to the right of the hostess (or the host, if it is a men-only dinner). This is a seat dreaded by most Finns, since the guest of honor is expected to say a few words in thanks to the hosts after the meal. Guests should not begin to eat until everyone has been served; usually, the host will propose a toast at the beginning of the meal, wishing his guests bon appétit! It is not appropriate for guests to drink before this, unless the beginning of the meal is exceptionally delayed. Finns rarely make speeches during a meal, except on formal occasions; in such cases, the speeches are made between courses. During the meal, the host may toast individual guests, or guests may toast each other, by raising their glasses and making eye contact; once the toast is drunk, eye contact should be made again when lowering the glass to the table.

A meal normally concludes with coffee and other drinks offered with it. If smoking is allowed on the premises, this is the moment to bring out the cigars and cigarettes, unless the host has allowed or suggested this earlier. When rising from the table, the guests should thank the hosts briefly when they get the chance, regardless of whether the guest of honor has done so or not.

A meal is an important form of socializing in Finland, as indeed it is elsewhere. The hosts should ensure that the meal is of high quality and that the proceedings are unhurried yet smooth. Guests are expected to participate in the occasion by indulging in interesting and amusing conversation with the people beside them. Finns have a tendency to talk about business even at the dinner table; foreigners can safely sabotage this by turning the discussion to something completely different.

Drinking

Finns consume the equivalent of slightly over nine litres of pure alcohol per person per year, which is close to the European average. Drinking habits mainly follow Scandinavian and European practices. There are fewer national characteristics than one might think, considering that the Finns have a reputation for drinking. The most conspicuous national characteristic is the relatively high rate of consumption of spirits and the related tendency of drinking to excess. Consumption of wine and beer has increased in recent years, and as a result more civilized forms of drinking behaviour have also become common. Consumption of alcohol at lunchtime is less common in the business world than used to be the case, and in the public sector it is extremely rare.

Alcohol consumption varies widely by social group and, to some extent, by region. The influence of Central European or Mediterranean drinking habits is primarily visible among urban middle and upper middle-class young adults and slightly older educated Finns: wines are displacing spirits, wine clubs are increasing their membership, wine tastings are organized in the home, and wine columns in newspapers are boosting the sales of recommended wines.

Most wines and other alcoholic beverages are imported and sold by the government-owned Alko, and private individuals can only buy alcoholic beverages in Alko shops, with the exception of lower strength beers and ciders. Alko is a major buyer of wines even by international standards, which is why it is able to stock a wide and geographically representative selection of wines of all qualities, including top labels. Many restaurants import their own wines directly from suppliers abroad.

In homes, wine is normally reserved for weekend meals, but meals prepared for guests or taken in a restaurant usually involve wine. Often — and in the case of Swedish-speaking Finns, almost always — a meal is preceded by schnapps, a shot of vodka or aquavit in a tiny glass. This is considered integral to cold fish courses, and absolutely essential for crayfish. Swedish-speaking Finns have a custom of enlivening the occasion with a line or two of a drinking song before each schnapps. Major parties have a dedicated toastmaster who determines the interval between shots and leads the singing. Finnish-speaking Finns have a less elaborate and less structured drinking etiquette, although there are schnapps songs in Finnish too. Schnapps is usually accompanied by mineral water, or sometimes beer, which is also commonly served with meals. Beer is also used to slake the enormous thirst created by the sauna.

A visitor can approach Finnish drinking habits as he sees fit. It is not necessary to drink a shot of schnapps in one gulp even if your neighbour does so; it is enough to raise the glass to one’s lips without even swallowing. It is also perfectly appropriate to request mineral water or non-alcoholic wine with a meal. Lunch is usually accompanied by non-alcoholic beverages in any case, and non-alcoholic drinks are usually provided. The social acceptability of drinking to excess is on the decline among young adults, and the view that wine is ‘the drink of the wise’ is spreading. Abstinence is also promoted by legislation; in Finland, the drunken driving limit is very low, and the penalties are severe.

Tipping

Tipping has never fitted very easily into the Finnish way of life. This may have originally been due to the traditions of a religion which emphasized frugality; today, the rather blunt reason for not tipping is that the price paid includes any unusual instances of service or politeness i.e. the view taken is that "service is included". Tipping does nevertheless exist in Finland, and you should bear in mind that nobody will object to being tipped, and very few will mind not being tipped. As a rule, service is included in restaurant bills. However, an extra service charge is often added to bills which are to be paid by the customers' employers. Those who pay for their own meals and in cash often choose to round the bill up to the nearest convenient figure. This does not require any complicated arithmetics from the customer, as no one cares whether the tip really is 10-15% of the total bill.

Tipping at hotels is fairly rare. If you know that you have caused extra trouble for the cleaner, it would, of course, be a kind gesture to leave a tip. Receptionists should be tipped only by long-staying guests at the hotel. Like their colleagues across the world, Finnish hotel porters will be glad to be tipped the price of a small beer. It is also OK to leave a few coins on the bar for the barman.

Taxi drivers do not expect to get a tip as such, but customers often pay the nearest rounded up figure to the actual fare. Major credit cards are usually accepted by taxi drivers, but in this case tipping in cash is most practical. If you are the guest of Finnish hosts, you should leave any tipping to their discretion.

Smoking

Smoking has decreased in recent years, and attitudes towards it have become more negative. The law prohibits smoking in public buildings and workplaces; being generally law-abiding, Finns have adapted to this legislation and only smoke in areas specially designated for this purpose. Nevertheless, smoking is still quite common, even among young people. International trends have made cigars more popular. An increasing number of restaurants and bars provide a selection of premium cigars, particularly Havanas, and the current conventional wisdom is that a cigar is an excellent conclusion to dining out.

Smokers are expected to be considerate. When invited to a private home, a guest should ask the hosts if he can smoke even if there are ashtrays visible; at a restaurant, too, it is polite to ask the rest of the company if they mind you smoking. In a private home, smokers may be guided to the balcony, which may have the effect of reducing the intake of nicotine considerably in cold weather. Smokers of long-lasting cigars in particular may need to exercise self-control under such circumstances. Smoking between courses at a meal is common but not recommended; the rest of the company and the cook in particular will appreciate it if the smokers wait until the coffee and brandy to light up.

Visiting

The home is to a great extent the focus of social life in Finland — to a greater extent at least than in countries where it is more common to meet over a meal in a restaurant. There are cultural but also economic reasons for this. An increased interest in cooking and wines has led to an increase in entertaining in the home. A foreign visitor need have no qualms about being invited into someone’s home; he can expect a fairly relaxed and informal atmosphere, and sending or bringing a bunch of flowers or a bottle of wine for the hosts will set a good mood.

A greater cultural challenge for the visitor is accepting an invitation to one of the innumerable summer cottages that dot the seashores and lakeshores of Finland. One in four Finns own a summer cottage, and for many, their summer cottage is a second home. Sociologists like to explain that the summer cottage is a tie that Finns maintain to their fairly recent rural past; and in fact it is true that many Finns transform into surprisingly competent fishermen, gardeners, farmers, carpenters or foresters when they retire to their summer cottages.

A guest is not expected to take part in this role-play, at least not actively. On the other hand, he is expected to submit without complaint to the often primitive conditions at the summer cottage. Often there is no electricity, no running water, no flushing toilet or any other urban convenience — many families consider that even a TV set is incompatible with genuine summer cottage life (although there will, of course, be a mobile phone with which the guest can report home on his tribulations amidst this regression to life in the wilds).

A guest is expected to dress casually and practically when going to a summer cottage. The hosts will have boots, raincoats and windcheaters that are used as the weather dictates or when going fishing, picking mushrooms or trekking. An experienced guest understands that under these conditions the hosts, particularly the hostess, have to go to a lot of trouble to give the guest an enjoyable stay. Help with routine chores is greatly appreciated: washing the potatoes or peeling the onions in preparing a meal is a task the guest can safely offer to undertake. The best reward for the hosts is that the guest enjoys himself, rain or shine. It would be wise to raise the question of returning to the city at morning coffee on the third day, and only desist from his intention to leave if the hosts protest with particular conviction.

Time and seasons

Although seasons occur everywhere, in Finland they mark the progress of the year with striking conspicuousness. Extending far beyond the Arctic Circle, Finland enjoys such extremes of temperature and daylight that it would not be too far-fetched to say that there are two cultures in Finland: one dominated by the almost perpetual daylight of the summer sun and surprisingly high temperatures, and the other characterized by mercilessly cold winter frosts and an Arctic darkness that only briefly relents to twilight during the day.

Although summer comes every year, it is considered so important that virtually the entire country ‘shuts down’ — as visitors often find to their chagrin. After Midsummer, Finns move to their cottages and villas, and those who stay in the city spend their time out of doors, in street cafés and bars, in parks and on beaches, being social and feeling positive. Business and personal correspondence may be temporarily shelved, e-mails cheerfully return ‘out of the office’ notifications for a month or more, and conversations between acquaintances revolve more around how the fish are biting or how the garden is doing than around important issues of international politics or the economy. It is easy for a visitor to observe that in summer Finns are especially proud and happy to be Finns and to live in Finland, and encouraging these feelings is welcome.

With the advent of winter, Finns close down their summer cottages, villas and the like, put their boats in dry dock and cover them with tarpaulins, put snow tires on their cars, dig out heavy clothes and shoes from closets, stash their golf gear in the basement and check their skis. Finns are efficient in winter, since there are few distractions available outdoors, and time spent indoors might as well be used for work. Whereas the rural ancestors of today’s Finns whiled away the long winter days in making and repairing tools for summer, their descendants labour in offices to make their country an efficient and modern high-tech marvel. Although a visitor may wonder at streets and roads being deserted in winter, he may sense that behind the lit windows an industrious people are at work. In any case, winter will soon be over, and the time will come to inspect how the summer cottage and its surroundings have weathered the cold season.

The dramatic differences between seasons have the effect of instilling in Finns a vivid sense of time passing. Positive expectations regarding the next season are a manifestation of this: soon the snow will melt; soon the migrating birds will arrive; soon the sun will no longer set in the north of the country; soon the apples will ripen; soon the first frosts will come.

Finns are also quite punctual and, in one sense, captive to time. As is the case elsewhere in the world, those holding the most demanding jobs have tight daily schedules; missing appointments can cause anguish. Appointments are punctually kept, and being more than 15 minutes late is considered slovenly and rude, even in an informal meeting among friends. Concerts, theater performances and other public functions begin on time, and delays in domestic rail and bus traffic are extremely rare.

In general, busy lifestyles are in fashion, 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 time management skills. In such an environment, the time allocated by the host or hosts 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 further to eat or drink, even a sauna, or perhaps a visit to the summer cottage, the visitor can rest assured that a lasting business relationship, or even friendship, is on the cards.

The sauna

A nation of five million people with 1.5 million saunas has no need to acquire a formal sauna etiquette — learning to bathe in the sauna comes as naturally as learning to speak. Visitors are well advised to have their first encounter with the sauna in the company of a Finnish friend or acquaintance, rather than following a mechanical set of instructions that reduces sauna bathing to a drill by numbers.

In Finland, both men and women bathe in the sauna, but never together except within the family. There are no mixed public saunas in Finland. When friends and acquaintances decide to bathe, it is customary to agree who goes first, men or women. Often the women will want to go first, especially if they will be preparing food afterwards. Because Finns bathe in the sauna relatively often — up to several times a week, especially at a summer cottage — there is nothing strange about a guest (even a Finn) politely declining the sauna. A visitor hesitant about having a sauna should remember that if it has been heated specially for him, it is a matter of pride for his hosts, and only medical reasons are an acceptable justification for not trying it.

Having a sauna is something completely natural to Finns, who each have their own way of bathing in the sauna; no Finn would ever say to another that he is ‘doing it wrong’. This is a good principle to follow for the visitor too: listen to your own body and follow your own rhythm in moving between the steam room, the washing room and the open air, perhaps including the lake or the sea. It is helpful to follow what others are doing, but avoid extremes: some Finns feel the need to demonstrate their tenacity by sitting in a scalding hot sauna for inordinately long periods. In such a situation, a wise visitor will quietly slip out to have a drink and enjoy the scenery. On the other hand, it can be equally rewarding to surrender to unknown rituals without prejudice: the feeling of being beaten with a bunch of leafy birch twigs in the heat of the steam room can be a surprisingly pleasant experience.

The sauna is no place for anyone in a hurry. When the bathing is over, it is customary to continue the evening with conversation, drinks and sometimes a light meal. A guest is well advised to comment on his experience to the host; any questions regarding the sauna and its customs are well received, since this is a subject that Finns never tire of talking about. The sauna is also one of the few places where Finns will forget about work and talk about something else.


Written for Virtual Finland by Olli Alho, director of Programms Finnish Broadcasting Company; 25 November 2002

http://virtual.finland.fi/finfo/english/guide.html


Following are comments about Finland from the Internet by someone in Finland named Kimmo (obviously a young person):

Weekend in Finland by kimmo_v Description: "Heavy work requires heavy amusements", is Finns' motto. So, every adult - and most of minors too - start their Friday evening by drinking lots of alcohol. Traditional way is to drink a full bottle of strong liquor, the so-called "Perjantaipullo" (Friday Bottle). However, most modern Finns drink lager and other mild alcohol. In any case, the purpose is to get really drunk and mess around. Alcohol is very expensive in Finland, and especially expensive it is at a "restaurant" (a place which serves alcohol). That's why finns buy the slightly cheaper alcohol beforehand at state monopoly (ALKO) stores and drink as much as they dare before going to a "restaurant". Younger people buy alcohol this way: they calculate which drink has the most alcohol compared to its cost, and buy it. Never mind what it tastes of or what it is.

At every restaurant, there is a big man at the door. He selects which customers who are allowed to get in. He does not try to get more customers in, he prevents some customers from entering! Yes, in Finland, the "restaurants", discos, dance and night clubs choose their customers, not vice versa. Even if the place is not popular, there will be a "door monkey" who makes people to wait in line. Yes, the big man at the door is not trying to get more people in!

At the door, this man, called a "portsari" (portier) sniffs at the potential customer's breath and generally tries to see whether or not this potential customer is sober enough, or looks good enough, to be allowed entry. Portsari can also search customers for hidden alcohol bottles, as these are not allowed in "restaurants". After the cavity search, the customer pays a few euros, or more, and is then allowed into the lobby. But, before the customer actually gets in, his or her topmost clothes must first be taken off and left at the guarded coat-rack. This, of course, also costs a few euros. The object of the evening is to get laid, or, if that fails, as usual, to get very, very drunk

Behaviour by kimmo_v Description: Finns talk as little as possible. Rarely they touch anyone, shaking hands is the most anyone will ever do. Unless drunk, of course. Whenever there is a big meeting, where a lot of people freely mix together, there are usually no formal introductions. People might have name badges. Foreigners are sometimes treated exceptionally, and, actually, introduced to Finns! The usual way to introduce a foreigner is to do it in front of everyone, so that Finns wouldn't have to touch the foreigner or to talk him/her in person. However, if the introduction is personal, the finns reclutantly shake hands and "say" their name - the custom is to quietly mumble something like "hhmnumh hnmuhmnhh". Ignore what the Finn says and look at the name badge instead.

Then there is the Finnish small talk. The face of a Finn, who is attempting to small talk, gets red, swollen and sweaty, and, after a long silence, he or she finally says something simple with bad english. Nearly every Finn can speak English, most even speak it very well, but these situations make them forget almost everything. What most Finns are desperate to know is what you think about them and their country. They might even ask you. Prepare some vague, round statements which do not offend or embarrass the Finns. Too positive evaluation is often much more embarrassing than too negative!

In their home or with the closest friends, Finns can pick their nose, fart, burp, scratch their butt and so on. However, they never do this in public or among strangers. So, if a Finn does any of those things, you know you are now his/her close friend - a great honor!

Midsummer Celebration in Finland by kimmo_v Description: There are two ways to spend this Midsummer weekend. The rich people go to their summer cottages. There they take sauna baths, and drink a lot of alcohol. There isn't anything else to do in a finnish summer cottage. The poor people (teenagers, students) go to a "rock festival". At the "rock festival", people live in tents, drink a lot of alcohol, and try to pick up one night (or one hour, or whatever) stands and to have unprotected, poor quality sex while drunk and dirty (there aren't any showers or anything anywhere, only mud flats or, in the best cases, wet grass fields). Also there will be lots of fights, passed out underaged teens, religious fanatics preaching against "satanic music", and so on. No one gets any sleep for three or more days and, of course, drinks to the point of vomiting every day. After this "refreshing vacation" they return to their summer jobs or studies.

Summer cottages, by the way, have no modern comforts. Some might have electricity. Most have no running water - you get it from the well, infested with interesting bacteria. Also there's nothing to do at the summer cottage. You can read a ten-year old Reader's Digest like you did the last summer, or you can take a sauna bath. So, the only way to pass the time is to drink a lot of alcohol.

Which brings us to the most popular sport of Midsummer, that is drowning. Every year, there is a competition; how many people manage to die by drowning at Midsummer. There are many ways to go. One way is first to drink a lot of alcohol, take a very hot sauna bath, and run out into the icy lake. Then you get a cramp, a heart attack, or a stroke. If you don't, you must swim into the opposite shore, some two miles away. Of course you can do it! All that booze you've been drinking keeps you warm and gives you the strength.


June Pelo


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