Whether you’re moving to Finland or just visiting, there are a few things that Finnish people do differently than the rest of the world. Avoiding these 9 common mistakes foreigners make when visiting Finland will reduce misunderstandings and help you to make Finnish friends more easily. Here are some things people do when visiting Finland that make Finnish people uncomfortable.
Finnish Culture Mistake 1: Asking, “How Are You?”
In many parts of the world, “How are you” is a common greeting. People will respond with a simple “good thanks” or not respond at all. This is not the case in Finland.
Finnish people treat “How are you” as a genuine question and will either:
- Feel uncomfortable at being put in a situation where they have to explain themselves to a complete stranger.
- Answer in an unnecessary level of honest detail – making you feel comfortable. I once asked a new neighbor how he was and heard all about the prostitute he had just visited.
That being said, Finnish people will ask the question, “How are you” but only in situations where they genuinely want to know how you are. They’ll ask this question to friends or family, not strangers or new acquaintances. Don’t worry too much about asking, “How are you,” it won’t result in a huge culture clash.
Finnish Culture Mistake 2: Comparing Sweden and Finland
Many cultural faux pas happen due to a lack of knowledge of Finnish history. You don’t need to know everything about the history of Finland. However, a knowledge of the basics can help you to avoid making Finnish people uncomfortable.
For example, many visitors to Finland don’t realize that Finland used to be part of Sweden. In fact, Finland only gained its independence in the early 19th Century. That is why Swedish is the 2nd official language of Finland, and street signs are written in both Finnish and Swedish.
Generally, there are no hard feelings towards Sweden. We Finns are an easy-going bunch, so at most, there is a friendly rivalry between the countries. However, you should avoid comparing the two countries or Swedes and Finns. It is a bit of a sensitive topic for many Finnish people and may offend your new Finnish friends. Be careful when comparing Sweden and Finland.
Finnish Culture Mistake 3: Not Knowing Some Essential Finnish Phrases
While in Finland, it’s a good idea to try to learn some Finnish language – at least some essential phrases to help you to get by. This will help you to connect with the people you meet and get around Finland. Here are some tips to help you to learn Finnish as a beginner.
You don’t need to be fluent in Finnish in order to make friends in Finland. However, something you can do to avoid making Finns uncomfortable is to pay attention to the pronunciation of words. Just like mispronounced words in your language can be grating, Finnish people don’t hate it when people mispronounce words but might facepalm – especially sauna. English speakers tend to pronounce sauna like saw-na. The correct pronunciation is sow-na. (like a female pig). This is a pet peeve for many Finns.
Finnish people are easygoing, so we won’t nitpick your pronunciation, but pronouncing commonly mispronounced words correctly will go a long way with your new Finnish friends. I recommend listening to the pronunciation on Google Translate for any new Finnish words.
Finnish Culture Mistake 4: Invading Personal Space
In Finland, we value personal space. On public transport, people prefer to sit by themselves and will not sit next to someone else unless there are no free seats available. Even on trains, which have banks of 4 or 6 seats, it would be seen as odd to sit in a bank of seats with a stranger if there were other seats available.
Sitting next to a Finn when there are other seats available is Finn’s worse nightmare. They will wonder why you are sitting next to them rather than taking the available seats. They will wonder if it is because of them.
Finnish Culture Mistake 5: Discussing Religion
Finnish people are generally friendly and open about discussing various topics. The one topic that we don’t discuss is religion. There are two reasons behind this:
- Culturally, we don’t dwell on things. Following the wars, Finns were encouraged to move on rather than dwell on the past.
- We believe that we should leave discussions of religion to the experts. At the age of 15, we take 6 months of confirmation classes to educate us on religion.
Bringing up religion is really awkward and considered a faux pas in Finland. It is best to attend a dedicated group if you want to find like-minded people to discuss religion. Even when you make friends in Finland, avoid discussions of religion. It is a topic of discussion that is avoided even with close friends and family.
Finnish Culture Mistake 6: Blocking the Way on Escalators
There is an unspoken rule in Finland that visitors often break. When riding an escalator in Finland, stand on the right side of the escalator. The left side is kept free so that people in a hurry can pass through. Finns are non-confrontational and are unlikely to ask you to move if you stand on the left side, but you will hold people up.
Finnish Culture Mistake 7: Giving Compliments
Giving compliments is not a bad thing – they are a simple, straightforward way to express gratitude. They are also a great way to express interest in someone you wish to date. However, we Finns are shy and reserved. We don’t like to boast, so we can sometimes feel a little awkward about receiving compliments.
So give your Finnish friends compliments when you want to express gratitude, but don’t make a big fuss when giving compliments. Also, don’t be surprised when they downplay what you compliment them about.
Finnish Culture Mistake 8: Getting Too Touchy Feely
As you may have guessed from our love of personal space, Finnish people don’t like a lot of physical contact with strangers. Handshakes, fist bumps, brofists, or high-fives are perfectly acceptable with strangers. If you are at a dinner party, then hugging the hosts and your friends would be seen as acceptable. Hugging in a professional setting or kissing on the cheek in any setting would make Finnish people uncomfortable.
Finnish Culture Mistake 9: Skipping the Line in a Queue
Finnish people take queuing very seriously. We are obedient people and queue in an organized manner. However, queue jumping is not acceptable, and if anyone tries to skip the line, all hell will break loose.
Make Friends in Finland
Eventually, Finnish people are a friendly, easy-going bunch, so it is easy to make friends when visiting Finland. The 9 common culture clashes above will help you to avoid making Finns uncomfortable so that you can find friendship. These tips come from my video How Foreigners Make Finns Uncomfortable (Unintentionally). Watch the video for more tips that will help you to make friends in Finland.