Culture shock – Finnish edition
Is Finland even capable of such a thing – to shock? Five interviewees from Azerbaijan, France, Italy, Spain and Turkey help to find an answer to this question – and to explain – what it is like to be an expatriate in Finland. This interview, conducted by Hannah Zeppen, is intended to present an international perspective on Finnish culture.
Finland is not necessarily the first country that comes to mind in terms of European immigration. However, it seems to be particularly attractive to those who have already familiarised themselves with the culture and the country. After one year of voluntary work, which could almost be seen as a “trial run” for Finland, many of my international friends ended up staying there. Some of them are now building a permanent life in Finland. As I have also considered staying there, this made me wonder how Finland can cast such a spell on us foreigners. I invited five of them for an interview to answer the question: How does it feel to start a new life in Finland? And why do people choose it in the first place?
In this interview, the view of Finland is strongly influenced by people from countries that are located very far from the north of Europe. What is particularly fascinating is the perspective of those who had never come into contact with Finland before moving there and how their perception of the country has changed over time.
What brought you to Finland? And what made you stay? Do those reasons differ?
Finland as a destination was often a result of coincidence, curiosity, or a fascination with the “Nordic” way of living that can hardly be put into words, and which largely stems from the headlines about the high standard of living, the education system, and a pinch of ignorance as to what exactly this means.
Once in Finland, it was mainly the atmosphere and the high standard of living in Finland that were particularly attractive. In the end, it turned out that the reasons to come and the reasons to stay did not differ that much. The country generally seemed to offer what was expected of it – with the slight side effect that the expectations were even exceeded.
“At the beginning I didn’t consider Finland. I was looking for something new, a new experience in my life. I didn’t even think about staying in Finland, but at the last moment, literally in the last month, I decided to stay here. Probably in the end I realised that I fell in love with this country.” – Nariman, Azerbaijan
What do you love and what do you dislike about your ordinary life in Finland?
One aspect that was often underscored in the discussions was the safety and calmness of Finland. People are generally not perceived as being rushed or hectic, but rather collected and very respectful. Honesty and kindness were also frequently mentioned when referring to personal interactions, alongside an overall feeling of peacefulness within society and throughout ordinary life.
The culture encourages calm, purposeful behaviour in people. Finns are neither unnecessarily exuberant, nor unfriendly. The social fabric as a whole is less pompous, and interactions seem clear, more honest. Moreover, many aspects of life in Finland are very modern and progressive, with fewer but meaningful traditions. Equality is very important and present in Finland – not only in reality, but also in people’s minds. Despite higher costs of living, social differences are less noticeable, and the way people treat each other is not based on social status.
However, their relationship to nature was subject of a fierce debate. While some emphasise how beautiful they find the Finns’ closeness to nature, some criticise that far too little attention is paid to real environmental protection. Another criticism was the lack of motivation to do a lot of socialising after work, as Finns like to be at home.
“I loved how Finns have enough time and money to dedicate their life to their dreams without much financial risk. I also like that the people are honest, and many have really good values.” – Marta, Spain
“Everything seems to go without haste, there is no rush, no nervousness here.” – Federica, Italy
Has your origin ever been a problem for you in Finland?
It is positive to note that none of the interviewees personally experienced direct discrimination due to their origin. Nevertheless, the Finnish language is an obstacle that should not be underestimated, which can also lead to people who have moved there being excluded from certain opportunities and aspects of life.
“More than my origin, the language limited me. Even though many people speak fluent English, Finnish is fundamental to create a permanent life for yourself there.” – Marta, Spain
What is the best metaphor that comes into your mind when thinking about Finland?
“If Europe was a shared flat, Finland would be the one flatmate that is a bit peculiar, but always cute and lovable.” – Marta, Spain
“Сold hands, warm hearts and a hot sauna.” – Nariman, Azerbaijan
“Finland is like a coconut: very hard on the outside, but soft on the inside.” – Serhan, Turkey
“Silence is golden.” – Federica, Italy
What was a detail that puzzled you in social interactions?
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Finnish reservedness can be confusing at first, especially for people who have never lived in the north of Europe before. In contrast to this phenomenon in everyday life, Finns that are closer to you, such as work colleagues or friends, can be very direct. Especially under the influence of alcohol, Finns tend to open up considerably and without much hesitation. Nevertheless, Finns are said to be open-minded and good listeners, who know when to stay quiet.
“Finns are rather cold people; they don’t talk very much to strangers, but still they’ll be naked with them in the sauna. That always amazes me.” – Serhan, Turkey
“The fact that Finns are properly listening to you amazed me at first. I think Finns focus very much on listening when someone is speaking and then reply, they are never talking over and they never distract.” – Federica, Italy
Which stereotype is absolutely true or false?
As previously mentioned, the stereotype that Finns love their personal space is often true. You will likely encounter more introverts than in other nations. This should, however, not be mistaken for shyness.
“The stereotypes that the Finns love saunas and that they have them everywhere are 100 percent true. And that the Finns love pizza with pineapple and obviously coffee, they drink it all the time. But I’m still at a loss as to how Finland has become the happiest country in the world five times in a row. Have you ever seen their faces?” – Nariman, Azerbaijan
When it comes to stereotypes that hold absolutely no weight, there is a consensus that the notion of Finns being “constantly depressed with no desire to be social or emotional” is completely false, although they can seem distant at first glance.
“You just need to give them a hot sauna to see how they explode opening up to you.” – Marta, Spain
What are your hopes and dreams for the future? How are they connected to Finland for you?
All participants, whether they have moved away or are still in Finland, have expressed the wish to stay there long term. However, there was also a consensus among those interviewed that various conditions had to be met: finally learning the language properly, living in a larger city in the south and establishing more social connections.
“I hope to continue building my career and future here in Finland, mastering Finnish language too. One day I would love for my children to study and grow up here in Finland as well, because it is a safe place and the educational system is really good.” – Federica, Italy
At which moment did you realise you wanted to stay?
The answers to this question reflect the statements made at the beginning of the discussion. Most of them first decided to stay during their time in Finland. Finland takes a long time to get used to, but you fall in love all the more fiercely the longer it takes you to realise that you actually fell in love.
“I realised that I wanted to stay while travelling and comparing different countries. I found myself all the time missing Finland and its own unique way of life.” – Federica, Italy
Would you recommend Finland to others? What arguments would you pick to convince them to stay?
The special situation in which the interviewees found themselves was often mentioned. They came to the country with other internationals, had social support and then slowly built a life for themselves there. Every recommendation from the participants was made with reservations, as a very extroverted person in Finland might reach their limits. It is the underlying things that make Finland so special but that do not appeal directly to everyone.
“For me, Finland is not the kind of country you can get used to in a couple of months. There are some circumstances like the weather, the Finnish way of life, the food and more. Not many stay here for long. But I can say, if you want a safe country with beautiful and clean nature, and if you like long, dark and cold winters, and amazing summers with white nights, then this country is definitely for you.” – Nariman, Azerbaijan
“Yes and No. Finland is not a place for everybody; it is cold and dark, which is a great challenge. Nevertheless, Finland can really give you a lot, but it requires time and patience (the language for example: it might be exasperating to learn, but once you learn it a lot of doors will open to you).” – Federica, Italy
“I would recommend ‘trying’ Finland for sure. But this country can be so extreme I would not try to convince anyone to stay here. If they are not sure about staying here, they should not force it.” – Adrian, France
What would make you leave immediately? Have you already found some reasons to leave?
The darkness that is linked to the geographical location of Finland was a major challenge for a lot of the participants. Furthermore, the often-mentioned issue of language was repeated here as well. Finnish is one of the most difficult languages in the world and yet even in a country like Finland, where many are fluent in English, it is important to speak the local language in order to fully understand and participate in the culture.
“Just the darkness is a problem, but still not so bad if you stick to an active lifestyle. Besides that, the language difficulties can make it really hard to find a decent job with good conditions.” – Marta, Spain
“I would leave the country if I had to go through a long period of unemployment or if I would not be able to handle the winters anymore.” – Adrian, France
Finally, I would like to use one last metaphor: Finland is like its favourite sweet, salmiakki. If you’ve always liked the taste of liquorice, the Finnish version is a great enrichment.
Some people get used to it over time and learn to love it. However – if you have to live with the prospect of eating it every day out of courtesy to your flatmate who brought it especially for you – be aware of what you are getting into. If you are sure of that, then Finland holds plenty of potential – and you’ll soon be able to tell your flatmate directly that rarity can make something more valuable. Still, no one will be able to avoid a soft shock or two on occasion.