Sonntag, 12. Februar 2012

The Travelogue, Part XXXV - Finland: Land of Comfortable Silence


Some of you might know I recently moved to Finland. Many of you have been asking me what it is like. Now that I have been here for a month I will share my first tentative observations. Currently I am making these from the safe location of Helsinki, but I expect to be a bit more intrepid in the near future.

Helsinki itself is a medium sized town on the southern Finnish coast, sprawling across a scattering of beautiful islands. This coastal location makes it much warmer then the rest of Finland, so you might be surprised to hear that is actually not 'that cold'. In fact it's often warmer then, for example, Berlin and gets the same leisurely 30 degrees in summer. It has a lovely Russian classicist center and the sea is never far.

So what have my experiences with Finns been so far? I just want to mention two subjects that I repeatedly find myself confronted with.

Finnish Identity

Sandwiched between Russia and Sweden, always under hegemony from either of the two, Finland only became a nation as late 1917. Apart from language, Finland has little unique cultural definitions of its own, as I had to learn visiting the national museum. This is probably why Finns are exceptionally keen on pointing out the multitude of Finland's achievements over the course of its short history. To do my part and pass on the glory of Finnish ingenuity I shall introduce you to some of the most important Finnish contributions to human history.

 The Dish-Drying Cupboard

Probably the most Finnish of inventions, the Dish-Drying Cupboard is simple, understated and practical. Washed dishes are put over the sink to dry, conveniently hidden in the cupboard. I don't know why it's so rare outside Finland, as it is pretty ingenious.

The Molotov Cocktail

Yes, that's right: the Molotov cocktail. During the Finnish war (1939-40) against Russia, the Finnish army found itself severely outnumbered and under-equipped. The valiant defense of the Finnish guerrilla gathered the Finns a lot of respect in Europe and serves as the prime example for the Finnish most defining character trait: sisu. Commonly translated as "gritty perseverance" it basically means you are a tough fucker. You know, the type of guy who will make a point by hacking a hole into the ice to take a swim, just because he can. The Molotov Cocktail is named after the Russian foreign minister of the time, which is pretty much his only claim to fame.

The Mumins

Created by Tove Janson, the Mumins have achieved international renown ever since they received feature film treatment in Japan. The Mumins are a family of troll-like creatures inhabiting the Finnish forest (and at times other places). The series is commonly considered kids entertainment, but includes dealing with sophisticated topics such as materialism and depression. The Mumins still remain bestsellers and have just recently spawned a new TV show.


The famous free open source software with the annoying penguin mascot now has an estimated 60 million users. The Finn Linus Torvalds created its base in 1991 and it has since steadily grown to become the world's largest free open source operating system.

Despite all these famous contraptions, some Finns seem to be on a veritable crusade to fight Finland's ever-looming descent into obscurity, producing what they believe to be a famous person or event in Finnish history for virtually every conversation subject you might broach. If necessary, even 1957 Miss World Marita Lindahl will be pulled from the depths of beauty pageant history to illustrate Finland's claim to international renown. If you preemptively present yourself to be knowledgeable in Finnish fame history you will avoid getting lectured and you might even win a smile.

Finnish social culture

In terms of social ambiance, Moving to Finland from the UK is a bit like moving from the green meadows into the desert. Let me illustrate. I went out with a friend of mine. On the table, we meet a lot of his other friends. As they are friends of my friend, I figured I should introduce myself. I walk up to the first person. "Hey, I'm Florian." and extend my hand. The person looks at me with an expression of utter indifference. After some seconds of unexpected silence, he says: "You know, in our culture you don't need to say anything if have got nothing to say." I stand there for another three or so awkward seconds before I try to retract my extended hand as naturally as possible.
As you can see, having a friendly chat with strangers is not exactly rooted in Finnish society. But I have gathered five preliminary rules to help you avoid similar situations of awkwardness when you go out to socialize in Finland.

Rule of the Drink
The secret to enjoyable conversation in Finland is being able to judge the individual drinking capabilities of the person you talk to. You want to catch your conversation partners at about 75% drunkenness. Before they lack the social lubricant to converse and past that they'll be too wasted to talk.

Rule of Physical Distance
My Finnish workmate calls it the rule of the fist. If you are within a (stretched-out) fist's range, you are to close. Don't touch, don't hug, don't kiss. Unless you are both correctly estimated to be past 75% drunkenness. This may sound limiting, but do not despair: with many Finns this is a daily occurrence.

Rule of Exact Information
Finland is a very information-efficient country. Say more than required and people will consider you a nuisance, say less than necessary, and things will go awry, as Finns will not make any assumptions on their own. So don't expect the bus driver (or anyone else on the bus) to tell you which station to get off just because you asked whether the bus is going there.

Rule of Self-reliance
While this principle transcends conversation, the ideal of sisu has a profound conversational effect. People will make you feel like an idiot if you ask questions. After all, you could have spend two hours figuring things out on your own now, couldn't you.

The Rule of Comfortable Silence
When there is nothing of importance being discussed, silence between two conversation partners is not anything to get uncomfortable about. Finns will not consider you a bad conversation partner if you say nothing.

Socializing with women is marginally easier, mainly because someone needs to take care of the procreation business when all the men have passed out. Finland is also supposed to be one of the most gender-neutral countries on earth. It was the first nation to establish full voting rights for women, and is still on the forefront of gender equality. Employment among women is as high as among men, and many of the state-run services, such as free daycare for children, make sure it stays that way. All this makes Finnish women refreshingly hands-on. Finnish women are the type of girl who will get her high heels off and help you carry your couch into your apartment right before she's about to go on a night out, as it happened to me three days ago. Flirting is an almost exclusively female domain in Finland, as Finnish men are usually either too shy to make a move or too drunk to be attractive. So don't be surprised when women are very explicit about their of my Italian colleagues was so frightened he asked me for protection the other day...