What Are the Finns Like?
Finns playfully mock their own distinctive shyness, but many visitors have a different kind of experience with the local culture.
“An introverted Finn looks at his shoes when talking to you; an extroverted Finn looks at your shoes,” goes an of-cited Finnish joke. Residing in a historically isolated and sparsely populated country, Finns are known for – and well aware of – their tendency to enjoy silence. In fact, most guidebooks on Finnish customs mention the local penchant for privacy.
Finns often warn visitors of the reserved nature of their countrymen, but what many foreigners notice instead is the local friendliness – and, fittingly, self-deprecating humour.
No reservations, shy friendliness
“I heard from my Finnish teacher and friends that there was this idea of Finnish people being reserved, which was funny, because it wasn’t at all my experience,” says Chris Wlach, New York-based attorney who studied Finnish in college and has visited the country twice.
Magdalena Skipper, London-based editor of Nature magazine, rented a lakeside cottage near Kuopio last summer. She says that although the Finnish preference for privacy came across in some ways – she noted that at local bars, many enjoyed coming in for a drink on their own – she was also struck by people’s warmth, both at the tourism office and elsewhere; one man even started a lengthy conversation with a group of foreigners inside a sauna.
“Of course it’s the job of the employees in the tourism office to provide information, but you can either do it in a need-to-know basis or a friendly way, and the people at the Kuopio office were very engaging,” she says.
A playful awareness
Alison Daly, a UK native who befriended two Finnish girls during an exchange year in Lille, France, says that she noticed her friends to be shyer in an international group than in their comfort zone at home.
“In France it took us a little while to develop a real friendship because they were quieter in the group, but being in Finland with their friends, I didn’t notice anyone to be shy,” she says. “I heard people say that Finnish people would be colder, but especially when you go as the guest of a friend, you don’t have a wall between you and them. Everyone made me feel welcome.”
Chris Wlach says that his studying in New York may have skewed his impressions, as most of the Finns he met were very active in the local cultural community and thus outgoing by nature, but adds that in Finland he always got a warm welcome. He also says that he noticed Finns to be conscious of their shy reputation.
“It’s a playful awareness. Unlike stereotypes in many other countries where people are hesitant to make jokes about them, most Finns seem very aware of their image and don’t take it too seriously,” he says.