Finland cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
Start your conversation with a "neutral" topic, e.g. by explaining from where you are and what you are doing, and stay on neutral ground until you feel that everybody is comfortable with your presence. Have a smile in your eyes and a warm feeling in your voice when you are talking but stay somewhat reserved and observing. Older people might not be that comfortable with using English and might therefore come across as less accommodating. In general, Finns are not very good at "small talk" and one has to accept that silence doesn't necessarily mean that the conversation has stopped.
Do not complain about anything, at least not in the initial phase of your visit. Do not criticize. Whatever you say is generally taken seriously and by being critical and negative will put people on defensive. Avoid being too opinionated before you know the people you are socializing with.
National pride might come into play, and topics related to the two bigger neighbours, Sweden and Russia, might trigger unexpected reactions. At this very moment after the Winter Olympics, and for some time to come, don't praise the Swedish Hockey team! The aversion towards Russians has long historic roots.
Never make fun of others, but you can make fun of yourself, and that's appreciated provided you know the time and the place for it. Finns' sense of humour is great but rather subtle.
Canada and Finland share several preoccupations: hockey and winter sports are the most obvious. Some Finns may appear shy on first contact, but most are friendly, open, and eager to introduce visitors to their country. Finns often feel that no one notices their country, so demonstrating an interest in all things "suomalainen" will help you to cull favour immediately. General small talk about places of origin, family, and work is equally likely to break the ice. There is a stereotype that Finns are humourless; nothing could be further from the truth. It may just take some time for trust to be gained. But for the early part of a Finnish friendship, jokes about yourself or Canadians generally are 100% more likely to succeed than jokes about Finns.
Keep a distance, 3-4 feet. It is very important to make eye contact and to keep it during your face-to-face communication. Do not touch, unless you know a person very well and know that she/he is comfortable with it. Kissing on the cheek is not the custom. Don't violate the "private" space of the person. However, you usually shake hands with both males and females when you greet people (at least in a formal setting), but not necessarily when you say goodbye, unless you are ending a formal meeting. Avoid any extreme gestures, expressions, tones regardless of how well-meaning they are intended to be. Finns are wary of exaggerations and are more comfortable with moderation in interpersonal dealings. You should come across as an open, "what you see, you get" kind of a person.
Informality that hasn't been earned should be avoided. It may be acceptable to touch certain people when you speak with them, but this should be avoided until you are fairly close with someone and are certain that they will not be uncomfortable with such contact. Eye contact and directness are important. Finns can be frustrated by the flowery language and indirectness of Canadian communication. Finns pride directness in work communications. I have seen many cooperative ventures almost fail because of a Canadian desire to couch bad news with language that makes it seem as though there is still some possibility that agreement could be reached. Finns would much rather receive the bad news in a direct fashion than hold on to false hope because of language that obscures true intentions. This preference for directness goes both ways: unlike most Canadians, a Finn will not shy away from giving negative feedback in a blunt and direct manner.
Display of emotion
Public display of strong emotions, all kinds of them, is not well received, and is not considered good manners. Young people are less constrained in this respect, but still, public loud outbursts are looked upon as bad manners or weird.
Within limits (similar to those in Canada), it is acceptable to display anger. One would not want to make a habit of it, but occasional episodes are perfectly fine, and depending on your colleagues, may even be common. If you are in a romantic relationship, things are a bit different. While it wouldn't be that out of the ordinary to express affection in public in Canada, it is definitely not as well accepted in Finland. Holding hands or kissing for long periods in public places will likely attract attention. This applies as much to heterosexual couples as it does to same-sex couples.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Dress for work: business suit, both for women and men. Dress on the conservative side, until you have been able to figure out the dress code in the office. The dress code varies from workplace to workplace - the private sector usually being more relaxed.
Finns have moved from a rather formal Mr/Mrs/Ms to a more informal use of names but would still be uncomfortable if you use their first name right away. Today, addressing each other casually and on first name basis is a norm among colleagues. However, a young person should wait for the initiate to come from her/his supervisor before dropping the Mr/Mrs X .
Lateness in attending meetings is not well received. Punctuality is a virtue. Deadlines are taken seriously. Working overtime is almost a norm insome sectors (but be mindful of the unionized work environment). Always inform if you will be late. Absenteeism is tolerated, but only if there is a good reason for it. Productivity has become something of a national pride, and is considered the secret to the high living standards in Finland. Efficiency and effectiveness are virtues.
Dress codes can tend towards the casual but this of course depends on the industry and which region of the country you live in. Working in the capital of Helsinki may demand a more formal dress than working in the north of the country. Most Finns work on a first-name basis, with formal titles like "Mr." or "Ms." reserved for very senior officials. In any event, it is best to err on the side of caution and wait for a Finnish counterpart to expressly permit you to address them by their first name. They may hold a position of power that you are not aware of. Being on time is of central importance. Finnish workplaces are characterized by efficiency and a strong work ethic, so tardiness will not likely be tolerated. If you promise something, do your best to have it on time, and if that's not possible, at the very least give clear notice to your co-workers that it will not be ready.
Preferred managerial qualities
Finns have a high regard for education. Leadership can only be claimed through demonstrated competency, it is not a given because of your position. Experienced, hard working, open to new ideas, personable are all positive attributes in Finland.
Finns would take their time in accepting a non-local supervisor/manager, the threshold is higher than with a local. In addition to the above, a non-local should be a good listener, have good integrity, be approachable, be consultative and democratic (you cannot been seen as autocratic or dictating). Finns like principled, firm supervisors/managers but you have to show that you are fair and you can justify your decisions. However, in general terms, be aware of local norms and practices, and don't go against them.
If the staff is open, relaxed and business is handled competently, it is a good sign. If the staff becomes evasive, closes up in discussions, doesn't volunteer any collaboration, that is a sign of a problem. Overall, similar values and norms can to a large extent be applied to work place situations in Canada and in Finland. Unacceptable behaviour in Canada would in most cases be unacceptable in Finland as well.
In Finland, the concept of "sisu" is dear to all. Sisu signifies stamina, guts, grit, a quiet determination - generally a refusal to give up until the very end. This means that a manager who is hard-working will endear himself to staff, although most Finns out of politeness would not require the same standard from foreigners. The hierarchy of the office may prevent employees from being too open, but soliciting feedback will likely produce a characteristically direct response.
Finns bond with each other through outdoor activities and the institution of the "sauna." It is not uncommon to find office workers (of the same sex) retreating to the sauna together. Saunaing provides an intimate opportunity to chat about a lot of things, and you may choose to use this time to feel out your staff's opinion of you.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Finns have moved towards a collaborative, consensus based decision-making. Often, one can see a deliberate process to get the buy-in from everybody concerned to make sure of the commitment to any undertaking. Ideas can come from all levels in the organization, at least in theory. Typically, Finns are not very hierarchical in that respect, but the corporate culture varies widely, particularly depending on the size of the organization. It also varies, and is different, in the public and the private sectors. It is very acceptable to go to the immediate supervisor for answers or feedback. It is usually expected.
In my experience, most decisions came from a higher level of authority, but this may have been due to the international aspect of my work. Otherwise, there was general collaboration and healthy amounts of back-and-forth in the course of working on a project. My Finnish superior was very encouraging and consistently provided excellent feedback throughout my stay. However, it is also important in a Finnish workplace to maintain a certain level of independence so that your co-workers trust you with tasks.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Gender equality is strong in Finland, making gender a "non-issue" - (relatively speaking and comparing with most other countries in the world). However, there are still discrepancies, e.g. in pay between some sectors (e.g. nursing/female, - low pay, paper and pulp industry/male dominated - high pay.)
Even if the Lutheran Church is the state church in Finland, the country is very secular. Finns tend to have a rational view of religions, and are open to discussions about the tenets of world religions.
Finland is a classless society. Mainly, due to historical reasons and thanks to the state supported education system, from primary to higher education, there is a strong competency based mobility in the society.
The Finnish society is very homogenous compared with very many others and hasn't been exposed to the European immigration movement on a larger scale. People of other ethnic origins are in minority and stand out. Some tensions pop up once in awhile, particularly in the capital region, and in some towns with a concentration of recent immigrants. What is "politically incorrect" to say about ethnicity in Canada, is not necessarily viewed as strictly in Finland. Finns tend to be less sensitive regarding (unfavourable) comments about other ethnic groups, which still doesn't make it permissible for a foreigner to take the same liberties.
A person might find it difficult to not feel as an outsider and might find it harder to be accepted as a professional.
Finland is mostly secular, so strong adherence to a faith outside of the Lutheran church may attract attention - but it is unlikely that practicing a faith will be met with intolerance. Women in Finland enjoy a high level of equality, although some men may act in an overly dogmatic masculine manner at times. Class issues are not as strong as they are in Canada, thanks to the powerful welfare state. Which just leaves race and ethnicity... Finland is predominantly white. There is very little diversity, although that is starting to change, especially in the capital. I have known people of East Asian and Caribbean origin to face greater difficulties navigating life in Finland than caucasians do. Open hostility would be rare, but there will definitely be challenges.
Finns tend to keep their business and personal lives separate and usually one doesn't need to work extensively on establishing a solid personal relationship before enough trust is generated to start business dealings. Finns tend to look more at facts (balance sheets, products) and have trust in formal contracts and agreements, enforceable legal documents. Finns tend to be mistrusting of too much talking and too much "selling".
A good relationship comes from being open and sincere about your intentions and giving time to our Finnish counterpart to digest and form his/her own opinion. He/she doesn't like to feel being imposed on.
Generally, there should be no problem getting straight to business with a Finnish colleague. In fact, such directness will be appreciated and may help to build trust quickly. There is still benefit in building personal relationships - taking an active interest in typically Finnish activities is a good bet. As I mentioned earlier, nothing fosters a close working relationship better than sweating in the nude during a communal sauna (not mixed gender). I cannot underestimate the importance of partaking in saunas. The centre where I worked held at least two retreats where the entire staff of 80+ people all shared saunas. Passing the sauna test will ease your acceptance into the Finnish work culture.
Privileges and favouritism
Transparency International ranks Finland as # 1 and the most corrupt free country in the world, and for a reason. Expecting privileges is not a norm, and it's a serious faux-pas to allude to something like that in the workplace. Sometimes even a hint that a person has been able to come into a position through a favour can seriously impede that person's ability to function in a workplace.
I did not witness this type of conduct while in Finland. In fact, my Finnish colleagues were very fair with all members of the staff, regardless of their varying degrees of closeness.
Conflicts in the workplace
The best way is to ask to have a talk with the person, but not in a confrontational manner. Talk privately. Public confrontation tends to put people on the defensive and repairing relationships after that might become complicated and difficult. Sometimes people come and speak directly about their issues with you. However, more likely, they do not want to confront you nor do they necessarily want to insult you. They would become evasive and hope that you somehow would figure out by yourself that there is something wrong or you have crossed the line. An open, non-confrontational, sincere discussion is the only win-win option. Here again, human interpersonal dynamics and relationships that one can find in Canada would be found in a workplace in Finland as well. What works in Canada in successfully resolving problems would most likely also work in Finland.
The best approach to this type of situation may be to privately inquire about the problem. Expect a direct response -- if you haven't already received one without solicitation. In the early part of your visit, Finns will likely afford you a grace period out of politeness. The Finnish approach to conflict was perhaps the biggest adjustment I faced. Where a Canadian employer might hide serious disagreement behind polite words or false fronts, Finns have no problem letting their disagreements out into the open. While disquieting at first, this method avoids a lot of wasted time and effort. Generally, once a problem has been aired and a solution reached, all hard feelings are forgotten and people move forward with respect for each other. Grudges are rare.
Motivating local colleagues
Most Finns would say job satisfaction and commitment, at least in the middle and senior management. Fear of failure might play in as well, as people do not want to lose their employment.
Motivation is as personal in Finland as it is in Canada, but there are still some general principles at work. In my experience, Finns are driven by a strong work ethic and a sincere desire to be efficient in their undertakings. Finland is a land of technological innovation, and Finns take pride in quietly producing such advanced products. A naked ambition for high-paying salaries or prestigious positions is uncommon. I did not encounter cut-throat competition while working in Finland.
Recommended books, films & foods
Books to read
- Kalevala is the national epic saga, usually recommended but not an easy read.
- Vaino Linna's Unknown Soldier (Tuntematon Sotilas) is an excellent book that captures in one volume the key characteristics of people living in the various regions of Finland.Personally, I would suggest to look for modern, recent award winning books.
Films to see
- Kaurismaki's The Man without a Past (Mies vailla menneisyytta)
- Best of Mothers (about children who were evacuated to Sweden during the war)
- Promise (also about wartimes)
- Uutisvuoto,with Jari Tervo and Tommi Taberman
- Some (of varying quality) based on international shows
Places to visit
- Kiasma (museum of modern art), Ateneum (Museum of Art), National Museum;
- Hvittrask, Gallen Kallela museum (unique building and architecture from the Art Nouveau epoch)
- A Savonlinna Opera festival (in the summer) Retretti (art museum in the summer): Suomenlinna (Sveaborg) historic island/fort outside Helsinki;
- Two small picturesque towns, Raumo and Porvoo.
- Finnish Design, glassware, clothing, easily found in shops along Esplanadi Avenue in Helsinki.
Food to eat
Fish, in all forms (grilled, smoked etc); tasty bread and pastry, great cheese; sausages (HK bleu in particular), BQ very popular in the summer. Herring and early potato in June/July is a delicatessen.
Websites to visit
Finland boasts a strong body of national literature and film. To choose just two examples from many talented Finnish artists is a difficult task. Tove Jansson is the author of the children's book series about the Moomin family, which features titles like "Moominland Mid-Winter" and "A Comet in Moominland". Her work is likely the most widely available Finnish literature published in English outside of Finland. Aki Kaurismäki is a talented film director who has produced a substantial body of work, including "The Man without a Past." This film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002.
The "Virtual Finland" website at www.virtual.finland.fi is invaluable. It has many resources on all aspects of Finnish life. I consulted it frequently in preparation for living in Finland, but also continued to use it while there and on my return to Canada. It is updated often and provides links in English about current events in Finland.
No visit to Finland would be complete without sampling some of their amazing national dishes. Coffee is a national obsession, often accompanied by "pulla," a sweet bread flavoured with cardamom. In Lapland, moose meat, reindeer and Lappish potatoes are standard fare, along with healthy amounts of fish. Vegetarians may run into some difficulties in this respect, but will generally be able to get by on salads and veggie dishes.
Activities to recommend
Annual film and jazz festivals: Espoo Cine, April Jazz (also in Espoo), Pori Jazz. Summer is a great time to see a variety of cultural events, hockey in the winter.
The primary barrier in accessing Finnish media sources will be language. Most Finnish newspapers have an English section, although it may be very small and sporadic. Some Finnish television stations report national news in English during specified times. Web resources are often the best bet.
There are several excellent cultural centres throughout all of Finland's regions. Helsinki is an obvious starting point and home to collections of art and historical artefacts from all periods of Finland's history. In the north, there are museums dedicated to the Sami people and Finnish pastoral life where visitors can participate in traditional activities.
Most Finns participate in outdoor activities on a regular (often daily) basis. In the summer you can run, hike, swim, boat and camp. Fishing is a popular activity in both winter and summer. In the winter, cross-country skiing is de rigueur, regardless of age or ability. You can also purchase Nordic walking poles and take to the trails in preparation for the winter season. Throughout the year, Finns take to the forest to harvest wild mushrooms and berries. If you are invited on one of these trips, you should jump on the opportunity.
Generally, your co-workers will be the best cultural interpreters. If this turns out not to be the case, there are Finnish language schools in most urban centres where you can be introduced to Finnish customs at the same time you are introduced to the Finnish language.
- Hockey players: Teemu Selanne , Saku Koivu, Ville Peltonen and Jari Kurri. Hockey is one of the most important if not the most important sport in Finland. Here Canada and Finland have a lot in common.
- Markus Gronholm (cross country driver)and Kimi Raikkonen (Formula)
- Mr. Ollila etc/Nokia Mobile, because Nokia is the most significant Finnish company on the international market.
- Ms. Tarja Halonen, the President of the Republic, the first female president in Finland.
Finland is a land of anti-heroes - that is, although Finns are quietly very proud of their many achievements, they often feel that they are not properly recognized. Anyone who raises Finland's profile outside of Finland is likely to garner praise, although there are also many heroes who are only known inside Finland. One example of the latter variety is Elias Lonnrot, who compiled the epic "Kalevala" from oral folk tales.
Shared historical events with Canada
Generally, Canada would be viewed positively and viewed as a country sharing common values, and with a climate and nature very similar to Finland. In terms of asymmetric relationships in global geopolitics Finns might find correlations in the relationships Canada-USA and Finland-Russia, and that would be viewed in positive terms.
The largest population of Finns residing outside of Finland is in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Finns have played a considerable role in Canada's history, whether this fact is well known or not. One of Canada's best hockey players, Hayley Wickenheiser, played for a men's Finnish team in Tampere. As these examples illustrate, Finns and Canadians have had frequent contact with each other and given our similarities (northern social welfare states) make natural allies.
Generally, Finns do not have any stereotypes about Canada, and Canada doesn't evoke strong feelings among Finns.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a pervasive misconception that Finns are very serious and humourless. Adhering to this stereotype will deprive any visitor of the rich Finnish sense of humour - this may not be fatal to successful business endeavours, but it would be unfortunate to miss.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, to a family of civil servants with a multiethnic European background and belonging to the Swedish speaking minority in the country. She is the oldest of three children. She was raised and went to school in Helsinki, where she also went to continue her studies at the University of Helsinki. She graduated with a Master's degree in political science, sociology and macro-economics from the same University. After her graduation, she worked in Finland for an international non-governmental organization for five years and moved overseas for family reasons. Your cultural interpreter immigrated to Canada to live and work in the private sector before moving back to Finland to work for another international (UN related) non-governmental organization. Because her family had moved back to Canada, she returned to Canada after 12 years in Finland. She is currently living in Ottawa working for a Canadian national non-governmental organization as the Vice-president of international development programs and is married with 2 grown-up children. In addition to Finland and Canada, your cultural interpreter has lived in Sweden, Portugal and the United States and has traveled widely on work related missions in Asia, Africa and the Former Soviet Union.
Your cultural interpreter was born in 1981, the oldest of two children. She was raised in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. She studied Sociology and Women's Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her studies sent her abroad for the first time in 2001, when she studied Scandinavian Area Studies in Odense, Denmark. Afterwards, you interpreter went to Rovaniemi, Finland, where she lived for one year. She is currently living in Canada, in Halifax for the last two years. She studies Law at Dalhousie University.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.