Warsaw Business Journal, July 2006

A true Finn is...

by Johan Puotila

An interesting feature Europeans share is that we tend to have very clear opinions when it comes to the strengths and shortcomings of other nationalities. Ask any European what a typical Dane, Frenchman, Greek, German or Italian is like and you're likely to get a firm view spiced with anecdotes, often built on stereotypes and prejudices. Ask what Americans are like and you'll get a whole lecture - equally scientific.

So, what is the proverbial Finn like? Is it true that an extroverted Finn can be recognized from looking at the ends of your shoes - as opposed to his own - when talking to you? Is the typical Finn a person who decides to pull the door when seeing the sign "push" - and then simply keeps pulling until it opens? Do all Finns think that 80+ degrees Celsius in a sauna is cold while 20+ degrees outdoors is hot? Are Finns regularly remaining silent in two national languages while holding on to their trusty vodka bottle?

Finland has gone through a lot of changes over the past few decades and continues to do so. While nothing stays the same except change, the below observations may help a reader to better cope when next meeting a Finn, or if visiting the country.

Lalli and the bishop who didn't pay

One of the first Finns mentioned in the history books is a peasant by the name of Lalli. His claim to fame was that he killed the bishop Henrik, an Englishman sent to Finland to convert people to Christianity. The crime took place on the ice of Lake Köyliö and the weapon was an axe. The reason was reportedly not any religious dispute or disagreement, but because Lalli's wife told him that the bishop had eaten and drunk - without paying - when stopping at the house. The year was 1156.

A minimum of small talk

Finns are generally not good at small talk. Don't expect the stereotypical Finn to float around at cocktail parties uttering "darlings," "how lovely to see you again," and other niceties to every other person. It's just not in them. Then again, by the same token there's relatively little backstabbing going on once another person has left.

Talking tends to be honest and fact-based. Feelings - to the extent that they are expressed - tend to be shared with friends or others that have earned the privilege, in the best-case scenario.

Some suggest that the stereotypical Finnish male says "I love you" once in his lifetime, usually just before proposing to the love of his life. That's when he says: "Darling, I love you very much. If there's ever a change in this circumstance, I'll let you know."

Finns don't like repeating themselves, or stating the obvious.

Equals by nature

Finns tend to be egalitarian when it comes to the sexes. The cold climate and harsh conditions taught people early on that they could ill afford to assign the two sexes to particular roles. If only the men hunted or went out in the field, bread was lacking. Each had to back the other up. A common compliment about a woman considered wife material used to be: "She's a good, hard-working person."

There is no separate "he" or "she" in the Finnish language. All are equally referred to as "hän." Finland was the first country in the world in 1906 to give women the simultaneous right to vote and to candidacy in parliamentary elections. The current President - recently elected for a second term - is a woman and about 40 percent of the current Members of the Parliament are female.

Law and order

If walking the streets of Helsinki in the early morning hours, it is quite normal to see people standing and waiting for the green light when there isn't a car in sight. Finns tend to respect the law.

It has been said that some of this relates to the fact that Finland managed to keep its Swedish period laws when becoming an autonomous grand duchy of the Russian empire in 1809. People felt that having their own distinct constitution and laws supported their Finnish identity, and gave them a healthy distance from Russia.

So they were obedient subordinates while staying religiously true to their own laws - as long as these were not tampered with or disrespected by others, including the Russian Czar.

Old habits die hard, as did the Czar's General-Governor for Finland Nikolai Ivanovich Bobrikov in 1904, when the Czar tried to remove some of the privileges the country enjoyed as an autonomous part of the empire. Pulling the trigger was young student Eugen Schaumann.

Sisu - a definition-defying concept

The Finnish word "sisu" is difficult to define in another language, unlike the word "sauna" which has become universal. Yet every Finn knows this word, understands it and associates it with certain events, persons or characteristics. English language definitions range from the simplified "guts" to the following explanation:

"Sisu is a unique Finnish concept. It stands for the philosophy that what must be done will be done, regardless what it takes. Sisu is a special strength and persistent determination and resolve to continue and to overcome in the moment of adversity, a combination of stamina, perseverance, courage and determination held in reserve for hard times."

Whichever way it's defined, the mere existence of this word in the Finnish language may explain many things.

Masters of understatement

Finns are the masters of understatement, beating even the English in this art. If you ever have a Finnish dinner guest who tells you afterwards that the food and drinks were "not bad at all" or "quite good", don't be offended. This is the highest level of a compliment. Don't expect "awesome," "great," "spectacular" or "fantastic." These words are not used even by proud parents when describing their talented children.

To sip or not to sip

The Finnish word for "cheers" is "kippis," the pronunciation of which at times puzzles the French-speaking world.
The stereotypical Finn is often believed to drink a lot, when compared to other nationalities. Some say the Finnish definition of a drinking problem is when there's no alcohol available. As that makes drinking a problem.

While per-capita consumption figures don't necessarily support this (in 2001 the per-capita consumption was below the EU25 average) and while Finnish drinking habits have become more "continental" over the past decades - wine and beer have exploded in popularity at the expense of hard liquors - it is still said that many Finns drink in search of intoxication, as opposed to socially.

Whether a remnant of the past alcohol policy (whereby access to alcohol was complicated and taxes were sky high) or due to parental neglect, seeing Finnish teenagers drinking themselves into a stupor in public on a weekend night still makes an occasional visitor question our relationship to alcoholic beverages.

Pride - the cardinal sin

Pride is traditionally seen as a grave sin - perhaps the influence of the Lutheran persuasion. To be proud of something is bad. Boasting is definitely a crime. Perhaps one can see a connection with the Finnish love for understatement.
However, Finns do take pride in many things, even if perhaps not expressing it all that vocally or often. Most Finns still tend to believe they live in one of the best countries in the world - something that makes the life of a Finnish politician somewhat easier.

But it takes hell freezing over - or Lordi winning the Eurovision song contest or the national ice hockey team the World Championship - to get a hundred thousand Finns onto the streets of Helsinki to publicly celebrate their success.

All in all, a rather charming bunch of people, don't you think? And that's an understatement.