Meeting the Finns

Initial contacts with an alien race

Finns are stereotyped as being extreme introverts who don’t like small talk — or even to talk at all. The series of cartoons “Finnish Nightmares” is a good general introduction to the Finnish psyche, and pretty funny too.

But, so far, most people that I talked to have been kind, polite, and not afraid to start conversations. The most introvert person I met was a Lithuanian girl — or perhaps it was an Estonian, I forget. We didn’t talk more than 2 seconds.

I suppose a difference with the Swedes is that, in Sweden, whenever I crossed paths with someone, being a small village, they would exchange a smile and a “Hey”. Here, people just cross each other in silence. It is true that, when I passed, perhaps a bit too closely, an old man in a narrow path with my bicycle, the man murmured something in Finnish, but I am not sure what it was. It could equally be “hello”, “have a nice day” or “damn, you bastard, watch where you’re going!”

If you’re wondering how to meet Finns, the best answer is, in a sauna, of course. You’re all close together with strangers in a very hot and very limited space, so people tend to talk to each other. It does help that, in Finnish mixed sauna, people are not usually fully naked. In the one I go, they use swimsuits. (Finns tend to find strange the more common custom in saunas in Germany where everyone is nude — not that I would know, as I haven’t been to saunas in Germany. But it’s what they say).

I haven’t been here long enough to fully understand the Finnish character, but I guess that the usual stereotypes about being reserved mostly hold out. While they are kind and polite, and surprisingly conversational in saunas, I suppose making long-lasting friendships takes a whole lot more time. They are more like Germans than Catalonians or Italians.

Some go as far as describing them as grumpy, but it is not true. They just have a curious way of smiling, with the corners of the mouth going down instead of up.

Another stereotype about Finns is their general honesty. In an experiment they did in different countries, leaving 12 wallets lying around to see if people would pick them up or just take them, Finns had the highest return rate — 11 of the 12 wallets. And I suspect the 12th one was either not found, or found by someone other than a Finn.

I can attest to that — in the sauna, I forgot to close my locker. In fact, I left it completely open, with my phone and my wallet in full view. Everything was still there when I returned. In fact, I noticed that someone else had made the same mistake, and his phone and wallet were still there, too. You’ll say that this would happen in Germany too, but I’m not sure — I had too many things stolen there, including three bicycles and even a bag with library books (!), to be so casual about my personal items.

Another thing Finns like is their personal space. They say that the Covid “social distancing” thing didn’t catch on in Finland simply because it would actually have moved people closer together.

With 17 people per square km, Finland is one of the less densely populated European countries, so they have enough room to move around.

Another thing about Finland is that they live mostly in small towns or villages, like the one I am in, and Finns like it this way. As someone said, Finns don’t do big cities, it’s not their thing. Even Helsinki, which concentrates about 1 million of the 5.6 million Finns, feels more like a village that grew too much than a big cosmopolitan European town.

In general, Finns like to have a forest and a lake within walking distance. And with more than 200,00 lakes and 75% of forest covering the country, they usually do.