A blog by Leena Nummila, AFS volunteer and experienced host mother.
Welcome to a Finnish family
I teach history, religion and social studies in an upper secondary school, and cultural differences interest me a lot. It´s very exciting to host a new family member, but it´s even more exciting to be one. An exchange program is one of the best ways to learn a new culture. You may be surprised how much life abroad will teach you about yourself too!
First, I must say, that differences between personalities and families are much bigger than differences between cultures. Stereotypes can’t always be applied. But we are so tempted to interpret and behave in a way we are used to, that differences in “love languages” and communication can be confusing and cause misunderstandings.
AFS has a great question list and practical survival guide, but during your exchange year you´ll find also several unwritten rules or hidden norms. I hope this text series will give you some practical tips and help you understand Finnish lifestyle.
Cold and silent Finns?
Common stereotype is that Finns are cold and quiet, but it´s only partly true. Many people have a very warm heart and lot of good will to help, but silence and distance are a part of our culture of respect. It´s very important to understand that silence does not mean anger or hurt, it´s more like shared harmony and companionship. There is no pressure to fill the space with voice. Many Finns think that if they have nothing important to say, it´s better to be quiet. What do you think, does your host family show their love by talking or giving space?
Words can often tell more than our body language, though Finnish may sound like a very monotone language. So if someone says that she would like to have a cup of coffee with you, she really means it! It´s not just a polite empty question. You can open your calendar and say: “That´s really nice. Do you have time tomorrow?”
Finns are used to a big personal space, and it´s easy to notice on bus stops. Some host families touch and hug a lot, but maybe your host family doesn´t want to break or hurt your personal space by touching. They may show their love by helping or doing something together instead. If someone is speaking very loud in a restaurant or on a train, it may feel annoying and uncomfortable. Finns don´t complain, but they may roll their eyes and judge your behavior quietly. If you want to flirt with a Finn, don´t stare or go too close so someone too early. Still, we love hugs among close friends and family members.
One very important part of the respect culture is punctuality. If someone says, you´ll meet at 10, it means 10.00. If you are 5-10 min late, you are expected to send a message. But of course some Finns have a much more flexible relationship with time…
Many high school students are quite busy with their study plans, and it´s very common to have several organized hobbies. So, if you want to meet your friends, all of them are not ready to a surprising doorbell ring. They want to put the appointment to the calendar days or weeks earlier.
If you ask help, people really love to help you! You just need to ask! Some of them may feel even flattered when you give them some attention… If you don´t understand something, please, be brave and ask again. You´ll get local friends if you are active and continue to take the first steps. You may even find a lifelong friendship!
Communication and small talk
Don´t be surprised if all the new people ask you: “What do you think about Finland? Why did you come here?” They are curious. I wonder if it has something to do with a bit of a low self-confidence of a small and young nation… Of course people would love to hear that you like Finland or at least something here, because we are proud of our country. Because we want people to tell the truth, we don´t dare to ask “Do you like Finland?” very often.
We have a strong heritage in speaking truth and trusting others. Even our law says that an oral agreement is as valid as a written one! We are one of the least corrupted countries in the world and here it´s a bad social mistake to fool or lie. Have you noticed that you can weigh your vegetables in supermarkets and no one checks it?
In Finland you can show your motivation and polite interest by asking little questions like: “How was your day?, Can I help you?, What plans do we have for the weekend?” or giving positive but honest feedback: “I like this ´pulla´ very much”. Many of us feel uncomfortable giving direct bad feedback for someone and usually Finns avoid open conflicts.
If you want to make friends and be respectful to your family, spend more time in the real world with Finns than on your phone. Otherwise your host family may think that you miss home, feel ungrateful or don´t like them.
We speak informally and don´t use “Mr or Ms”. But people give thanks “kiitos” several times a day, after a meal and whenever someone gives them something or does a little favor for them, no matter if it’s at a supermarket, cafeteria, own kitchen or classroom. “Kiitos” is a very important word to use after every meal. If friends eat out together, usually everyone pays for their own food.
Most Finns under 60 something understand some English. But it´s very common that people underestimate their language skills. My foreign friends have said that many Finns seem to be a bit shy. I would say that people are ready for deep conversations and we don´t have big taboos. So if you want to talk about politics or analyze something, go ahead. Basically, the more west you go, the stricter way people communicate. (I know people there who prefer honesty to politeness…) And the more north and east you go, the more people like nice slow small talk – even with strangers. Everywhere in Finland the number one small talk subject is weather. Can you guess why?