Finnish manners and customs are European with some national traits. In general, attitudes in Finland are liberal and the codes of behaviour relaxed, so it’s unlikely that you could do any fatal damage to your relationship with a Finn by accidentally breaking some unspoken rule or standard of behavior. However, to introduce you to Finnish nature and character, we have put together some general information. These are generalisations, of course, but true to a large extent.
When meeting for the first time, everyone usually shake hands, look each other in the eye and introduce themselves by their name. After that, "Moi", "Hei", or "Terve" is used as a greeting.
The concept of personal space is considered important. The physical distance most Finns like to maintain may give the impression of being reserved, but in a society that values individuality, it is also a way to show respect.
The idea that Finns are a silent and introverted nation is mostly an outdated one and particularly not true with the younger generations. Finns are very friendly and happy to lend assistance if you need help or information. You only have to ask!
Still, foreigners sometimes say that it can be difficult to meet and make friends with Finnish people, and to some extent this may be true. Finns are not very quick to invite people they’ve just met into their homes or ask them out for the evening. So don’t be afraid to take the initiative, usually people will be absolutely delighted! Friendships may develop slower than in some countries, but it’s worth the wait; once a friendship develops it’s usually a genuine and lasting one.
Finns generally mean what they say and like to tell things as they are. For instance, many Finns are not used to answering, "How are you?" with a simple "Great!" If they don’t feel great, they will probably say so. And if a Finn says "We must have lunch together sometime" you can usually expect to actually be invited.
Also, it’s not uncommon to find your lost wallet in the lost and found with all the bills intact.
In Finland equal treatment of different social, gender, minority, etc. groups is well promoted and accepted. Students and CEO’s can share the same bus ride every morning, women are active in working life and politics and people dress quite freely according to their own taste, not according to their position, for example.
The Finns are not big fans of hierarchies. This applies to both work and university context and everyone is expected to be treated with the same respect. Nevertheless, if your professor insists you call them by their title, please do.
Being on time
Both at work and in their social life Finns are pretty punctual. Even between friends it’s considered rude to be late.
Finland has one of the strictest smoking legislations in the world. You are not allowed to smoke inside a building, restaurant etc. except in specially designated places. There are now even some outside places where smoking is restricted, so please take note of any notices in the area.
Tipping is generally not expected in Finland, so no one will mind not getting a tip. On the other hand, nobody will object to being tipped either! In restaurants prices include a service charge, but you can round up a bill or leave a few extra coins on the table if you've gotten exceptionally good service. Hotel bills also include a service charge. Taxi drivers, barbers and hairdressers do not expect tips either.
You will find saunas everywhere; in hotels, gyms, in private homes, on board ships, holiday villages, and at country cottages. Public swimming pools also have saunas: it is the custom to wash before entering the pool. Finns may go to sauna with or without a towel. It is not recommended to use a swimsuit in the sauna for hygiene reasons. Public saunas are segregated by sex. More information is available on the Finnish Sauna Society’s website.
You can only buy wines and spirits at Alko, the State Alcohol Company. Medium-strength beer and low-alcohol wine is also sold in supermarkets and other shops from 9 am until 9 pm.
If you don’t know yet, Finland is a bilingual country, Finnish and Swedish being the two official languages. Finnish-speakers make up the majority but there is a 6% Swedish-speaking minority. Most Swedish-speaking towns and cities are found along the west and south coasts and throughout the Turku archipelago.
Many Finns are sporty and enjoy sports and outdoor activities throughout the year. Each season brings its own opportunities for playing and watching things such as ice hockey, football, floorball, skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, Nordic walking, hiking, swimming, jogging, cycling etc.
Itsenäisyyspäivä (Independence Day)
Finland declared independence from the Russian Empire on 6 December 1917. The country's Independence Day celebrations on this date are traditionally quite solemn. Students, for example, organize torchlight processions. In the evening, many people watch the live TV broadcast from the presidential palace showing festivities attended by distinguished guests from Finland and around the world.
Joulu/Uusivuosi (Christmas/New year)
In the Nordic countries, the most important Christmas celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, 24 December. Finnish traditions include the Christmas sauna, a visit to the cemetery, and the preparation of Christmas dinner, which includes time-honored delicacies such as pickled herring, smoked salmon, roe, casseroles of potato, carrot and turnip, Christmas ham, a cold dessert of puréed plums, and cinnamon biscuits.
The highlight of the evening comes when Santa knocks on the door. His words are always the same: "Are there any well-behaved children here?" Naturally, in every home there are only good children and they all receive presents. Christmas Day is a time for rest and relaxation and eating food left over from Christmas Eve. Often people wait until Boxing Day, 26 December, to pay visits to friends and relatives.
Easter is a 4-day long weekend in either March or April. Finnish families plant grass in small pots and it is common to bring home a few birch twigs a week or two before Easter, so that by Easter time, the birch twigs are budding. Another Easter tradition in Finland you might see is children walking from door to door dressed as "Easter witches" and handing out decorated willow branches asking for treats or a few coins in exchange. A traditional Easter dessert is "mämmi". Mämmi is usually served with cream and sprinkled with sugar.
Vappu (May Day)
The Vappu celebration is typically centred on plentiful sparkling wine and other alcoholic beverages. One tradition is drinking homemade mead (sima) along with freshly cooked donuts. The festivities also include a picnic on 1 May, which is sometimes prepared in a lavish manner, particularly in Ullanlinnanmäki in Helsinki city. For most, the picnic is enjoyed with friends on a blanket with good food and sparkling wine.
Vappu is the biggest celebration of the year for university students. You will notice that particularly the students of technology in Aalto University will start preparing for Vappu several weeks in advance. Make sure to take part in the events and festivities the students organise in April-May.
Celebrated throughout Scandinavia, Midsummer is the celebration of the Summer Solstice which marks the longest day of the year. The major Midsummer festivities in Finland and Sweden take place on Midsummer's Eve, the Friday preceding the Midsummer Day. The Midsummer's Eve is a public holiday; stores are only open part of the day. Many Finns like to spend Midsummer in the countryside. Often people head for their cottages and summer cabins, leaving towns and cities deserted. On Midsummer night typically the sauna is heated and family and friends are invited to bath and to barbeque. Swedish-speaking Finns often celebrate by erecting a maypole.
Summer festivals and competitions
Finland has many summer music festivals ranging from rock and pop to jazz and classical music. There are also a few film festivals such as the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä (in Lapland) in June. Many quirky competitions are held in Finland during the summer such as the Wife Carrying Championships, the Air Guitar World Championships, and the Mobile Phone Throwing World Championships. You can find out more information about these from the Finnish Tourist Board.
You can find a list of all public holidays here.
In Finland you will easily find restaurants and food products from around the world. However characteristic "Finnish" and local regional cuisine, specialties are worth discovering.
Finnish regional food is typified by features such as being mild, largely meat and fish based, with quite basic fresh ingredients and uses a lot of dairy products. Relating to the abundance of forests and lakes, hunting and fishing have been, and still are, ways of life for many, and up north this includes reindeer herding.
All over Finland, even in urban areas, picking mushrooms and berries is a popular pastime, in the late summer and autumn mostly. Farming is limited to a short but intense growing season, although greenhouses provide Finnish produce year-round.
One could go on a mission to taste the many regional dishes of Finland, and have extensive adventures in eating. For example, if you like fish, Finnish salmon soup (lohikeitto), originally from Lapland, might be for you, along with rye bread, rye being a staple grain in the Finnish diet. Another example is "Karelian pies". The name associates it with "Karelia" (Karjala), an area with a distinct dialect in Eastern Finland. This "pie" is savoury, fits in the palm of your hand, and is usually made with a rye crust and rice pudding type filling. Nowadays available in most food shops and many cafés, they are best enjoyed warm with butter or "egg butter" (munavoi), which is simply boiled egg and butter mixed together. Pea soup (hernekeitto) is common on Thursdays, offered in many student restaurants and served with an oven-baked "pancake" (pannukakku) and jam.
In many situations in Finland a visit or a break will include a cup of coffee (kahvi) and sweet bread (pulla), of which there are many varieties, almost all containing the spice cardamom. One common variety is the cinnamon bun (korvapuusti) which literally translates as "slap on the ear".
Then you have foods and drinks that appear only on special occasions. For example in winter comes Runeberg's torte (Runebergintorttu), a cylindrical confection with almond and a signature topping, named after the famous Finnish-Swedish poet in association with the celebration of his birthday in February. During spring, mämmi arrives on the table for Easter; this dark pudding-like dessert is made with, among other ingredients, malt and rye, and is typically eaten with cream and sugar. This traditional food was historically cooked and served on birch bark.
Finns are serious about their candy. All you have to do is visit a grocery store to see the wall of selection! But one particular favourite is salmiakki, salty black licorice. It comes in many forms, even as an ice-cream flavour. Other widely enjoyed sweets include sweet black licorice and chocolate, of which there are many locally produced options.
|In English||In Finnish|
|Hello||Moi / Hei / Terve|
|Good morning||Hyvää huomenta|
|Good day||Hyvää päivää|
|Good evening||Hyvää iltaa|
|Good night||Hyvää yötä|
|Goodbye (informal)||Hei hei / Moi moi|
|Yes||Kyllä / Joo|
|I don’t understand.||En ymmärrä.|
|How are you?||Mitä kuuluu?|
|Fine, thank you.||Kiitos, hyvää.|
|Excuse me (getting attention and apologising) or I’m sorry||Anteeksi|
|Do you speak English?||Puhutko englantia?|
|I can’t speak Finnish||En puhu suomea.|
Making local friends will always make your stay anywhere more interesting and enjoyable. It will require some effort to meet people when you first arrive. However, meeting people and making friends can reduce the impact of cultural transition and ease you into academic life.
It is important that you go to orientation and orientation-related events. Not just for the information that you will get about your new institution but also because of the people you will meet. This is also the time to check with the Student Union to see if there are any clubs or sports teams that you may be interested in joining. The sooner you join, the sooner you will begin to make friends!
These groups will generally not be affiliated with the university but they will be a connection to home through the people who already live in Finland from your home country. They will probably also have members that are Finns and are interested in your home country. This is a great opportunity to connect with people outside the university and possibly make some good community connections.
To find these, simply Google Finnish – (your country here) societies or associations. There are many groups that are country or nationality based.