In Finland, there are certain things you just don't do - subtle differences that you as a traveler should be aware of to avoid those dreaded moments of awkwardness. That said, many travelers who have never been to this part of the part of the world might be in for quite a culture shock. To prevent you from innocently stepping on some Finnish toes, there are a few social no-goes to be aware of:
1. Don't Interrupt a Conversation
This is a difficult one for most Westerners, as we all love to jump in with our own account of a story before the speaker has finished. It is rude, but we don’t seem to mind too much, as it is how our normal conversations go. In Finland, this is unacceptable. Serial conversation is the rule here. Think of it as a valuable skill to learn; to listen with the intent of understanding instead of responding. In fact, Finns generally don’t trust people who talk too much while saying too little. Foreigners might find the tolerance towards silence disconcerting, but Finns do not engage in small talk for the sake of just talking. Here, every word is intended to deliver a message.
2. Don't Compare Finland to Other CountriesEspecially Sweden. And please, do not try to start a conversation by asking if Finland was once a communist country like its neighbouring Russia. It is like comparing Catholics to Protestants. It will be the end of the conversation, and quite possibly your undamaged nose. Remember that Finland is a proud entity on its own, so don’t group it together with the rest of Eastern or Northern Europe. Don’t be an ignorant foreigner, and educate yourself about the basics. You wouldn’t like it if people made inaccurate comments about your history on your own turf.
3. Tip Less
This rule applies to most of the Scandinavian and Nordic quantities. Tipping in Finland is not required and most often you simply round up the final bill to the nearest 5 or 10 Euro amount. Unless you're in a very touristy area, it is best to avoid overtipping altogether, as many locals will not know how to react to it and believe you may have made an error.
4. Don't BragActually, no one likes a self-important braggart, but the Finns have an especially low tolerance towards it. Fins are modest and downplay their own accomplishments and hardly make a fuss about anything. Here, humility and grace will get you far, as they view modesty as the biggest virtue.
In the sauna, I mean. That’s right; no clothes or swim suits are used in the public saunas. This is a concept that most of us might find strange, especially considering how high the Finns value their privacy, but it’s just how it’s done. Men and women don’t sauna together, thankfully, except in families. If you absolutely refuse to sit there in your natural glory, you can cover up, but this is not the social norm.
6. Limit Public Displays of AffectionHooked on public displays of affection? Don’t do it! Strolling hand in hand with your loved one is acceptable and even romantic everywhere in the world, but this is Helsinki, not Italy. Keep your passionate groping and wet smooching contained to your private quarters. Finns are not touchy-feely at all, and avoid public displays of emotion at all cost. In fact, touching, especially a hearty male-bonding slap on the back can be perceived as patronising. Overall, they like their personal space, so keep your hands to yourself, unless you greet someone with a firm handshake.
7. Don't Show Up UnannouncedWhen visiting a local, you only do so by invitation, or by at least arranging it advance. If you pop in unannounced, you might be greeted by a closed door. If you made plans with the host, be punctual. Making empty promises is also a no-go. If you set up a date with a Fin, they will keep you to it. They're punctual and reliable. Be polite and do the same.
8. Remove Your ShoesTaking off your shoes when entering someone’s house is not something that is only practiced in the East. Most Finnish households will remove their shoes at the front door, and walk around wearing socks or slippers. This is not practiced in every household though, so if you are unsure, ask. If you see shoes stacked neatly by the front door, that is a good clue.
9. Don't Comment on the Finnish Ice Hockey TeamUnless it’s with words of praise. Don’t mention the Swedish team, unless you want a hockey puck up the yazoo. The Fins and the Swedes have a longstanding history together; it hasn't always been an amicable one. Think of siblings. Hockey between these two teams represents a peaceful manner of playing out the rivalry. Add to the equation the competitive streak of the Finns, you might want to avoid this topic altogether. The follow all their traditional sports religiously and with quite a bit of zeal.
10. Don't Stare at Nordic WalkersWhen you see locals taking to the streets in exaggerated movements, armed with ski poles, don’t stare and point or think that the world has gone mad. Marathons and Nordic walking are the latest fitness craze that took Helsinki by storm. The action essentially mimics cross country skiing, without the use of skis. It may look just a little funny and clumsy at first glance, but the price to look silly is worth the workout. Even seasoned skiers practice between winters by mimicking the action on dry land. Grab a pair of Nordic walking poles in a nearby rental shop and join in.
All in all...
At first glance, the Finnish locals might appear almost hostile-like, but do not be deceived by appearances. The seemingly serious Finns have a dry but sharp and sarcastic sense of humor. Since they follow quite a bit of international news, the have strong opinions about events, so you can find yourself engrossed in stimulating debates if the opportunity presents itself.