I still remember the day I boarded a flight of Turkish Airlines from Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, two years ago. It was in the latter half of 2016.
My destination was Finland, also known as the land of a thousand lakes. In fact, the total number of lakes in Finland is 188,000.
Last year, I listed 12 things that I had learned after living in this Nordic country for a year and wrote about them here:
12 things I learned after living for 12 months in Finland
Lessons learned as a foreigner in Finland
This August, it has been 2 years since I arrived here.
Life has not changed dramatically in the last 12 months. I continue to work as a dishwasher in restaurant and continue to live in shared accommodation.
However, I have developed meaningful connections with some Finns at work even though I do not speak Finnish. I have a social life there and we have fun almost every day.
My colleagues constantly take the pain of interacting with me in English and I continue to joke with them, saying: “Minä olen suomalainen mutta en puhu suomea” (I am a Finn but I do not speak Finnish).
Working with Finns every day has allowed me to get a better and practical understanding of what they are like, how they work, how they communicate, how they think, and how they respond to regular and unexpected situations.
What I am going to say in this article is primarily based on my experience of interacting with Finns in English as a foreigner. I am not sure but my opinions might have been different had I been a Finnish-speaking foreigner.
So, here goes the first lesson:
1. Get to know Finns well. They have stories to tell.
I know a young Finnish girl who travels a lot. Let us call her Elizabeth.
Elizabeth has a real passion for travelling. I have noticed that her eyes light up whenever I have a discussion on travelling with her. She has also travelled to South Asia.
One day I asked Elizabeth if locals had ever approached her during her visit to the less developed parts of the world.
She said: “People look at me but they do not want to know about me. I guess they think that I am a rich girl from a Western country.
“In some ways, it is like Finland. Here, people do not talk to you or look at you in the eyes; they just pass by.”
Elizabeth spoke in a light tone. What she said may sound trivial and unimportant but the underlying message is noteworthy.
And it was not the first time I had heard Finns making such comments.
In summer 2017, I met a Finnish girl who was 31 at the time. Let us call her Diana.
I learned that Diana actually lives in Italy and she moved there when she was 20.
“Do you speak Italian?” I asked.
“Yes, I speak Italian. Not only that, I dream in Italian,” Diana said.
I asked her about her memories in Finland.
“I spent 20 years of my life in Finland and had only 2 friends here — a Vietnamese girl and a black African man. I could not have meaningful connections with Finns,” Diana said.
“I would not want to live in Finland if I am given the choice of living elsewhere. I like Finland but I do not feel like home here. I guess I never did, and that is why I left. At least at the moment, I do not like the weather, food and the lack of social warmth. However, I do tremendously miss the nature, and the dry, dark Finnish humour,” she added.
I met a Finnish guy who defines marriage as just a paper-based union. To him, wedding is just a one-day celebration, and having a genuine, meaningful relationship with someone is more important than getting married.
I met a Finnish girl who refuses to hold prejudices against foreign men of any origin because she was sexually assaulted by native Finnish men.
I met a Finnish girl who said she was not interested in having children because she did not want to experience the physical pain of childbirth.
I met a Finnish girl who was bullied a lot in school. She told me the story of how her father had developed alcoholism when she was a child and how it had taken a toll on the family. She has post-traumatic stress disorder and she gave me a detailed description of how it had affected her life.
I met a very warm-hearted Finnish guy and I am sure he will be an awesome company for girls. Despite this, he told me no girl had ever asked him out on a movie date.
I met a Finnish girl who does not listen to Finnish music.
“Our music is about sadness. I listen to English and mostly, Spanish music. Maluma and Enrique Iglesias are among my favourite artists,” she said.
I met a Finnish teenager who is interested in moving to an English-speaking country and work there as a law enforcement officer. He does not mind studying in Finland but he wants to have a career abroad.
I told an old Finnish man that there is no concept of neighbour in Finland.
He said: “There was a time when next door neighbours would visit each other’s homes. But things are different now. We live alone. We do not know anyone. I tried talking to my neighbour but it did not work.”
I met a Finnish girl who is not very religious but fancies the idea of leading a spiritual life somewhere in the world.
I met an old Finnish woman who did not have the time to seriously date someone when she was young because she was too busy with partying.
“I guess I should go to an old home and try to find a husband. Single men living there might be looking for a partner as well,” she joked.
“Do you feel lonely?” I asked.
She said: “Yes, I do. The effect is real.”
I met a Finnish girl who said she needs to be alone for a few days if she socialises too much in a single day. But she also said the ubiquitous need for personal space is a cultural barrier to a healthy social life in Finland.
I met an old Finnish teacher at the central railway station in Helsinki as I was waiting for bus to return home. He suddenly appeared out of nowhere and asked me if I would be interested in having a few beers at his place.
It was around 3am and he was a little bit drunk, but still I agreed to go with him.
He has never been married and lives alone in a 2-room apartment. As we were drinking beer, he talked about how much he dislikes social exclusion in his own culture and how much he loves Spanish culture. He is a fluent Spanish speaker.
“I am more Spanish than Finnish. I do not like the winter in Finland. Every year, during winter, I go to Peru and stay there for a couple of months. When the winter is over, I come back. I love the warmth and cordiality of Spanish-speaking people,” he said after playing a Spanish song of Marc Anthony on his laptop.
I was astonished when he brought out a pocket-sized Quran, the holy book of the Muslims, from a cabinet after he learned that I am a Muslim.
“I also took some Arabic lessons at some point in my life,” he grinned.
I could go on and on, and mention some more stories but here is the key point:
“Finns might appear very private people (to some extent, they actually are) but they will open their heart if a SINCERE effort is made to get to know them well after establishing a MEANINGFUL relationship.”
If you want to understand Finns, you have to build INTIMATE connections with them first. (And remember that connecting with Finns takes a considerable amount of time. My experience is that shortcuts do not work when it comes to making AUTHENTIC connections with Finnish people.)
Then you have to try to know them very, very well. If Finns notice that you have a REAL, GENUINE interest in knowing them, they will open their heart at some point.
And they will feel comfortable to tell you their stories.
Once they do that, you will see that Finns are not only modest and polite but also very warm-hearted.
Finns, like other human beings in other parts of the world, have interesting stories to tell. You just need to listen to them. The best way to get to know Finns is through the stories of their life, passion, happiness and sorrows.
So, ask Finns about how they see life. Ask open-ended questions about their passion. Ask them what makes them smile. Ask them what pisses them off.
But how do you build a deeper relationship with Finns so that they will feel comfortable telling you their stories?
Truth be told, I still have no foolproof formula for that. I am still trying to figure it out.
But I can give you an idea and that brings us to the second lesson:
2. Finns (want to) have deep conversations first. Then they might do “small talk”.
I have written about how foreigners coming from talkative cultures think that Finns are cold and unfriendly, mainly because of the absence of small talk in Finnish culture. You can read it here:
The Sound of Finnish Silence (and Why I Love It)
Foreigners, upon arriving in Finland, will be pretty quick to declare that Finnish people are "unusually silent".
In cultures where small talk exists, people learn how not to keep their mouth shut even when there is nothing important to talk about. Gaps in conversations are considered awkward and overlaps are common.
Finns, however, prefer engaging only in meaningful conversations. In a group, each participant waits for his or her turn to speak. When there is nothing meaningful to say, Finns deliberately choose to remain silent.
If you are coming from a small talk culture, you will be inclined to strike up a conversation with Finns about trivial subjects such as weather. You will naturally think that small talk will break the ice and help build the momentum to have deeper conversations later.
But you will most likely be disappointed soon because talking about weather will hardly create the scope for a deep engagement with Finns.
I was talking to a Finnish girl on the phone one day and she asked me how I was.
“I am fine,” I said.
She emphatically said: “Are you sure that everything is fine in your life or you said fine just for the sake of saying it? You know, this is small talk and I hate it.”
A colleague of mine told me recently: “When you ask someone how he or she is, do you really expect that the person will say he or she is not fine? You never expect that. You want to hear that the person is doing fine. This is called small talk and it is completely meaningless.”
Finns do not respond well to small talk, mainly because they do not grow up doing it. A Finnish girl, whom I interviewed for my 2017 Finnishness project, said it very clearly:
“You do not learn small talk if nobody does it with you.”
You can read the full interview here:
‘You don’t learn small talk if nobody does it with you’ [Finland 100/Suomi 100]
Nuggets of information on Finland and Finnishness — one story at a time
So, my suggestion for connecting with Finns is to keep small talk to a bare minimum (or skip it altogether) and then start meaningful, thought-provoking discussions as soon as possible.
And you do not need to be an expert in the latest scientific discoveries to have stimulating, profound, lively discussions.
Here is a widely known secret:
“Everyone loves to talk about themselves.”
You can use this simple formula to have deep conversations with Finns.
Finnish screenwriter and director Emma Taulo said the same in my Finnishness interview series. She said:
“Everyone loves it when they are asked about themselves. This usually works when it comes to making friends. Just give it some time and you will have a friend for long in Finland. At least that is what people say.”
You can read the whole interview here:
‘I wish we could broaden our view of Finnishness in general’ [Finland 100/Suomi 100]
Nuggets of information on Finland and Finnishness — one story at a time
So, you can talk to Finns about Finnish culture, Finnish society and Finnish values, for example. You can talk about Finnish language. You can talk about the Finnish way of life.
You can basically talk about anything related to Finland, and there is no reason why Finns will not happily respond to such questions.
When I talk to Finns, my favourite subject is Finnishness. I am always interested in knowing what makes a Finn a Finn. I am interested in knowing what Finns think about upholding the rights of the LGBT community. I am interested in knowing what Finns think is the most Finnish thing ever.
Admittedly, I still do not have insightful knowledge of Finland and Finnish people, but that does not stop me from trying to have deep conversations with Finns.
Let me give you an example.
When I went to the Finnish Immigration Service to apply for an extended residence permit, I saw this interesting message:
A few days later, I asked a Finnish lady, who has 2 children and has been working in the banking sector for many years, about this message and she said:
“It means in Finland, girls, once they become officially adults, do not need men’s permission to make decisions on significant life matters. They can make their own decisions about career, love, marriage etc.”
We talked for over half an hour as she discussed this subject in more details.
Then I told her I would like to talk about the Finnish economy and the welfare society in our next meeting, and she happily agreed to do so.
Here is another example. I asked Finns why they always practice modesty in their speech and do not use flowery adjectives such as awesome, breathtaking, splendid, incredible etc.
“That is very American way of talking. We do not do that. If something is good, we just say it is good and that is enough,” a colleague said.
“Another thing is that people here want to be honest. They do not want to exaggerate. However, that does not mean you have to follow our style. You can stick to your own style,” he added.
Then we talked some more about this and the conversation took a different turn based on what we had just discussed. One topic smoothly led to another.
I met a Swedish-Finn who does not speak Finnish that well. I asked him how difficult it was for him to connect to Finns apart from the language barrier.
“I feel very Finnish and I am very comfortable with Finns. Even though I am a Swedish-Finn, I could not connect with Swedes smoothly when I was in Sweden,” he said.
So here is the key point:
“Once you become the deep chat buddy of Finns, they might have chit-chat with you frequently or occasionally.”
Because now they know you and you know them.
Because now you are comfortable with them and they are comfortable with you.
Because now a relationship has already been built and talking about inconsequential matters (for example, it is a very warm and sunny day today) feels less boring and less awkward.
A Finnish girl told me she does not have a lot of friends but she has many good-day friends.
I loved the adjective ‘good-day’.
I guess you understand what she meant.
So do not be just a good-day friend of Finns if you want better connections.
In other words, do not get into their head and stay there.