Your new environment
The Finnish people value the equality and individuality of the Nordic way of life. Finns also value nature with its open spaces and clean environment and water.
Finding your way around and adjusting to the new environment is greatly helped by the fact that many Finns speak fluent English. A lot of practical information, for example on public transportation, is also easily available in English. Many Finns travel a lot and are interested in learning about other countries and cultures, which has brought a growing sensitivity to cultural differences.
However, since Finland differs from the Middle East in many respects, a culture shock is still possible. Here are some tips to make the transition to Finnish cultural environment a smoother one.
Shaking hands with direct, brief eye contact is the most common greeting. Don’t be surprised if the handshake is firmer than what you’re used to: the Finns think a firm handshake denotes an upstanding person.
It is fair to say that Finns have a special attitude to words and speech: words are taken seriously and people are held to what they say. Context seems to matter little as words are considered the same regardless of when or where they are uttered.
It is often said that Finns are not adept at small talk. It is also quite true that they are far more comfortable with silence than people from many other nations.
In Finland, the concept of personal space is considered important. The physical distance Finns maintain may make them seem a bit reserved and cold, but in a thoroughly individual society it is also one of the few ways to show respect. When you get to know Finns, you will realise that they are friendly and helpful people.
Beyond the initial handshake or hug between friends, Finns do not touch each other much. Sitting very close to others, touching their hair or clothes makes Finns feel uncomfortable. Even speaking in a very loud voice can be considered an intrusion into someone else’s space.
In one-on-one conversations direct eye contact matters the most in showing you are interested in what the other person has to say, although in general mutual eye contact is not held for a long time. Eye contact is a part of interaction between people of different statuses, ages and sexes, but the intensity and length of it is much less than in the Middle East.
For most Finns, religious and political topics are acceptable subjects of discussion. It is still good to remember that when it comes to personal religious or political views, many consider them a part of their private sphere and hesitate to share them.
Punctuality is very important to Finns. Never be late for lectures and meetings, even the informal ones, as this is considered impolite in Finland. The different attitude towards time and its worth shows in the way Finns lead their life: they like to make most of their time and stick to their schedules.
Finnish society is well organised, and Finns are very set on following its rules. This means it is polite to remember to queue when needed. In offices you may have to take your own “queuing number” and proceed when it’s your turn. Generally, also traffic regulations are followed, and drivers are unprepared to handle unexpected situations such as pedestrians on the road.
A Culture Shock?
Finnish Student Health Service has psychologists and psychiatrists that are experts in encountering students’ problems. They also have experience about international students and culture shocks. The SOS Center (tel. 09-4135 0501) helps foreigners and their family members living in Finland in different crises of life. The centre serves also international students. It offers short-term therapeutic conversation help.