From the Polish perspective, Finland can be a rather peculiar country. The cultural differences are instantly noticeable. In business, and not only, Finns tend to be very specific but also extremely reserved and taciturn, frequently not feeling the urge to meet a face-to-face. Sending an ordinary email will do the job, moreover – it’s actually preferable! And although Finland is a highly innovative country, understanding the mentality of its inhabitants requires time, patience, and most importantly – diplomacy.
To begin with, it is worth pointing out that Finland is often wrongfully considered to be a Scandinavian country. This common misconception arises from the country’s location. What needs to be remembered is that Scandinavia consists of Sweden, Norway (situated on the Scandinavian peninsula) and Denmark. However, Finland does belong to the Nordic Council, whose members also include Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland.
One other feature that separates Finland from other Nordic countries is the language. Finnish belongs to the Finno-Ugric group and is related to languages such as Estonian or Hungarian, to name a few. And even though the language itself is very interesting and melodious, one should not expect its speakers to be profuse in their expression,a as Finns are indeed famous for their shyness. At a meeting, a Finnish person will speak only in case of absolute necessity. One should therefore not be bothered when during e.g. a business presentation there are no questions asked and silence prevails in the room. It simply means that everything has been understood and nothing more needs to be said. That should be respected.
Punctuality is crucial
Similarly to all Nordic nations, Finns value punctuality. No delays are allowed, also regarding assignment completion and contract fulfilment, because it is very badly seen. If you desire to make an appointment, it should be done even a month in advance. Short working hours must also be taken into consideration. Most offices work until 4 pm in winter time, and until 3 pm in the summer. Business meetings always begin and end on time. Even if you happen arrive slightly before time, it’s not recommendable to fill the waiting gap with casual chitchat. Finnish people are very reluctant to engage in it, so it’s best not to make them feel awkward. One should also get accustomed to moments of silence and avoid forcing small talk.
Finns both greet and say good-bye to each other with a good old customary handshake with all people around, including children – and that is absolutely enough.
– All sorts of manifesting one’s feelings and emotions is extremely embarrassing in the Finnish culture, and up to a point where even something as inconspicuous as publicly praising a Finn for a well-done job may provoke bewilderment – says Joanna Modrzyńska, a lecturer at Nicholas Copernicus University’s Faculty of Political Sciences and International Studies, and also the head of Art of Manners school. – Distance and privacy are very important for Finns and they expect the same in return – adds the expert.
Starting a casual conversation in the lift, public transport or a restaurant might be very negatively perceived. However, if you’re already talking to somebody, remember about maintaining eye-contact and keeping your hands out of your pockets.
Business meetings in… a sauna
Building business relationships often takes place in… a sauna. No wonder – it is Finland’s national emblem, so accepting the invitation will resonate well. Such events usually precede business lunches etc., so it is good to know some elementary rules.
– Although there is no obligation to use the sauna naked, people who come in a swimsuit or wrapped around in a towel are a rare view – stresses Modrzyńska.
Topics which are considered ‘safe’ for conversation include sports, particularly those winter sports in which Finnish people excel. Questions of religion and politics are definitely to be avoided, as are excessive enquiries regarding vocational matters.
Modrzyńska points out that during social meetings Finns don’t pay much attention to formalities, which is why the toast is often already raised at the beginning of the meal. Paying for the meal is also of importance – splitting the bill is virtually unheard of in Finland.
– The person in charge of footing the bill is always the host of the meeting. And this rule also applies to women – adds the expert. Business talks over lunch are a common practice here, contrary to dinners – in this case, business matters should wait until coffee has been served.
– When you’re invited to a Finnish home, it is well seen to bring a small gift, such as a flower bouquet. Tulips are the best choice, however, yellow and white are colours associated with funeral ceremonies. Pot flowers are not advisable – adds Modrzyńska. A bottle of wine or a box of chocolates will work equally fine.
In the business setting, small gifts are also advisable, especially books or tiny presents referring to the giver’s country of origin. However, gifts should only serve as the crowning of the already successful business negotiations.
For Business & Prestige, Iwona Sobczak – a journalist specialising in professional image and business etiquette, fluent in many languages, an expert in understanding and explaining cross-cultural differences. Read other articles by this author
Editing: Dominika Job, manager at Business & Prestige