Finns smile on the inside - Monocolumn | Monocle


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7 March 2012

A friend from my home country got stopped in central London. A concerned couple was worried about my Finnish friend looking so deeply gloomy.
She wasn’t suicidal, not depressed, not heartbroken, not even in a bad mood. As a matter of fact it was quite a nice sunny day and she was simply on her way to pick up her child from nursery school, enjoying the cosmopolitan feel of the city.

This all sounds very familiar to me. I have also been told that I look gloomy and depressed when I’ve actually been having the time of my life. I guess Finns look a bit too serious.

I remember when I first went abroad – the Swedes seemed stylish and happy. Going to Denmark was always uplifting because everyone was in such a good mood. The Brits gathered in pubs and seemed completely isolated from any of the worries of everyday life. Americans smiled a lot, although every now and then you’d notice the laughter wasn’t quite real.

Back in Finland we’re raised listening to phrases such as “Itku pitkasta ilosta,” meaning, “After too much fun you will cry.” Also – “Puhuminen hopeaa, vaikeneminen kultaa,” translated as, “Speaking is silver, being quiet is gold.” Despite my home country going through huge changes after joining the European Union and becoming so much more international, there is still so much of this rich heritage left.

I see it myself now when I go to Helsinki, the general impression you get on the streets is one of melancholy. Seriousness. Lack of joy. It’s so weird considering how much fun my fellow countrymen and women can be with their friends. Unfortunately, you probably won’t witness this if you’re only visiting briefly.

I can’t avoid thinking how much this affects the popularity of countries as holiday destinations. It also must affect business. Their are stories of foreign workers feeling awkward in Finland when the natural flow of conversation jarringly stops and starts, thanks to their less sociable Finnish business counterparts.

The problem is so well-known that in the 1980s and 1990s we had an ex-Miss Finland who took it as her mission to teach Finns how to cope in business abroad. Two major lessons were: you have to learn small talk – which is saying something flattering about your business partner. Secondly, never wear tennis socks for formal meetings.

I believe the language you use can also change your personality. In English I am more open and possibly more fun to be around. In Finland I am happily quiet, sipping my beer while reinforcing the stereotypical image of Finns onto the neighbouring countries. I can also quite happily sit in a sauna with my dad for a good 20 minutes without saying a word. That’s not a bad thing.

Still, it can’t hurt to throw a random smile to a stranger – even in Helsinki.


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