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How to Prepare Yourself For Culture Shock in Finland

Knowing what to expect when you arrive in Finland can help alleviate a lot of the uncertainty and stress that can cause culture shock.

Immersing yourself in another culture is absolutely exciting but also intimidating, and during this adventure, many people find themselves with some level of culture shock. I know this firsthand (more about that later).

So, to help you get ready for your stay in Finland, I made this post for you. Let’s first discuss the phenomenon and then go over some of the top reasons people experience culture shock in Finland. 

What is culture shock? 

Culture shock is a catchy phrase that gets thrown around somewhat loosely, but what you need to understand is that most people experience this shock when they immerse themselves in a new and unknown culture.

You could best describe culture shock as a disorientated or uneasy feeling caused by being surrounded by activities, attitudes, and unfamiliar ways. If you experience this, know that you are alone. 

My personal experience with culture shock

I have personally experienced culture shock when I moved to Geneva, Switzerland from Finland.

I didn’t understand that you could experience culture shock even though your own country or culture doesn’t greatly differ from the new country you move into. So, I did absolutely nothing to prepare myself for it in advance. A serious mistake.

For me, the biggest reasons for the shock were the differences in work life and the lack of supporting social networks.

I felt anxious, depressed, and extremely homesick. I was so sad that I didn’t feel like doing any sports and ate a lot to feel better. That resulted in me gaining a lot of weight and the situation only got worse because I was not feeling at all me.

I was miserable and became a hermit. I locked into my own bedroom in the apartment I shared with 3 other lovely people.

Looking back on this now, I wish I had educated myself on the topic of culture shock so that I would have identified it. But, as I was in the middle of it, I was paralyzed.

So, what specific experiences might trigger culture shock in Finland? Below are some top reasons.  

Social norms

Finns aren’t considered the most outgoing of people and this can cause social anxiety and culture shock among non-Finnish people. You are not alone if you feel like an outsider when you’re in Finland.

Finnish politeness is much about “giving you space” – both physical and mental. For example, it isn’t that natural for Finns to invite newcomers to events and parties.

When I was working in Scotland, I was absolutely amazed that I was invited to a Scottish wedding after three days of working together with a new colleague. The wedding was beautiful and so much fun. It also made me think about how rare such an invitation would be in Finnish work life.

That being said, I really want you to know that Finnish people are actually very, very friendly. You need to crack their reserved shell and befriend them, then you are friends with a Finn for life.

Of course, it’s good to keep in mind that city folks will have different attitudes than Finns in more rural areas. This is true also when you compare some Finnish regions to others.

Another thing to know is that Finns tend to see things with a black and white mentality and shy away from being melodramatic. Such a calculated and logical mindset of the people can be off-putting and difficult for some newcomers. 

You can get to know the Finnish mindset by enrolling in my free class below.

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Language

This was the thing that totally blindsided me when I moved abroad. I didn’t understand how much of your identity is tied to your verbal communication in your mother tongue.

Geneva is a city where they speak English and French. I knew and spoke both languages so I thought that I won’t have many problems in the language department. Just some silly misunderstandings etc.

However, I didn’t understand, that my identity was deeply connected with my way of expressing myself in Finnish, my native tongue.

So, when I was speaking English, I felt that I was only showing a part of my authentic self. That made me feel that the new people I was meeting didn’t get to know the true me, but only some weird, stupid version of me. That was frustrating and emotionally difficult for me to deal with because I was caught by surprise.

Long dark nights

Your experience in Finland will vary drastically based on what time of year you visit. If you visit between September thru March, you’ll be between autumnal and vernal equinoxes which means short days in the Northern Hemisphere.

Finland is very far north and during the winter months that means you could be getting days that have as little as 1-6 hours of daylight, depending on where you are in Finland.

You might find these long dark times to be a shock. If you can be outdoors when it’s the brightest, aka 10 am – 2 pm in winter, I highly recommend it!

Long beautiful days

On the flip side, if you are visiting Finland in the summer months, you will be inundated with activities and a hustle and bustle of excitement throughout the country. 

Finns and tourists alike gain certain energy when the weather is beautiful, the cold winter nights are gone, and they are getting 15 hours or more of daylight.

As lovely as summer days are, keep in mind not all culture shock comes from negative things; tons of activity and great weather can also provide a shock to some.

It’s good to know that when people switch into “winter mode”, the difference is quite visible and audible. Many of my international friends lovingly laugh to the winter and summer modes of Finnish people.

Finally, one practical thing. Finnish homes might not have proper blinds and the bright nights may make it hard to sleep, so it’s good to have a sleep mask with you. 

Food

Traditional Finnish food is based on dairy products, a lot. There are also different breads, pastries, fish, and other meats. Food can bring a major culture shock not only to your digestive tract and body but also to the mind.

Keep an open mind with food. You might find yourself enjoying karjalanpiirakka (a rice & rye pastry), ruisleipä (rye bread), kalakukko (fish & rye pie), and lihapullat (Finnish meatballs) among many other traditional Finnish foods.

The good news is that Finland is heaven for people with special diets. The labeling is great. Also, there are lots of vegetarian options.

As a final note on food, I have to mention salty licorice. This treat is distinctly popular in Scandinavian countries and is very unique in flavor. You might be shocked at how much of this salty licorice, or salmiakki, is around and how it is seen as a cultural point of pride to eat it and enjoy it. 

Sauna and nudity

Let’s start with this startling fact; there are an estimated 2,3 million saunas in Finland. Sauna is more than a hobby, that is a cultural norm in and of itself. Immersing yourself in the popular sauna culture can be relaxing and enjoyable.

Finnish man enjoying sauna

Some may find Finnish culture shock because the saunas tend to be no clothing for your own sex (if the sauna is mixed, it’s never nude). This can definitely trigger some of that uneasiness that causes shock. 

Coffee culture

Finnish coffee culture is about getting caffeinated quickly and effectively. Finns drink on average 3-6 cups of coffee a day and tend to schedule parts of their days around that. If coffee is not that important to you, you may find this tradition a bit odd. 

Shoes off inside

When you are visiting people at their homes, it is expected that you remove your shoes when coming inside. Also, when visiting people in Finland it is polite and expected to make plans ahead of time and not to drop by unexpectedly. 

Equality

Total equality is a Finnish belief. Equality among citizens and specifically among genders is something that Finns value highly, and such a balanced society can cause a bit of culture shock for all people, regardless of age or gender. 

I can’t think of an everyday situation where I would be using someone’s title or surname. Everyone is on the same level in the Finnish culture.

Politeness in Finland

One everyday example of politeness is that as a Finnish woman, I’m not that used to men opening doors or carrying my heavy-weight luggage. Of course, I’m happy to accept this helpfulness and politeness but the lack of it is not a problem.

If you are coming from a culture that shows politeness through opening doors and carrying things, Finland might be a culture shock.

Alcohol consumption

Finns are known to be able to drink a lot and tend to do so regardless of the time of year. However, I have to say that in my opinion, many Finns are not so crazy drinkers as the legend tells.

Keep in mind that you can only buy certain alcohol products from state-owned stores called “Alko”. For example, wines are not available at regular grocery stores.

If you don’t drink, some Finns will most likely ask you about this or at least have a surprised look on their face. The younger generations drink less and like to stay sober, so luckily, this attitude is changing.

Public transport 

One of the most visible places to see the huge personal space Finns have is in public transportation. If the bus is empty, it is socially expected that you pick a seat that is not next to anyone. 

Finnish public transportation

How I survived the culture shock

For me, the first three months were really difficult in Geneva. Looking back, I should have pushed myself to get endorphins, do sports, enjoying art and cultural activities.

Furthermore, I should have been actively looking for like-minded people, on Facebook groups and overall on social media. But, I was not able to do any of this.

So what happened? Sheer luck. One day, a friendly stranger sat next to me in a crowded lunch place. He had already been living in Geneva for a while and had a wonderful pool of friends to whom he introduced me. We went on a day hike the next Saturday and had so much fun.

That changed my Geneva experience completely and the rest of my stay was wonderful. So, based on my experience, it just took one new friend to improve the situation.

I hope these insights have given you some food for thought! What would you add to the list of things that may cause culture shock in Finland? Let me know in the comment.

Looking for more tips about the Finnish culture? Click to read one of these articles:

References

About Varpu
I’m the founder of Her Finland. I love cultural tidbits, aha moments, Finnish folklore, and cinnamon buns. My newest interest is learning bird songs. Read more about me..

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