Small talk in Finland – does it exist? How can you make small talk with Finns? Hands down, those are the most asked cultural questions in my inbox.
Indeed, Finnish small talk will, most likely, be very different from your culture.
Before I begin, I’d like to say that as this is a cultural thing, there isn’t “one truth only” by any means. Everyone will have their own encounters and experiences in Finland based on the length and type of their stay and the area(s) they visit.
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There are several positively tingling aspects to this topic so I have tried to combine all of the most common issues neatly in this post. If there’s anything you’d like to ask, comment below so others will find our conversation too!
Table of Contents
What is Small Talk in Finland?
So, guys, many of you have written to me that Finnish small talk leaves you speechless (pun intended). You might even think that there is no concept of small talk in Finland. In a way, I think you may be right.
That’s because, in Finnish culture, greeting words and saying your name are already considered small talk.
Then, we can carry on with the real topics. If it happens that there are no actual topics, well then, we might as well be silent. It’s very natural for a Finn to be silent in a group.
However, I think, that the most cultural giggles (or panic) come from the Finnish ability to be silent as a group. And, yes, I mean that nobody is speaking. Anything. For a reallllyyyy long time.
Add a non-Finn into the mix and most likely he will feel very awkward. That is if he is not a hidden Finn. If he is, he is most likely enjoying his personal silence like all the others.
I know, it must be difficult to understand how we bear such long, queasy pauses. I can say that when you are born to it, it feels cozy and completely normal. It’s surprisingly difficult to add extra words to everyday situations when they aren’t built into your culture.
The Basic Rules of Finnish Small Talk
For a Finn, being silent is being polite, as you are not disturbing the other person. I try to describe the rules of Finnish small talk by demonstrating the likelihood of a Finn talking in different situations with the picture below.
Escaping Social Situations with Finnish Small Talk
Some might see the Finnish small talk behavior as escaping social situations aka social avoiding. Indeed, this built-in lack of talk is accepted in all forms of encounters.
As you can see from the picture above, there is a relaxing element of social avoiding even among friendships, especially if the relationship is not that close. It is okay to be focused entirely on your mobile when walking past acquaintance in Finland.
The silence extends to phone calls, messages and social media too. For example, if a Finn reads your message, there’s no cultural pressure in Finland to answer it immediately.
Not-Surprising Situations for a Finn Abroad
Social avoiding hits another level especially when Finns are abroad and spot another Finn. I was unsure whether or not to write about this but I will, because cultural things are the essence of my blog and, also, because I think this Finnish feature is hilarious and true. Full disclosure: I have certainly done it myself too, hahaha.
Long story short: there are many occasions, in which we Finns are silent and sometimes even pretend we are not Finns to avoid the social situation that might otherwise occur. Here are three examples.
#1 You are a Finn working abroad, and another Finn comes to your workplace. If you know that you won’t do any collaboration, you may disguise yourself as a mute random employee. The only risk is that some non-Finn colleague will give you away.
#2 You are a Finn on holiday in a secluded environment (like in a paradise island), and miraculously you hear other Finns talking. You continue your way silently.
#3 You are in an environment that is full of Finns, for example, enjoying a holiday in Torremolinos in Spain. You don’t greet nor speak to any of them during the whole stay.
Finnish Small Talk in Work Life
At work in Finland, you can just start telling your business immediately to the other person. To be more precise, you should start telling your business immediately and not waste time wandering around the subject.
On the other hand, please don’t take it personally if a Finn starts a conversation with you and doesn’t even say “How are you?”. She is not being rude. She knows that you are super busy and that’ why she is very straight-forward. Also, she is not being a good, efficient worker, if she wastes her time with chitchatting.
Compliments in Finland
As other people would just smile and say thank you, a Finn usually finds a way to somehow belittle her own contribution to the given praise.
By no means is this habit to insult or depreciate the person who gave the compliment, rather just shows that the receiver is modest.
Amusingly, sometimes the comment makes the situation totally weird. Do not fear if this happens to you, it happens all the time between Finns too. Just smoothly carry on to the next topic of discussion.
Your hair looks great! – Huh, I just washed it.
…What do you say to that?! Nothing. You can just move on with the conversation.
That blouse looks fantastic on you! – The threads are coming out of the seams and everything…
Okay… And here is one more!
Your garden is beautiful! – Well yes… The soil is good here and there has been good weather.
See what I mean?
A Gift for a Finn
If you don’t know the Finn that well, coffee related gifts are always a safe choice. Bring local coffee flavors, biscuits or sweets.
Receiving gifts is another thing. Nowadays, there isn’t a clear ritual in Finland whether to open the gift immediately or later. Back in the day, you usually opened the gift later, sometimes even after the person had left.
Thus, the older the person, the more you need to encourage them to open the gift in your presence. This is again Finnish modesty. You don’t want to look greedy by having a hurry to open your gift.
Note that the facial expressions are usually minimal when a Finn opens a gift. Luckily, this only applies if the Finn is over 15 years old.
Personally, if I could, I would target my gift giving only to Finnish children and pets, if possible. Watching them jumping over the moon makes me so happy.
The funniest thing about gifting is that there is a very old habit of instant reciprocity and getting the recyclable parts of your gift back.
Here is a true story that happened to my granny last year.
My energetic granny made a flower arrangement to a pot to cheer up her granny friend. She added the final touch by making a bow of some silk ribbon. Her friend thanked for the gift and they had a lovely meet.
A week later, my granny met that same friend again and had coffee with her. First of all, as a return gift, the friend gave a chocolate box to my granny. This gesture was followed by giving back the pot and the silk ribbon, because, in this case, the flower was the actual present. Then, they swiftly moved on to other things.
Is there anything you would like to ask about Finnish small talk, compliments or gift giving? What are your experiences with Finnish small talk? Let me know in the comments!
Looking for more information about Finnish culture? Check out some of my other posts:
Warm wishes from Finland,
After Finnish Culture Compass, you’ll…
...feel connected with the Finnish culture (even if you aren’t in Finland)
...be confident with the Finnish communication style (even when it’s filled with silence)
...be prepared to meet and get to know Finns