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Cultural differences in business practices – Finland

October 3, 2013

A Finnish man from the countryside had a teenage son who was born mute. One day, as the two were working the land, the boy’s plough broke. To his father’s astonishment, the son started swearing angrily at the land. “Son!” shouted the father, “I did not know you could speak. Why didn’t you say anything until now?” “I couldn’t find the right moment” answered the boy as he started fixing the plough.

 This Swedish joke is probably one of the first things I ever read about Finland as a kid.  The second thing I discovered was its large output of metal music with a melancholic twist.

Silence is golden

My wise-looking Finnish teacher at the University of Helsinki liked to stress the Finnish uniqueness in being appropriately quiet. Feisty and always with a perfect timing for her jokes, Miss Silfverberg taught us that, in Finland, silence is golden, and one must learn to listen if he – or she, as she always emphasized – wants to truly communicate with Finns.

 

 Scientists agree. Finnish silence is something real and one will probably avoid active discussions and passionate arguments in a meeting. According to Michael Berry[1], an American academic who studies Finnish speech culture and communication norms, Finns prefer listening in silence rather than doing small talk. This scientific research is backed by Ms. Silferberg, as she believes that we may break the ice with Finns by talking about the weather, but “we will find some very cold water underneath”.

 One stereotype which is usually associated with quiet people is that they are not friendly. That is not true. While Finns may not be the ones initiating the discussion, they will be very happy to give you an answer. You should, though, be prepared for straightforwardness. Rather than going around the bush with fancy euphemisms, Finns tend to give short, straight and very logical answers. I remember being lost once in Helsinki so I went with a map to two young men who were chatting on the street. I asked if they could help me and their answer was – “No”. After what seemed like some very long five seconds of really uncomfortable silence they added that they did not know the city that well themselves. Miss Silfverberg applies the same critical thinking to personal relations. She logically prefers having acquaintances, as keeping friends can be very demanding…

 Business wise though, one great thing about communicating with Finns is that they have a very good command of English, probably even of Swedish (which is an official language, next to Finnish). This is great because, as I have personally experienced, their mother tongue is tough to learn, arguably one of the toughest in the world.

 

Equality for all

 Whether in business, government or in a school classroom, equality is one of the things that Finns value the most. Coming from Romania, a country which is based on top-down hierarchical systems, I was astonished to observe how Finns look at social relations, even from an early age. As a volunteer in a Finnish high school for students aged 14 to 18, I had no reply to the 15-year old who told me, straight-faced, that “teachers have to earn their respect in front of the students” and that there is no need to call anybody Mr. and Mrs. Their English language teacher nodded approvingly as she distributed sheets with “acceptable and unacceptable swears in English” (“c***” and “f***” words included).

Stemming from a visible sense of duty towards the others, the Finns are quite vocal about the Nordic social welfare system. With the idea of not leaving anybody behind, Finns invest in quality services for all[2]. If you go to Finland you’ll be surprised by the high prices of, well, pretty much anything, the price of a high wage, high tax economy that invests in free education for everybody.

Those involved in EU projects know that the issue of gender equality is highly important in developing a proposal for funding. And Finland takes gender talk seriously. It has one of the highest rates of female political participation: 42.5% of Finnish parliamentarians are women. It was also one of the first countries to give a female minister (Miina Sillanpää, 1927).

On a personal note, I know when a country is serious about gender equality when it is also men talking about it in the media. While small pay gaps still exists – women earn 80% of what men do for the same job[3] – the Finnish authorities have official goals to gradually reduce these gaps.

And, since we are on the horizontal issues topic, let me just add that copy-right is sacred. From pillow design to pop songs, Finns protect and respect their and other’s property. And they are also passionate about branding. Most of us have heard of Nokia, Angry Birds and, why not, Santa Claus. Some of you, about Marimekko and the Moomins. Finns are proud of their own products and they are learning fast how to market them. If you walk around Helsinki, you will see Angry Birds games, Angry Birds toys, Angry birds mugs, Angry Birds anything…

Passionate about innovation

 

The Finns are keen on new things and innovation and don’t just rely on seasonal tourism to Santa Claus Park in Lapland. According to a 2013 special report by the Economist[4], Finns are turning entrepreneurship into a lifestyle. Partly due to the government initiative to promote innovation but also due to the giant Nokia’s rapid decline, Finns have embraced innovation as a means of helping the economy and, of course, themselves.

Perhaps one of the most visible proofs of their commitment to innovation, Finland has made broadband internet a legal right for all its citizens. Even though the majority of its population did have access to these services, in 2010 the government concluded that it was time to look at the internet not as a means for entertainment but as a fundamental right.[5]

As an extracurricular activity next to my studies, I took part in a pilot project initiated by the Demos think-tank together with the University of Helsinki aimed at promoting the entrepreneurial spirit among young people. Some of the chosen projects have actually succeeded. To give just an example, one of the ideas incubated turned into a small company which produces some of the coolest open – air events in the whole of Finland.

Regardless of their focus, most of these endeavours shared the idea of a common good. One essential element of this common good is nature. Beginning with family gathering and ending with official meetings (you might have heard about the Sauna-diplomacy, negotiations led my Finns with the Soviets during the Cold War), Finns will always love to retreat for a moment of silence (!) in a cottage by one of the country’s many lakes. I am not saying that, for instance, when you will do business with Finns, you will automatically be handed a towel and invited to a sauna in the woods, but don’t be surprised if does happen or you hear about it from others. Finns love nature and are interested to invest in it because they appreciate the role it plays in their well-being.

Finnishing remarks

Most of what I have written here comes from my personal experience. I do not claim that all Finns are the way I just described them but I do want to offer a flavour of my connection to this remarkable Nordic country. At first look, success in marketing heavy metal bands abroad and a free iPhone game about birds shot at pig’s heads might not appear to say much about Finland. But in actual fact they are symbolic of a country which takes time to find unexpectedly creative ways to respect and preserve the things it values.

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