Is that rude or is it just Finnish?

“Why don’t Finnish people ever say please?”

“When a Finnish person passes you too closely on a bike and almost rides you over, they don’t say “excuse me”.”

“If you fall or there is a problem with your bike, nobody helps you up unless you ask for help.”

“Men do not hold the door open for me.”

“If you are meeting someone for a purpose, it is that purpose that is discussed first and then, maybe there will be small talk “how is the weather?”, “how are you?” etc afterwards. It’s such a cold way of interacting”

“People do not smile at strangers, even if they are both walking dogs.”


“Finnish people are so anal about being on time.”

“When walking towards a Finnish person you think that they might not have seen you or that you invisible, such is their way of somehow seeing through you or beyond you. It’s very weird.”

Obviously these are massive generalisations but they are things that I heard people say and things that I have thought myself. Living in Finland and not being able to count further than six in Finnish (I’m working on that) has meant that I have spent most of my time with internationals who the City of Oulu seems to attract quite well for being a city lost up in the north of Finland. I have found that often internationals talk about how rude or socially awkward they find Finnish people to be. I don’t think the internationals are doing this to berate their adopted country, but rather because all these international people come from so many different places and have so few shared experiences that engaging with Finnish culture becomes a major shared experience and therefore a major topic of conversation.

That culture is a socialised norm (and in the false dicotomediuos nature/nurture debate I would put it very firmly in the nurture column if I had to put it anywhere) is not the focus of this blog. Does “culture” exist? Yes. Is it unchanging? No. Does it make some people very uncomfortable? Yes. Does everybody who identifies themselves as belonging to a specific culture act the same way? No. Can “multi-cultural interaction” cause problems? Most definitely. Do those problems always have to be a problem? No. Culture creates social norms about almost everything including what counts as polite and what counts as impolite. So in such situations I like to put on my most postmodern hat and think that what is deemed as polite for me, is not for many Finnish people. And do you know what, maybe I’m being jolly rude or confusing to many Finnish people and I just don’t know it.

What I found out though is that Finnish people tend to not do nothing for no reason (a triple negative??? really? Sorry but I cannot think of any other way to put it). And so, to be invited into a Finnish person’s home is very wonderful. I have always been well fed and treated with a generous hospitality that has deeply humbled me.

And so, when I am offended yet again by some small social gentillesse not being done, I stop and think “Is that rude or is it just Finnish?”


21 thoughts on “Is that rude or is it just Finnish?

  1. bella says:

    haha wow I’m Finnish born and bred, but moved to the UK for university three years ago. I must say that every year I return to Finland for the holidays I feel less Finnish each time.. Finnish people are indeed very reserved and tend to keep to themselves. It is actually quite ridiculous how hard it seems for grown men and women to simply utter the words “excuse me” or “sorry” if they feel you are in their way. Instead, they elbow themselves past you while throwing their dirtiest look at you 😀 It’s really quite ridiculous and i usually just laugh it off, but after a while it gets old and it feels exhausting to have such negativity around you.. It’s hard to say if it’s rudeness or just a cultural thing, but I’m inclined to say that it is just bad manners ingrained in the Finnish culture. Other simple things like holding the door for the person behind you seems like common sense to me, but in Finland it is a rare occurrence.

  2. Bee says:

    hee hee. true 🙂

  3. konsta says:

    Minä suomalaisena poikana joudun myöntämään tämän olevan totta. En osannut kaikkia sanojani englanniksi joita olisin sanonut joten toivon että ymmärrät. Yleistäminen kuitenkin on mielestäni väärin. On olemassa suomalaisia useita jotka käyttäytyvät ustävällisesti. Availevat ovia, ovat mukavia ja juttelevat paljon. Mutta kulttuurissamme vanhempi sukupolti on valitettavasti jopa röyhkeä. Kyllä joukostamMe löytyy paljon sosiaalisia ihmisiä.

    • Bee says:

      Hei! Sorry that I cant reply to you in Finnish, but I thought I would like to reply to you because you make a valid comment. I hope in this post I pointed out that while Finnish people may feel rude when you are a stranger, once you have been brought into a family, like the one that the University of Oulu runs for exchange students (the Kummi family programme), a stranger becomes a friend to that family. Everyone I know who has been part of that programme (myself included) has remarked on how generous and kind their kummi families were to them. So, yes, I think when you are a stranger in Finland, you really feel it. But once you are cone ted into a community, it is a wonderful thing. Also, where I come from, its very normal to smile at and greet complete strangers on the street. Not to do so is considered rude. In Finland, if you did that you would probably be considered crazy.

  4. Anna Canellini Rigatelli says:

    Guys it is JUST different cultures!!! Really??? I hear people say we Italians are rude, and believe me I DO not care!!! I personally feel like this all the time, just DONT think like this 😦 “Racism is unethic and cruel to your neighbor.”

  5. Anna Canellini Rigatelli says:

    DO tell me why people are so stereotypical???

    • Bee says:

      Personally, I think stereotypes are only part of the story. What I was hoping to convey in this post was that “rudeness is only in the eye of the beholder” or in other words, what feels rude to a person from one setting might just be the way people do things in another (e.g. holding the door open. In Finland it is confusing if a man holds a door open for a women and is rare. Some even take it as a pick up line. where I come from it is “common” courtesy. Personally, I come from a very multi-everything society where people often feel others are being rude or inconsiderate but most of the time we just laugh about it.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m a Finn who lived in the UK for a few years and came back to Finland. What I learnt from my experiences was that all the small talk, the little acts of politeness, having to smile and chat with everybody, etc. just waste your life away! In Finland you can choose how much social interaction you want, people will understand if you don’t feel like having a conversation and no one is offended if you prefer to shut up. I find the Finnish way more polite than the overbearing ‘politeness’, fuss and the obligation to engage with all sorts of waste-of-time projects that I endured in England, simply because it’s ‘polite’ to do so.

    To make myself clear(er), I usually don’t mind talking to strangers. I often have pointless conversations with people I know. But I hate to live with people who expect me to always be polite and sociable. I remember a few times in England when my cheeks actually hurt from smiling all day. And felt like most of that smiling was forced, but I had to smile and joke around because that was expected of me. I often pity the English because their culture demands so much falsity from them. And really, under that ‘polite’ exterior, there are some hideous monsters! In Finland, I’ve never come across such shameless, aggressive louts as in England.

    • Bee says:

      thanks for you thoughts on this. Personally, I also find “English politeness” strange at times. I have only ever been to England on holiday a few times and like you say… a “polite” response can really just be a façade… which sucks.

  7. Three Smiths Statue says:

    Some thoughts from a finn on those issues.

    Let’s take a conversation – If I were to use polite forms in a conversation I might be reciprocated with a demeaning superior smugness from the receiver, and this becomes disincentive to me. Mostly often, when acting polite, it leads to outright suspicion that the other person has hidden agendas. And here comes the quirky part of the finnish psyche – if the person is nice and of same gender, the person may be considered homosexual, so people rather not send wrong signals and be outright rude. I am just saying how it is.

  8. houdafuq says:

    I’m from Morocco, and here we’re almost the total opposite of what Finns are like.
    We like physical contact (kissing, hugging, and touching a lot), we appreciate cheerful people, we like approaching strangers and socializing is definitely our thing.

    I’m going to Finland (Joensuu) for next Fall on an exchange program, and I feel like I’m gonna have a bad time adapting to the culture:D

    • Bee says:

      I think if you live in a new place, there will always need to adjustments and changes. That’s also the beauty of moving. You get to experience yourself in new surroundings. You see what is important for you and what you value or don’t value. I think the key thing for you would be to link up with a Finnish family. As I said in the post, once you are accepted into a family environment in Finland, you will feel the warmth and generosity of Finnish people… a wonderful thing!

  9. Thanks for this writing! It was all true. Think about this: you foreigners anyway have a long history in a warmer environment (I mean warmer people like probably in your family, school etc), if you live in Finland you have usually some kind of friendlier, opener background, relatives, international friends… but if you are born and grown in Finland, like I, you have no other kind of world. At least as a kid. Finnish culture is what you learn to find normal and probably universal. That’s what people are like. And all you people from other countries, IF YOU WERE BORN HERE, YOU WOULD BE EXACTLY LIKE US. You can’t change some country’s cold culture alone. If you try to do it, you feel you are crazy and weird and many people probably reject your tryings. It feels so nasty that you will not try it many times. I don’t know what we could do to change this. I find it very harmful and this may be the reason why we have many depressed and lonely people in our country and also suicides. We cannot show our love and caring meny times.

    I think I’m “innerly foreigner” in our country and that means 1) I’ve suffered a lot, had a horribly bad self esteem for years 2) I’m same kind of cold person myself cause I’m not brave enough to be very different -the culture has shaped me too and 3) I must be shamed of myself in front of warm, social people from other countries.

    Well. Luckily there is God who can help us and He has helped me also with this issue some amount. 🙂

  10. Zacharias says:

    I think, as a Finn, that one answer to our “rudeness” is, that we think it is somehow like “pretending” to You “smile too soon and easily” to someone. You look for a Finn easily like a “salesman”, when You try to please too hard from the very beginning You meet somebody. I lived a year in Vienna and I noticed that people were very friendly ans smiling – but this was on surface. Only one person invited me to his home at whole the time. He was not a native but a “stranger” as I. So, we Finns are warm from inside and really. One Italian guy, who lived in Finland for over ten years, said that this not-pretendingness was exactly relaxing, because You dont have to quess, is this person with whom You just discuss only pretending to be a friend, or does she/he really like You.

    • Bee says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I like that’s you have pointed out the complexity of this situation. I too experienced the warmth of Finnish family who took me in and took me in many adventures.

  11. I just returned home to Canada from visiting extended family in Finland and nothing in my experience has changed my opinion that most Finns have what I refer to as the ‘coldly reserved outside face’ shown to strangers and the ‘reserved but warm inside face’ used with family and friends. I know it’s cultural, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating for someone visiting from a place where random acts of kindness and politeness are common.

    My elderly mother was shoved and knocked about by others in crowds without a backward glance. I watched people fall down or drop items and no one moved to help them. Not a single door was held open, nor thanks offered when I held them for others. No, I didn’t expect it…but the look of shock on peoples faces just made me sad. They didn’t expect it either.

    It’s not a chore to smile with sincerity and wish a stranger you pass on a morning walk ‘ a good day’ …although I’m sorry if I traumatized anyone when I did that. It makes me happy to be helpful or acknowledge something someone did but didn’t have to do, because we are all neighbours in one way or another. And kindness is in all us to give and shouldn’t be rationed to only intimate relations. But that’s me and how my expat Finnish family raised me.

  12. Anonymous says:

    What is polite in Western Europe, Latin countries or U.S is not always polite all over the globe! And vice versa. An American, Dutch or Brazilian for instance can be extremely rude and impolite in Finnish terms even if they think they behave well.

    Finns are very polite, but they show the politeness differently. They give space, listen without interrupting etc. They don’t come to help you right a way with broken bike even if they would be eager to. They simply want to give you the choise if you want to make it yourself or get help. Can sound stupid but that’s the way. BTW what’s wrong with that, as you will get help if you want?

    Finnish communication culture differs dramatically from Western countries, but it is not one of a kind. It is really similar with Japanese and Korean communication styles. You can google more about “high context culture”! Recommended! Very high context communication is really hard to adapt to making visiting/living harder.

    However finns tend to communicate very differently when working and doing business. Then they are very concentrated to just do the task, which makes foreigner think Finns are ******.

    Also, Finnish men don’t open doors for women because women here don’t want that. I made it once or twice and won’t do again! 😀 Finnish woman wants to be treated as just another person, not as an princess.

    What I have seen so far every nation has about equal amount of wisdom, stupidity, hate and so on. And these just emerge differently. People are not better in some part of the world that in another.

    Be curious about, listen, watch from “distance”, be inevaluative and analyse the new culture and you’ll learn a lot! It’s frightening to see how much inability there is to “see”, understand and respect differencies!

    • Bee says:

      I like your considered response here. Thank you for the time it took. Of course, different cultures have different definitions of what is “polite”. I am not from a Western culture either. This post just reflected the conversations that I found myself in with many exchange students as well as my own experiences of being in Finnish culture as a foreigner, so different to mine.

  13. Stewart McNab says:

    Fins are impolite, shy, obtuse and impatient. I have moved here from Scotland and I miss being able to smile and say hello to a stranger. I miss just having a chat with a shop keeper or person at the bus stop. If you pass you neighbour in the street in Finland they will try to not say hello – unless you force them and catch their eye and say hello first they will keep their head down. My next door neighbour of four years has said only “hello” to me, we have never had a chat. I don’t know his first name and he doesn’t know mine. Fins like to say it is a cultural difference, but my wife is Finnish and she agrees. The only time a Finnish stranger has spoken to me is when they are horribly drunk. When I push my daughter’s pram, no one opens a door for me or leaves me space or time to get something from the supermarket shelf. If you open a door for someone else they don’t say thanks. It is very depressing after a few years and you just want to leave and go South and away from robot land. I have been looking for a job and no one ever answers the email of phone to say why I didn’t get it. If you are driving at the speed limit you will be overtaken by Fins constantly because they are incapable to waiting. They will overtake usually on a bend where they are risking your life and theirs. Quite often I have had to pull over to avoid an accident when they have driven past on a blind bend. I have tried to sell items on the Finnish version of ebay. When someone buys something they send you an email with about 4 words, for example “I bought toaster, Tommi” and that’s all they say. Then you write back and ask for an address and say something like “Oh hi, thanks for buying xyz” to try and establish if they are a robot and then after a week they haven’t even bothered to reply. In my building about 30% of the Fins are alcoholic. They drink to get wasted and then shout and sleep all weekend. They are so miserable yet they live in a beautiful country and have nothing to complain about. Fins need to cheer up, relax, enjoy life and drink less alcohol.

  14. we r legun says:

    the feeling of ”rudeness” may come from the fact that people here are very independent and the reason you may find yourself wondering why no one will help you right away is because they don’t want to annoy you by making it look like they’re forcing their help on you, truly a Finn doesn’t help one right away because they never would want to humiliate someone and making them feel bad, this combined with the fact that Finns are a bit shy makes it look like Finns are just machines unaware of the outer world when really a Finn just wants peace with everyone

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