In Finland, there are certain things you just don't do—subtle differences that you as a traveler should be aware of to avoid those dreaded moments of awkwardness. That said, many travelers who have never been to this part of the world may be in for quite a culture shock. To prevent you from innocently stepping on some Finnish toes, here are a few social no-goes to be aware of.
Don't Interrupt a Conversation
This is a difficult one for most Westerners, as we all love to jump in with our own account of a story before the speaker has finished. It is rude, but we don’t seem to mind too much, as it is how our normal conversations go. In Finland, this is unacceptable.
Serial conversation is the rule here. Think of it as a valuable skill to learn—to listen with the intent of understanding instead of responding. Foreigners might find the tolerance toward silence disconcerting, but Finns do not engage in small talk for the sake of just talking. Here, every word is intended to deliver a message.
Don't Compare Finland to Other Countries
Especially Sweden. And, please, do not try to start a conversation by asking if Finland was once a communist country like its neighboring Russia. Remember that Finland is a proud entity on its own, so don’t group it together with the rest of Eastern or Northern Europe. Don’t be an ignorant foreigner; educate yourself about the basics. You wouldn’t like it if people made inaccurate comments about your history on your own turf.
This rule applies to most Scandinavian and Nordic quantities. Tipping in Finland is not required, and if you want to tip at all, simply round up the bill to the nearest 5 or 10 Euro amount or put something in the tip cup. Unless you're in a touristy area, you may choose to avoid tipping altogether; some locals will not know how to react if you do and may believe you have made an error. But if in doubt, simply ask if tips are accepted.
No one likes a self-important braggart, but the Finns have an especially low tolerance for it. Finns are modest, downplay their own accomplishments and hardly make a fuss about anything. Here, humility and grace will get you far, as they view modesty as the biggest virtue.
Don't Wear Clothes in the Sauna
That’s right—no clothes or swimsuits are worn in public saunas. This is a concept that most of us might find strange, especially considering how high the Finns value their privacy, but it’s just how it’s done. Men and women don’t sauna together, except as families. If you absolutely refuse to sit there in your natural glory, you can cover up, but this is not the social norm.
Don't Make Public Displays of Affection
Hooked on public displays of affection? Don’t do it. Strolling hand in hand with your loved one is acceptable, and even romantic in most of the world, but this is Helsinki, not Italy. Finns are not typically touchy-feely, so avoid public displays of emotion. In fact, touching, especially a hearty male-bonding slap on the back, can be perceived as patronizing. Overall, they like their personal space, so keep your hands to yourself, unless you greet someone with a firm handshake.
Don't Show Up Unannounced
When visiting a local, only do so by invitation. If you pop in unannounced, you might be greeted by a closed door. If you made plans with the host, be punctual. Making empty promises is also a no-go. If you set up a date with a Finn, they will hold you to it. They're punctual and reliable. Be polite and do the same.
Don't Leave Your Shoes On
Taking off your shoes when entering someone’s house is not something that is only practiced in the East. Most Finnish households remove their shoes at the front door and walk around wearing socks or slippers. This is not practiced in every household though, so if you are unsure, ask. If you see shoes stacked neatly by the front door, that is a good clue.
Don't Comment on the Finnish Ice Hockey Team
It's common to talk about sports in some countries, so to avoid culture shock, be sure to only speak words of praise about their team. Don’t mention the Swedish team—the Finns and the Swedes have a longstanding history together; it hasn't always been an amicable one. Hockey between these two teams represents a peaceful manner of playing out the rivalry. Add to the equation the competitive streak of the Finns, you might want to avoid this topic altogether. They follow all their traditional sports religiously and with quite a bit of zeal.
Don't Stare at Nordic Walkers
When you see locals on the streets making exaggerated movements, armed with ski poles, don’t stare and point or think that the world has gone mad. Marathons and Nordic walking are popular in Helsinki. The action essentially mimics cross-country skiing but without the use of skis. It may look just funny and clumsy at first glance, but the price to look silly is worth the workout. Even seasoned skiers practice between winters by mimicking the action on dry land. Grab a pair of Nordic walking poles in a nearby rental shop and join in.