Ask any expat, and we’re confident they will all come back with the same answer – every experience of moving abroad involves some amount of culture shock. Sometimes the shock is more significant, and other times it’s less, but it is proof that we live in a beautifully diverse and versatile world.
So, what is culture shock?
A culture shock is something one experiences when introduced to a new culture. In our case, we experienced culture shock when we moved from our home countries to Finland. One usually does get accustomed to these with time, but individuals may face difficulties in the beginning of their expat journey, particularly in the first one to two years. That being said, it is possible to get accustomed to these differences, and hopefully, you will even admire various cultural attributes of your new country. And while every country has its own cultural identity that locals accept as “norm”, it’s interesting how expats have a chance to witness this cultural identity with fresh eyes.
1. Personal space
The love of personal space is widespread among Finnish people, and it’s bound to catch your eyes from your first days in Finland. With a population of just five million, most of the country is sparsely populated, and even in larger cities, people like their personal space and respect that of others.
If you're not yet convinced, here are a few examples of why people in Finland love personal space. For a lot of people, their dream house is located in the middle of a forest, where the closest neighbour is at least a few hundred meters away. At a bus stop in Finland, you'll notice 3-4 people standing approximately 5 meters away from each other, waiting for the same bus. People always opt for an empty seat on the bus, and it can be considered odd for a person to sit next to another person if there are still empty seats.
2. Social conduct
When a culture is different from the one you’re coming from, it’s easy to have misunderstandings. As fellow expats about to complete half a decade in this beautiful country, we recommend patience and not to be quick to judge. Internationals often find Finnish behaviour to be rude or impolite because of differences in norms. For example, in many cultures, it’s perfectly normal to smile or nod at a stranger, while the same behaviour will likely draw some odd looks in Finland. Here, strangers are not acknowledged in any way, to the extent of avoiding eye contact, which admittedly feels a bit bizarre. You may also find yourself in a circumstance where an acquaintance does not acknowledge you if you don’t know each other very well. While over time, you may become accustomed to and even adapt to some of these practices, but if you feel surprised upon stepping off the plane, rest assured that you're not alone in this experience.
3. Sauna and nudity
Nope, we're not kidding. Finns have a reputation for being very comfortable in their birthday suit. While you may see a plethora of jokes about Finns being socially awkward, remember that these are the same people who have normalised socializing while being naked. This usually comes as a surprise to people from most cultures where socializing while being nude would be considered taboo.
A lot of why nudity is normalized in Finland has to do with the country’s rich history of sauna. Did you know that the word “sauna” in the English dictionary is actually of Finnish origin? Saunas can be found practically anywhere in Finland, with most Finns having one at home, but also going to public saunas to socialize. While Finns traditionally go to saunas nude, that’s not the case for public saunas, which require the use of a bathing suit. We've also found that Finns are very understanding of how internationals perceive public nudity and find a more acceptable solution, such as wearing bathing suits or wrapping a towel, so no one is uncomfortable.
4. The climate
Finland's climate is one of a kind, with long summer days and extended periods of daylight, and very dark periods in the winter. The long days in the summer can last for 10-12 hours, and everything springs to life during this period after a long hibernating slumber. There is no doubt that summer in Finland is a wonderful time, but many are taken aback by seeing daylight at 10 or 11 PM and may experience trouble sleeping. But mostly, summer is a time that people enjoy to the greatest extent possible, especially since many eagerly await this time of year.
On the other hand, the winter climate can be quite harsh, with the darkness being especially difficult for expats to adjust to. The duration of daylight drops to 6 - 7 hours, and the light levels can be quite low even during the middle of the day. The dark winter days can come as a surprise and can be difficult to adjust to, resulting in sleeping problems, lethargy, and a worsened mood.
Communication is key, right? In which case, you may agree that it’s important to understand each other’s perspective on communicating to be more successful in your interaction. Small talk is not very welcome in Finland, and it might not come as a complete surprise that those who prefer to ignore strangers and acquaintances also don’t like to spend time in casual chit chat. Which means that if you do ask a Finn a question as simple as “How are you?”, don’t expect a short, courteous answer and be prepared for a potentially lengthy conversation about the intricacies of their day. While this may not come naturally for some expats, the key to successful communication in Finland is to be direct, honest, and concise.
Another interesting aspect of communication in Finland is the use of silence. In Finland, silence is valued over saying something that's irrelevant or talking simply for the sake of it. While many cultures find silence to be uncomfortable, a minute or two of quiet during socializing is perfectly acceptable in Finnish culture. Additionally, because the Finnish language is so central to the country's identity, Finns may lack confidence in their ability to communicate in English effectively.
During the first six months of living in a new country, one can point out tens of things that feel different from “back home”. However, as the months turn into years and the definition of “home” starts to change, it becomes more difficult to pinpoint these differences. One day, you wake up and go about your day without noticing or experiencing a single “cultural surprise”. And while cultural shocks can be terrifying, they can be overcome with some acceptance and effort.
In conclusion, moving to a new country can be a thrilling adventure, but it can also come with its own set of challenges. By understanding and embracing the cultural differences you encounter, you'll be able to adjust more easily to your new environment and make the most of your expat experience. Whether it's adapting to Finland's love of personal space, getting used to the long summer days and dark winter nights, or learning to communicate effectively with your new Finnish friends and colleagues, every experience is a chance for growth and learning. So, pack your bags, be prepared for the unknown, and get ready for an exciting journey!