Monday, August 4, 2014

Impressions on the Finnish Culture

Spending time abroad, especially the extended time we have spent here as opposed to a vacation, tends to lead to impressions of the culture you are around. Finland is no different and after spending the past few months here, there are some ideas that the people and the culture have left with me. Coming here with an open mind and attention to detail was very important because the first thing I noticed are that the people here are generally a bit more quiet and shy compared to people back home.

This is by no means something bad about the Finnish, just something odd for us Americans. There were time where we would stroll down to the break room for coffee or tea, and walk in to no less that 6 or 7 people, but no other noise than the television in the background. As explained by one man in the office, "We are no good at small talk, if we have nothing to say, we don't have to say anything. Sitting around a table of five in silence to each other is not disrespect, in fact, it's perfectly normal here." As a natural talker and an American, this threw me off a bit, but the people in the office were quick to converse with us out of curiosity of a different culture. 

Although they might not be keen on small talk, the people here sure like an engaging conversation, most of the time open to things I wasn't sure crossed the "line" or not. For instance, when I was walking to lunch yesterday, an older (relative to the graduate research students) member in the office caught up to me and ask if we could sit together for lunch. Haari is his name and over our chicken cordon bleu, he starting pelting me with questions. About my culture, what I thought of it here, and how we were different. We discussed things like the different healthcare systems and how he believe that positively impacted the culture here, to know that everyone is on the same playing field in the doctors office. He also felt that it was more effective due to the lesser spread of wealth in Finland, with more families closer in wages to one another, allowing for this equal spread of health care. This was also true for the education system. The free post high school graduation played an enormous role in the view of Harri, so that regardless of the family's income, a child may attend almost any school he wishes to go to in Finland as long as he passes the tests to get in. We even got into a discussion about the state of Texas (he had lived there for a year growing up), throwing questions at me whether the state was similar to others or not and told me he could feel the individualism that came from each state allowing them to feel a bit separate from the federal entity of the entire country. It was an interesting discussion, that one must take with a grain of salt, because although the people here might seem a bit aggressive or invasive in their conversations, they are simply curios and wish to learn by provoking thoughts. 

As mentioned before the people are not much for small talk, but it won't stop them from proposing their own opinions. Often, we will find people to come and visit our lab, four floors and a building away from the offices, simply to get an update on the state of the lab and ask questions, and put their own opinions in. Although the criticism is never harsh, the staff often, what seems like interrogate us before offering their own creative and, usually helpful response to our project. The people are very down to business over here and it makes for a great work environment, with little distraction, that I feel can usually be found in the states. However, it is very important for the people to take breaks as well, especially when they can in the summer.  

Above is a picture of a usually packed conference room for our department. When we first cam here there were always people and meeting going on in here, but for what seemed like a mysterious reason, right around the beginning of July, the room went empty, a ghost town no longer hosting meetings and daily conversations. As soon as July hit people here go on "holiday". Not vacation, "holiday". Not only for the beginning of July, but for a lot of them, the entire month. Finland has the third most vacation days of any country with near 30 paid days of vacation and around 10 days for holidays (Christmas, religious holidays, etc.). Most people will take advantage of this in July when its warm and beautiful here. I guess being stuck inside and dark all winter class for extra vacation days. As August is rolling around we are beginning to see some familiar faces again. 

Lastly, the little things are the most important to these people. This is something I love about Finland and the culture. It seems like the social classes are less defined over here with a bigger middle class and smaller upper class, resulting in less stress on material things. It seems the only thing these people need to be happy are family, the great outdoors, and ice cream. Oh man do they love their ice cream... Family is also something hugo to the people here. As we have noticed, people will start a family around 24-25 which seemed a little early to us, but normal to everyone here. Some even as early as 19 without a problem. And the outdoors. They could spend years just fishing, biking, walking or skiing. The people here embrace the wilderness and everything it has to offer. 

It has truly been an amazing summer spending time with the people here, and I'm glad I got to explore their culture as well as share my own. Hopefully I am able to bring some of these qualities back with me and continue on with the Finnish ways back in America, especially the ice cream part! 

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