Suomen Diaries

Teksti · words

Kuvitus: Eevi Rutanen

When international students settle in Finland, they make innumerable cultural observations about quirky little things that Finns never notice. Param Jolly, an international student himself, writes about some of these surprising tales and his own experiences.



A Passenger Named Petri

During my first visit to Finland in Autumn 2015, I was sitting next to a Finnish guy on the flight from Delhi to Helsinki. I had very little idea of what Finns were like and the stuff that I did know, was mostly from some random articles that I had come across on the internet. Finland was the country where Nokia was from; and that they had a pretty fantastic primary education system. That was all I knew.

And here I was, sitting right next to a Finn, for the first time in my life. I guess it was an opportunity to exercise my curiosity and put all of my (few) notions to the test. His name was Petri and my first exchange with him already hadn’t gone as pleasantly as I had expected. We had an awkward gestural conversation when I signaled him (politely, if I may add) to shift a little so that I may take my window seat next to him. He looked straight back at me with a stoic expression that seemed more like a frown to me at the time. I would later go on to realize that he was just being normal and courteous!

I soon stirred up a conversation and was surprised by his short and exact responses. Using just the right amount of words – nothing more, nothing less. We talked off and on over the course of the 7.5-hour flight and by the time it was over, we had discussed many things, ranging from what he thinks of India, (in a very brief, non-descriptive way obviously) to world issues related to the economy and politics. He was also quite helpful as he guided me regarding the HSL public transit system and in getting the Finnish SIM Card I use currently. I had initially felt that he wasn’t interested in talking. Maybe it was true, maybe he just took his time to warm up to a person he had never met before.

This experience would form the cornerstone of what I thought Finns were like – honest, humble and straightforward people who live in a beautiful, functional and systematic country with a solid infrastructure; an impression I still hold.

But what weird and quirky things have other Aalto Students noticed? Read on and find out!

“He just kept adding water because he wanted to behave like a ‘Finnish man in a sauna’.”

A Finnish man in a sauna

Evisa Collaku from Greece fondly remembers a story involving Finnish men, alcohol and the sauna. She narrates in an excited tone:

“Once at a party there was this Finnish guy in the sauna together with some internationals and he just kept adding water because he wanted to behave like a ‘Finnish man in a sauna’. At one point, he kept telling the only Italian guy left there to add water and the guy kept complying! So at some point the Italian comes out and he’s like: ‘Hmmm, man, I think your friend has passed out on the floor! It might be time to call 112…’ You could see the guy on the floor and when we got him out he didn’t even remember his name. And his other Finnish friends were totally cool about it!”

“Inside the lecture he would be one person and outside a completely different one.”

The avoidant professor

Kunal Ghosh from India reminisces one of his first interactions with a Finnish professor:

“Having just arrived from India I had a different experience with faculty members. Usually, when I met Indian faculty members after lectures, we would generally engage in small talk. Like, ‘how are studies going’, ‘is the course too hectic or not’ etc. So, we had just finished a lecture given by a very enthusiastic professor. Inside the class he was a lot of fun. But this one time we passed by in the CS department, and he did not even acknowledge I was there! I know he observed my presence. The same thing happened quite a few times. Inside the lecture he would be one person and outside a completely different one. I think he was shy, or maybe he was just respecting my personal space, as most Finns do. I don’t know.”

“I had to face a temperature difference of almost 50 degrees without wearing much to protect me from the cold.”

Cold Shock

Coming from a country where an average temperature of 1–2 degrees Celsius defines a cold winter, Junaid Akhtar from Pakistan found a new meaning for cold when he came to Finland. Being born in the month of December, he has a special love for snow and cold weather.

“Most of the winter days here are pretty amazing except for the few that remind me of Max Payne 1 – cold, sad and depressing! One of the most interesting incidents, apart from the never ending ‘forced skating’ on the snow, was when I was coming back from Dubai after New Year’s in 2016. Due to bad planning, I had to face a temperature difference of almost 50 degrees (+22 to -27) without wearing much to protect me from the cold. The first thing I had to do after landing was buying a good pair of gloves and some hot coffee. Anyway, I somehow managed to reach Teekkarikylä but learned a good lesson about planning in advance, something that would surely be helpful in the future.”

The Naked Experience

Aimane Blej from Morocco has now spent 5 years in Finland, however his first sauna visit is still memorable for him. In Morocco, they have a tweaked version of the sauna known as hamam, which is like a public steam bath. Hamams are mostly automated and visitors wear at least some sort of undergarments. So Aimane was obviously in for a bit of a culture shock! He had already spent a few months living in Finland and had his fair share of notions about what the Finns were like. His general perception of Finns being shy people just got contradicted by them being absolutely normal towards getting naked with complete strangers inside a sauna!

“The casual attitude towards public nudity in Finnish saunas completely took me by surprise! I found it to be refreshingly positive and natural.”

A Different Viewpoint

So Finnish people are shy; you say? Well, not always! Imaya from India fondly remembers how a very handsome Finnish guy once asked her for a salsa dance in front of a large crowd at the Aalto Party.

“This took me by surprise as I did not expect a Finn to be so forward.”

She has also had a very different experience with respect to professors as she adds how her impressions about Finns were further altered throughout her academic career:

“Professors here are a lot more accessible and frank than in my home country.”

Ed Koch, an American political commentator, probably said rightly:

“Stereotypes lose their power when the world is found to be more complex than the stereotype would suggest. When we learn that individuals do not fit the group stereotype, then it begins to fall apart.”

Finland is a strange land, a place of contrasts – warm, bright and beautiful summers v/s dark and snowy winters in a stark, yet undeniably beautiful landscape. Maybe the Finns themselves reflect these conditions in their moods and behavior, undergoing a plethora of emotions as the weather shifts from warm to cold. But what never seems to change is their frankness. Perhaps we could all learn a little from it.