Finland is an easy country to visit.
Finnish customs and manners are clearly European, with only a few
national variations, and attitudes are liberal. There is very little
chance of a visitor committing fundamental social gaffes or breaches of
etiquette that would fatally damage relations between himself and his
hosts. Such breaches are viewed by Finns with equanimity if committed by
their own countrymen and with understanding or amusement if committed
by foreigners. Codes of behaviour are fairly relaxed, and reputations –
good or bad – are built up over time as the result of personal actions
rather than conforming to norms or standards. It is difficult in Finland
to make or break a reputation with a single social blunder.
Finland is a country where considerable weight is attached to the
spoken word – words are chosen carefully and for the purpose of
delivering a message. Indeed, there are very few other culture-specific
considerations that visitors need be aware of. Finns place great value
on words, which is reflected in the tendency to say little and avoid
‘unnecessary’ small talk. As the Chinese proverb puts it, “Your speech
should be better than silence, if it is not, be silent.”
Finns have a very strong sense of national identity. This is rooted
in the country’s history – particularly its honourable wartime
achievements and significant sporting merits – and is today nurtured by
pride in Finland’s high-tech expertise. Being realists, Finns do not
expect foreigners to know a lot about their country and its prominent
people, past or present, so they will be pleased if a visitor is
familair with at least some of the milestones of Finnish history or the
sports careers of Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren. Finns would be happy if
visitors knew something about the achievements of Finnish rally drivers
and Formula 1 stars, or if they knew that footballers Jari Litmanen and
Sami Hyypiä are Finns. Culturally oriented Finns will take it for
granted that like-minded visitors are familiar not only with Sibelius
but with contemporary composers Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg, and
orchestral conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sakari
Oramo and Osmo Vänskä. While Finns are aware that Nokia is often
mistakenly thought to be a Japanese company, this misconception is
viewed forgivingly but with pity. They are proud that Linus Torvalds,
the inventor of Linux, is a Finn.
Visitors should also be prepared to encounter the other side of the
Finnish national character: Finns are chronically insecure about whether
the wider world is aware of the achievements of this northern nation.
Finns love reading things written about them abroad, and visitors should
not feel uncomfortable being asked repeatedly what they think of
Finland. However, although Finns are ready enough to criticize their own
country, they do not necessarily wish to hear visitors doing so.
As far as religion is concerned, there are very few dangers for
visitors to Finland, even on subjects that in other cultures might be
particularly sensitive. Most Finns belong formally to the
Evangelical-Lutheran Church (about 83%), while 1.1% belong to the
Finnish Orthodox Church; but people in general are fairly secular in
their views. Despite this, the Church and its ministers are held in high
esteem, and personal religious views are respected. It is difficult to
observe differences between believers and everyone else in everyday
life, except perhaps that the former lead more abstemious lives.
The number of immigrants in Finland is growing, and increasing
contacts with other religions in recent years have increased the Finns’
knowledge of them, although there is still much to be desired in their
tolerance for people with different religions and cultures.
There is a high degree of equality between the sexes in Finland, as
can be seen in the relatively high number of women holding advanced
positions in politics and other areas of society.
There are numerous women in academic posts, and in recent years
visiting businessmen have also found increasing numbers of ‘the fairer
sex’ on the other side of the negotiating table. The
Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland accepts the ordination of women,
and there are women priests in numerous parishes. The first female
Finnish bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland is Irja
Askola. She is reigning Bishop of Helsinki since 2010.
Chauvinistic or patronizing attitudes towards women are generally
considered unacceptable, although such attitudes do persist in practice.
Women do appreciate traditional courtesy, although ultimately they
appraise men on the basis of their attitude towards equality. Women are
usually independent financially and may offer to pay their share of a
restaurant bill, for instance. A man may politely refuse such an offer,
but it is equally polite to accept it.
In international contexts, or when using foreign languages,
particularly English, Finns have become accustomed to politically
correct language in which traditional masculine terms are replaced with
gender-neutral ones (e.g. ‘chairperson’); or the third person singular
pronoun is offered in both forms (he/she) when they exist. In Finnish
the latter problem does not exist. Instead, the third person singular
pronoun hän covers both genders. There are also many titles ending with the suffix –mies
(man) that are not considered gender-specific. It is appropriate for
visitors to follow the established practice of whatever language they
The conception that Finns are a reserved and taciturn lot is an
ancient one and does not retain the same validity as it used to,
certainly not with the younger generations. Nevertheless, it is fair to
say that Finns have a special attitude to words and speech: words are
taken seriously, and people are held to what they say. “Take a man by
his words and a bull by its horns,” says a Finnish proverb. A Finn will
carefully consider what he (or she) says and expect others to do so too.
He (or she) considers verbal agreements and promises binding, not only
upon himself but upon the other party too, and he (or she) considers
that the value of words remains essentially the same, regardless of when
and where they are uttered. Visitors should remember that invitations
or wishes expressed in a light conversational manner (such as: “We must
have lunch together sometime”) are often taken at face value, and
forgetting them can cause concern. Small talk, a skill at which Finns
are notoriously lacking, is considered suspect by definition, and is not
Finns rarely enter into conversation with strangers, unless a
particularly strong impulse prompts it. As foreigners often note, Finns
are curiously silent in the metro, the bus or the tram. In lifts, they
suffer from the same mute embarrassment as everyone else in the world.
However, a visitor clutching a map will have no trouble in getting
advice on a street corner or in any other public place, since the
hospitality of Finns easily overrides their customary reserve.
Finns are better at listening than at talking, and interrupting
another speaker is considered impolite. A Finn does not grow nervous if
there are breaks in the conversation; silence is regarded as a part of
communication. Finns usually speak unhurriedly, even in their mother
tongue (the pace of newsreading on Finnish TV is a source of amusement
for many foreigners), and although many Finns are competent in several
foreign languages, they may be wary of the speed at which these
languages are spoken. Nevertheless, Finns can become excited and
voluble, given the right situation.
Having once got to know a stranger moderately well, Finns are quite
willing to discuss any topic; generally not even religion or politics
are taboo. Finland is one of the world’s leaders in the reading of books
and newspapers and the use of libraries, and thus the average Finn is
fairly well informed on what is happening in Finland and in the world.
Finland’s membership of the EU has increased interest in other EU
countries, and the common currency, the status of agriculture and the
effects of Community legislation are viable topics of conversation
wherever two or three Union citizens come together. Though Finns enjoy
bitching about the niggling directives of ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ as much
as the next man, in general they seem to approve of EU membership and
recognise its benefits.
Shared hobbies are a natural topic for conversation and exchange of
opinions in Finland as elsewhere, and it can be easy to strike up a
lively conversation with a Finn about culture and the arts on the one
hand and about sports on the other. Sports is a particularly feasible
topic because in recent years Finns have enjoyed success in sports other
than the traditional long-distance running and winter sports: there are
now world-class Finnish footballers, racing drivers and alpine skiers,
and consequently amateurs and enthusiasts in these fields too. Golf has
established itself securely especially among urban Finns, even though
they are obliged to abandon this pastime for the winter months. This
deprivation is an eminently suitable topic for conversation on the part
of a visitor who is familiar with the world of drivers and putters.
The now ubiquitous mobile phone is revolutionizing the image of
Finnish communication skills. The persistent, supposedly amusing ringing
tones of the phones demonstrate how eager people are to talk to each
other, especially when they are not face to face. One foreign journalist
described a scene that he considered typically Finnish: a lone man
sitting in a bar with a beer and speaking into a cell phone. A Finnish
version of small talk? Communication without intimacy?
The use of mobile phones is governed in Finland, as indeed in other
countries, by a loosely defined etiquette which forbids their use if
disruptive or dangerous, so using a mobile phone is completely forbidden
on aeroplanes and in hospitals. During meetings it is inappropriate. In
pubs and restaurants it may be regarded by many as irritating but it
goes on regardless. At concerts, at the theatre and in church it is
barbaric and considerate people switch their phones off in those places.
Mobile phones have no doubt changed visitors’ perceptions of Finland.
Whereas a few decades ago a visitor might report back home on an
uncommunicative, reserved and introvert Arctic tribe, the more common
view today is that of a hyper-communicative people who are already
experiencing the future that some fear and others hope for: a society
where anyone can reach anyone else, no matter where or when.
All over the world, the Internet and e-mail have radically changed
how people find information and keep in touch, and Finland is no
exception. For young people, using the ever-increasing range of IT
applications is commonplace, and it is also an important factor in
shaping youth culture. Increasingly, politicians and corporate managers
set up websites and maintain personal blogs to comment publicly on their
lives and views.
A Finn’s mother tongue is either Finnish, Swedish (5.6% of the
population are Swedish speakers) or Saami (some 8,000 native speakers).
Finnish belongs to the small Finno-Ugrian language group; outside
Finland it is understood (and to some extent spoken) in Estonia. And in
Sweden, too, Finnish is spoken among the large number of Finnish
immigrants. Finns take care of their linguistic communication by
maintaining a wide range of foreign languages in the school curriculum.
English is widely spoken in Finland and in the business community
some companies use it as their house language. German is no longer
widely taught but many Finns in their 50s or older learned it as their
first foreign language at school. French, Spanish and Russian have grown
in popularity both in schools and among adult learners. Membership of
the European Union and the related practical and social demands have
increased the need to study European languages, at least in the case of
Finns who travel in Europe on business or are studying abroad.
Educated Finnish speakers, particularly those working in the public
sector, speak Swedish to some degree whilst almost all Swedish-speaking
Finns speak Finnish too. Only in some coastal areas and in the
autonomous province of the Åland Islands is Swedish the dominant
language, indeed in Åland it is the only official language. The status
of Swedish as the joint official language of mainland Finland can be
seen in the bilingual names of public institutions and in street signs,
the latter case depending on the percentage of minority language
speakers resident in a given municipality, and in the Swedish-language
programmes on radio and TV. Swedish-speaking Finns have a distinctive
culture, and their social mores are influenced by Scandinavian
traditions moreso than amongst the Finnish-speaking majority.
Names and titles
When introducing themselves, Finns will say their forename followed
by their surname. Women who use both their maiden name and their
husband’s surname will state them in that order. Although Finns are
conscious and proud of any official titles they may have, they rarely
mention these when introducing themselves. In contrast, they do expect
to be addressed by their title in professional and official contexts:
Doctor Virtanen, Managing Director Savolainen, etc. Foreigners, however,
are not expected to follow this practice, with the exception of the
titles “doctor” and “professor” if these are known to the speaker.
Otherwise, foreigners can safely address Finns using the English
practice of calling them Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms, Sir or Madam, as
The familiar form of address in Finnish (i.e. the second person singular pronoun sinä, as opposed to the formal second person plural pronoun te)
is commonly used, not just between friends and acquaintances but among
strangers too. It is usual nowadays for people in a workplace to address
each other as sinä, up to and including senior management, at
least in larger workplaces. Using sinä is common today in service
occupations, too, although older people may resent the implied
familiarity. However, young people still tend to address middle-aged or
elderly people by the formal second person plural if they do not know
the persons well.
Although the use of the familiar sinä is common, using first
names requires a closer relationship. It is relatively easy to get onto
first-name terms with a Finn, especially if it is evident that the
parties will continue to meet regularly for business or pleasure.
However, it is felt appropriate that the use of first names is
specifically and mutually agreed upon. The use of first names is always
proposed by the older or more senior person to the junior, or, in the
case of equals, by the woman to the man; the agreement is enacted by
shaking hands, making eye contact, with each party saying their first
name aloud, and nodding the head. Raising a toast with schnapps, wine or
champagne lends a festive air to the occasion.
Apart from this, Finns are not nearly as demanding in remembering
names as many other people are. It is not usual to address people by
name when greeting them (regardless of how familiar one is with them) or
in the course of a normal conversation. Addressing by name has trickled
into Finnish culture from the American practice, but as nice as it is
to hear one’s name spoken, Finns will not be offended if they are not
addressed by name.
Businessmen and persons in public office are expected to distribute
business cards as a means of ensuring their name and title are
remembered. There are no special rituals related to exchanging business
cards in Finland. For a visitor, receiving a business card provides a
convenient opportunity to ask how a name is pronounced or what a cryptic
title might mean.
When greeting, the parties shake hands and make eye contact. A deep
bow denotes special respect – in normal circumstances, a nod of the head
is enough. A Finnish handshake is brief and firm, and involves no
supporting gestures such as touching the shoulder or upper arm. When
greeting a married couple, the wife should be greeted first, except on a
formal occasion where the hosts should first be greeted by the spouse
to whom the invitation was addressed. Children are greeted by shaking
hands too. Embracing people when greeting them is rare in Finland. A man
greeting someone in the street should raise his hat; in the cold of
winter, a touch of the hand to the brim of the hat is enough.
Finns can kiss as well as the next nation, but they rarely do so when
greeting. Hand-kissing is rare. Friends and acquaintances may hug when
meeting, and kisses on the cheek are not entirely unknown, although this
habit is not generally found in rural areas. There is no special
etiquette regarding the number of kisses on the cheek; however, most
Finns feel that three kisses is going a bit far. Men very rarely kiss
each other in greeting, and never on the mouth in the manner of our
Finnish cuisine has western European, Scandinavian and Russian
elements. Table manners are European. Breakfast can be quite
substantial. Lunch is usually eaten between 11.00 and 13.00, a typical
lunch break at work lasting less than an hour. The once common long
business lunches have shrunk to 90 minutes or two hours. Evening meals
at home are eaten around 17.00-18.00. In most restaurants, dinners are
served from 18.00 onwards. Many restaurants stop serving food about 45
minutes before they actually close, so it is worthwhile checking the
serving times when booking a table. Concerts and theatre performances
usually begin at 19.00, and audiences adjourn to restaurants at around
Restaurant menus and home cooking rarely involve food that western
visitors would not be acquainted with. Increased nutritional awareness
has made the once heavy, fatty Finnish diet lighter, and the better
restaurants can cater for a variety of dietary requirements. Ethnic
restaurants, constantly increasing in number, have added to the
expanding choice. Beer and wine are drunk with restaurant food in the
evening, but at lunchtime these days they feature very little, if at
At a dinner party, the host determines the seating order if
necessary. The guest of honour is seated to the right of the hostess (or
the host, if it is a men-only dinner). This is a seat dreaded by most
Finns, since the guest of honour is expected to say a few words of
thanks to the hosts after the meal. Guests should not begin to eat until
everyone has been served; usually, the host will propose a toast at the
beginning of the meal, wishing his guests hyvää ruokahalua, the Finnish for bon appétit! It is not appropriate for guests to drink before this, unless the beginning of the meal is badly delayed.
Finns seldom make speeches during a meal, but they do so on formal
occasions. In such cases, the speeches are made between courses. During
the meal, the host may toast individual guests, or guests may toast each
other, by raising their glasses and making eye contact. Once the toast
is drunk, eye contact should be made again when lowering the glass to
A meal normally concludes with coffee and postprandial drinks are
served with it or immediately after. If the hosts allow smoking, this is
the moment to bring out the cigars and cigarettes, unless of course the
host has already allowed or suggested this earlier. When leaving the
table, the guests should thank the hosts briefly for the fare when they
get the chance, regardless of whether the guest of honour has done so or
Finns consume the equivalent of slightly over ten litres of pure
alcohol per person per year, which is close to the European average.
Drinking habits mainly follow Scandinavian and European practices. There
are fewer national characteristics than one might think, considering
that Finns do have a reputation for drinking; and indeed binge drinking
is fairly common, as it is throughout northern Europe and parts of the
However, consumption of wine and beer, as opposed to spirits, has
increased in recent years, and as a result more decorous drinking
behaviour has become more common. Consumption of alcohol at lunchtime is
less common in the business world than it used to be, and in the public
sector it is extremely rare.
Alcohol consumption varies somewhat, according to socio-economic
differences and, to some extent, by region. The influence of central
European or Mediterranean drinking habits is primarily visible among
urban middle class young adults and slightly older Finns with tertiary
The import and sale of wines and other alcoholic beverages is largely
controlled by the state-owned Alko organisation, and private
individuals can only buy alcoholic beverages in Alko shops, with the
exception of medium strength beer and cider, which can be bought in food
stores. Alko is a major buyer of wines and stocks a wide and
geographically representative selection of all qualities, including top
labels. Many restaurants import their own wines directly from suppliers
In households wine is normally reserved for weekend meals, but meals
prepared for guests or eaten in a restaurant usually involve wine. Often
– and in the case of Swedish-speaking Finns, almost always – a meal is
preceded by schnapps, a shot of vodka or aquavit in a tiny glass. This
is considered an integral part of cold fish courses, and absolutely
essential with crayfish. Swedish-speaking Finns have a custom of
enlivening the occasion with a line or two of a drinking song before
each shot of schnapps. Big dinner parties have an appointed toastmaster
who determines the interval between shots and leads the singing.
Finnish-speaking Finns have a less elaborate and less structured
drinking etiquette, although there are schnapps songs in Finnish too.
Schnapps is usually accompanied by mineral water, or sometimes beer,
which is also commonly served with meals. Beer is also used to slake the
thirst created by the sauna.
Visitors can approach Finnish drinking customs as they see fit. It is
not necessary to drink a shot of schnapps in one gulp even if your
neighbour does. So it is enough to raise the glass to one’s lips without
swallowing. It is also perfectly acceptable to request mineral water or
non-alcoholic wine with a meal. Lunch is usually accompanied by
non-alcoholic beverages in any case, and non-alcoholic drinks are
usually provided. Abstinence is also supported by legislation; in
Finland, the blood alcohol level for drunken driving is very low, and
the penalties are severe.
Tipping has never fitted very comfortably into the Finnish way of
life. This may have originally been due to the traditions of a religion
which emphasized frugality; today, the rather blunt reason for not
tipping is that the price paid includes any unusual instances of service
or politeness i.e. the view taken is that “service is included”.
Tipping does nevertheless exist in Finland, and you can feel safe that
while nobody will object to being tipped, very few will mind not being
As a rule, service is included in restaurant bills. However, an extra
service charge is often added to bills which are to be paid by a
customers’ employers. Those who pay for their own meals and in cash
often choose to round the bill up to the nearest convenient figure. This
does not require any complicated arithmetic from the customer, as no
one cares whether the tip really is 10-15% of the total bill.
Tipping at hotels is fairly rare. If you know that you have caused
extra inconvenience for the room cleaner, it would be regarded as an
appropriate to leave a tip. Receptionists should be tipped only by
long-term guests at the hotel. Like their colleagues across the world,
Finnish hotel porters will be glad to be tipped the price of a small
beer. It is also OK to leave a few coins on the bar for the bar staff.
Taxi drivers do not expect to get a tip, but customers often pay the
nearest rounded up figure to the actual fare. Major credit cards are
usually accepted in taxis, and in this case tipping in cash is
If you are the guest of Finnish hosts, you should leave any tipping to their discretion.
Smoking has decreased in recent years, and attitudes towards it have
become more negative. The law prohibits smoking in public buildings and
workplaces and, being generally law-abiding, Finns have adapted to this
legislation. Nevertheless, smoking is still quite common, in all age
groups. International trends have increased the popularity of cigars
amongst a minority of tobacco smokers.
As have many other countries, Finland has banned smoking in most restaurants and other licensed premises completely.
Smokers are expected to be considerate. When invited to a private
home, a guest should ask the hosts if they object to smoking, even if
there are ashtrays visible. Smokers may be guided to the balcony, which
may have the effect of reducing the intake of nicotine considerably in
The home is to a great extent the focus of social life in Finland –
to a greater extent at least than in countries where it is more common
to meet over a meal in a restaurant. There are cultural, and also
economic, reasons for this. A growing interest in cooking and wines has
led to an increase in entertaining in the home. A foreign visitor need
have no qualms about being invited into someone’s home; he can expect a
fairly relaxed and informal atmosphere, and sending or bringing a bunch
of flowers or a bottle of wine for the hosts will be appreciated.
A greater cultural challenge for the visitor is accepting an
invitation to one of the innumerable summer dwellings that dot the
seashores and lakeshores of Finland. One in four Finns owns a summer
cabin, and for many, it is regarded as a second home. Sociologists like
to explain that the summer dwelling is a tie that Finns maintain to
their rural past; and it is true that many Finns transform into
surprisingly competent fishermen, gardeners, farmers, carpenters or
foresters when they withdraw to their summer homes.
A guest is not expected to take part in this role-play, at least not
actively. On the other hand, he is expected to submit without complaint
to the sometimes primitive conditions at the summer residence, since not
all of them have electricity, running water, a flushing toilet or other
urban amenities Many families consider that even a TV set is
incompatible with genuine summer cabin life.
A guest is expected to dress casually but practically when going to a
summer cabin. The hosts will have rubber boots, raincoats and
windcheaters that are worn as the weather dictates or when going
fishing, picking mushrooms or walking in the forest. An experienced
guest understands that under these conditions the hosts, particularly
the hostess, have to go to a lot of trouble to give the guest an
enjoyable stay. Help with routine chores is greatly appreciated: peeling
the potatoes or the onions is a job the guest can safely offer to
The best reward for the hosts is that guests enjoy themselves, rain
or shine. As for correctness, it would be polite for a guest to raise
the question of departure at breakfast time on the third day, and only
agree to stay longer if the hosts protest with particular conviction.
Time and the seasons
Although seasons occur everywhere, in Finland they mark the progress
of the year with striking conspicuousness. Extending far beyond the
Arctic Circle, Finland enjoys such extremes of temperature and daylight
that it would not be too far-fetched to say that there are two cultures
in Finland: one dominated by the almost perpetual daylight of the summer
sun and surprisingly high temperatures, and the other characterized by
mercilessly cold winters and Arctic gloom that only briefly gives way to
twilight during the day.
Even though summer comes every year, it is considered so important
that virtually the entire country ‘shuts down’ for the five or six weeks
that follow Midsummer, which falls in late June. After Midsummer, Finns
move en masse to their vacation homes in the countryside and those who
do not spend their time out of doors, in street cafés and bars, in parks
and on beaches, being social and feeling positive. Business and
personal correspondence may be temporarily shelved, e-mails cheerfully
return ‘out of the office’ notifications for a month or more, and
conversations between acquaintances revolve more around how the fish are
biting or how the garden is doing than around important issues of
international politics or the economy. It is easy for a visitor to
observe that in summer Finns are especially proud and happy to be Finns
and to live in Finland, and encouraging these feelings is welcome.
With the advent of winter, Finns close down their summer dwellings,
store their boats in dry dock, put snow tyres on their cars, stash their
golf gear in the basement and check their skis. Whereas the rural
ancestors of today’s Finns whiled away the long winter days in making
and repairing tools for summer, their descendants labour in offices to
make their country an increasingly efficient and modern high-tech
Finns are punctual people and, in one sense, prisoners of time. As is
the case elsewhere in the world, those holding the most demanding jobs
have tight daily schedules; missing appointments can cause anguish.
Agreed meeting times are scrupulously observed, to the minute if at all
possible, and being over 15 minutes late is considered impolite and
requires a brief apology or an explanation. Concerts, theatre
performances and other public functions begin on time, and delays in
domestic rail and bus traffic are rare.
In general, busy lifestyles have come to stay and a diary full of
meetings and negotiations is a matter of pride and a status symbol in
Finland rather than a demonstration of poor scheduling. In such an
environment, the time allocated for the entertaining of guests is one of
the most important indicators of the value attached to the occasion.
When a Finn stops glancing at his watch and suggests something more to
eat or drink, or even a sauna, the visitor can rest assured that a
lasting business relationship, or friendship, is on the cards.
Finns like celebrations and Finland’s calendar of official festivals
is not very different from that of other European countries. One major
difference is that the Protestant Lutheran calendar does not accommodate
all the feast days of Catholic tradition. Visitors may find it strange
that Finns have calm and serious festivities on occasions that would be
boisterous and joyful in continental Europe.
Christmas, and Christmas Eve in particular, is very much a family
festival in Finland, usually spent at home or with relatives. Customs
include lighting candles by the graves of deceased family members. Finns
wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’, but equally often they say ‘Peaceful
Christmas’. Christmas Day is generally a quiet day and Christmastide
social life does not restart until Boxing Day.
December 6 is Independence Day, an occasion marked with solemn
ceremonial observances. It is a day for remembering those who fell in
the wars to protect Finland’s independence, which was achieved in1917.
In the evening, the President of the Republic hosts a reception for some
2,000 guests – including the diplomatic corps accredited to Finland –
and watching this reception on TV has evolved into a favourite pastime
for the entire nation.
In wintertime, Shrove Tuesday is just about the only festive occasion
where public merrymaking can be observed, though even this is not even a
pale reflection of the carnivals held in more southerly lands.
Logically enough, the most flamboyant annual parties in Finland occur at
a warmer time of year. May Day, internationally a festival day for
workers and students, can with justification be described as a northern
version of Mardi Gras, and Midsummer – the ‘night of no night’ – is an
occasion for uninhibited rejoicing, as for most Finns it marks the
beginning of summer holidays and a move to the summer dwelling in the
A nation of five million people with 1.5 million saunas has no need
to acquire a formal sauna education – learning to bathe in the sauna
comes as naturally as learning to speak. Visitors would do well to have
their first encounter with the sauna in the company of a Finnish friend
or acquaintance, rather than following a mechanical set of instructions
that reduces sauna bathing to a drill by numbers.
In Finland, both men and women bathe in the sauna, but never together
except within the family. There are no mixed public saunas in Finland. A
visitor hesitant about having a sauna should remember that if it has
been heated specially for him or her, it is a matter of pride for the
hosts, and only medical constraints are an acceptable reason for not
Having a sauna is something natural to all Finns, yet people do have
their own ways of bathing in the sauna. But Finn would never say to
another that he is ‘doing it wrong’. It is a matter of preference. This
is a good principle to follow for the visitor too: listen to your own
body and follow your own rhythm in moving between the hot room, the
washing room and the open air, perhaps including the lake or the sea. It
is helpful to follow what others are doing, but avoid extremes: some
Finns feel the need to demonstrate their tenacity by sitting in a
scalding hot sauna for inordinately long periods. In such a situation, a
wise visitor will quietly slip out to consume some liquid and enjoy the
scenery. On the other hand, it can be equally rewarding to surrender to
unknown rituals with an open mind. The feeling of being slapped on the
skin with a bundle of soft birch leaves in the heat of the steam room
can be a pleasant therapeutic experience.
The sauna is no place for anyone in a hurry. When the bathing is
over, it is customary to continue the occasion with conversation, drinks
and perhaps a light meal. A guest’s comments on the sauna experience
will be listened to with interest, After all, this is a subject that
Finns never tire of talking about.
By professor Olli Alho, November 2002, updated March 2010
Illustrations by Mika Launis