Cultural Differences – Finland

The following tips on cultural stumbling blocks in dealing with Finnish business partners are intended to facilitate cooperation:

Introductions and address

It is common to shake hands in Finland when greeting, but this is often left out when leaving. Using names is also of no significance to Finns; this is also true for written communication. However, a “Hyvää päivää”, “Hei” or “Guten Tag” without using names is understood to be just as friendly and personal as a “Guten Tag, Herr Meier”.

Formal vs. informal address – symbolic of flat hierarchy structure

As it is the exception rather than the rule to use the formal “you” in Finnish, it can happen that Finnish business partners (accidentally) use the informal address when speaking to foreign business partners. This should by no means be understood as a lack of respect! Superiors are also spoken to and addressed by their first names. This and the fact that contacting decision-makers in companies is often uncomplicated and that the interaction between superiors and employees is relaxed, characterize the flat hierarchical structures in this Nordic country.

Pauses and interruptions when talking

Finns are considered to be the best listeners in the world and expect their counterparts to listen in a concentrated manner as well. Therefore, make sure that you don’t talk too fast and never interrupt your Finnish business partners!

These Finnish pauses during speech can sometimes seem unduly drawn out. However, silence fulfils a very different purpose in Finnish culture and is not perceived as a disruptive factor.

Explicitness is interpreted differently in Finland: repetitions are avoided, and the foreign counterpart often waits in vain for questions or detailed feedback. As a rule of thumb, if facts are not commented on or questioned, you can assume that things are “good to go”.

Thank you – “Kiitos!”

Finnish has very few polite expressions and phrases, such as those found in many other languages. The Finnish word for “please” is also rarely used. Questions and requests from Finns in English can therefore sound quite direct at times.

Although “please” is rarely used by Finns, the word “thank you” (Finnish: “Kiitos”) is used much more often. Foreign business partners will do well to say thank you after a meal, a reception and an effective meeting.

Negotiations and meetings

In Finland, an agenda is also drawn up before a meeting, but it is not very detailed. Contracts are also not drafted in such detail. Both contracts and agendas generally leave more scope for later changes. In Finland, by the way, verbal agreements are even today considered to be just as binding as written agreements.

Finnish modesty

Finnish understatement is a likeable trait, although foreign business partners often tend to take it as an indication of incompetence. Therefore, if the image that a Finnish company projects, does not fully meet your expectations, it is worth considering this point. Finns “strangers” to praising and promoting themselves, but experience has shown that they are able to prove their skills in a pragmatic way in no time at all.

Even the size of Finnish companies often leads to them being underestimated – it is important to bear in mind that Finland has a population of only 5.2 million and that SMEs have at most 250 employees.

Summer break and public holidays

Finally, there are two practical points to be made about time-related factors that often cause confusion in binational cooperation: The school holidays in Finland always start on the first weekend in June and last until mid-August. During this period, Finnish business is also very slow. Particularly in July, many company employees and managers are either difficult or impossible to reach.

Even in the week before the Midsummer Night Festival, which takes place every year on Saturdays between 20 and 26 June and is very important in Finland, no important appointments should be made with Finnish business partners. On the other hand, in Finland many holidays have been postponed to the weekend and public holidays as well as possible bridge days in other countries can pose organizational challenges for Finns.

Birgit Griese-Saarinen

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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