With only 16 people per square kilometer, Finland is the least populated country in Europe. If you leave the Helsinki area, chances are that your nearest neighbor lives one forest and a couple of lakes away – or maybe half a poronkusema away. Having grown up with such distances between one another, it’s not surprising that Finns take their personal space very seriously.
We all have a proxemic bubble that represents our personal, three-dimensional space. We let friends get closer, but when strangers enter our imaginary bubble, we feel threatened and attempt to flee. In Southern Europe, the acceptable interpersonal distance between acquaintances and strangers is diminutive, and the further north you go, the more the bubble expands.
In Scandinavian countries, one meter might be pushing the limit of comfortable space between strangers, which – from our foreign perspective – may lead to some funny interactions in populated urban areas. It starts with public transportation: Finns would rather stand for the whole length of their trip than to sit next to a stranger on a bus. If you happen to sit in a seat adjacently occupied by a fellow Finn, they will readily vacate theirs whenever another row of seats becomes available. At first it may leave you wondering if something is wrong with you. If you are standing around – say, waiting for the bus – and come too close to a fellow Finn, they will promptly move a few steps away. Worry not, dear foreigner, they are just safeguarding their bubble.Moving on to kinesics, you may notice that gestures and eye contact in Suomi are rare. Gesticulating too much might make you come off as an frantic, eccentric weirdo. Keep your extremities paced. On the same note, eye contact is one of the ways in which we regulate communication: it signals that we are listening to our conversational partner or that we are ready to respond. Whereas staring into each other is customary in many cultures, maintaining eye contact in Finland qualifies as uncomfortable and even threatening. Glancing away is the norm – regardless of how interesting your topic might be – but they will always come back to you to acknowledge that they are following the conversation.
And what about the human touch? Picture the following scenario: you are at the workplace and your colleague Matti Meikäläinen just got promoted. Congratulations, Matti! If you think a pat in the back is in order, don’t. Finns are quite reserved in their haptics and they don’t like being touched unless you have an intimate connection with them. Now picture a social gathering or juhla where you are introduced to someone. Going all southern on them with two pecks on the cheek upon introduction will immediately make you the creepy nutcase of the party (I learnt this the hard way). Refrain yourself, a brief handshake will suffice.
Despite the apparent cold demeanor, Finland does have one thing going for it. This seemingly emotionless, reserved behavior derives from a highly practical mindset: Finns don’t like wasting their time with small talk or faking social interactions. It might take a while to tear down all the icy layers, but once you do, Finns can be the most straightforward and reliable friends you’ll ever find.
It’s been said that the best way to get to know a society is through language, for it reflects the idiosyncrasy, values and worldview of its speakers. Take Finland, the land of a thousand lakes and the midnight sun. Its dense forests, fertile mires and pristine lakes, its harsh weather conditions and traditional lifestyles, have shaped the linguistic landscape of the Finnish language throughout the years, from surname conventions to everyday expressions.
One instance of this ever-present connection with nature is the obsolete unit of measurement poronkusema, used by the Sami people to describe the distance a reindeer can travel without having to stop to urinate – roughly 7 to 7.5 km. The compound is made of the elements poron (reindeer’s) and kusema (from the verb kusta, to pee; and the suffix -ma: the amount peed in one visit to the bathroom).
Another example of nature’s presence in the Finnish language is the expression peninkulma, which refers to the distance a barking dog can be heard in still air (approximately 10 km after the 17th century conversion of Swedish versts to kilometers). Another interesting etymological fact: the compound is made of the words peni (archaic for dog, again penin being the genitive case; dog’s) and kuuluma (to be heard).
Moving on from travel distances to farming soil, back in the day the Finns used the units tynnyrinala, panninala and kapanala to refer to the area that could be sown, respectively, with one barrel, half a barrel and one thirtieth of a barrel of grain. But Finns weren’t the only ones having their linguistic baggage shaped by agricultural practices: “a barrel of land” was a widespread unit throughout Scandinavia (Danish tønde land; Swedish tunnland); Norwegian tønneland).
And since we are putting all the units on the table, here’s another voluminous fact: foods such as strawberries, cherries, mushrooms, peas and even potatoes are sold by liters in Finland. Why is that, you ask? Imagine the old John Doe farmer – or in this case, the old Matti Meikäläinen, since we are in Finland – collecting strawberries from the field and throwing them in a basket as he harvests. Back in the day, scales were not as reliable or affordable as they are now, so our Meikäläinen guy would go to the marketplace and use his strawberry basket as measurement of his goods, selling his produce by volume instead of weight. What started as a thrifty method of commerce stretched out to the current times. So, whenever you happen to be in Finland and the vendor asks how many liters of cherries you’d like, panic not, he’s not offering you smushed-cherry goop. But whether you end up with a carton of cherries or a glass of cherry milkshake, hyvää ruokahalua!
Ps. This article was written under the musical influence of Sibelius’s Finlandia, Op. 26.
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