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 a 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.