A couple of weeks ago I presented to the American Women’s Club in Finland as a speaker for one of their monthly morning meetings. The topic was “Finnish and American Cross-Cultural Differences”, and I used my back ground as a psychologist and English-speaking resident of Finland to give a brief outline of some key differences found in past research and also of some of my own observations from living here and practicing as a psychologist with English speakers in Finland.

One thing I talkd about was how both Finnish and American cultures are relatively individualistic, fair and open, but American culture is much more individualistic, and this includes an increased need for choice (e.g. for ice cream flavours, clothes, menu items, etc…) compared to Finnish and other European cultures.

I offered my observations of Finnish culture as being sensitive to the intrusion of strangers – i.e. it is not common to ask a stranger their name, to greet them on the street or comment on the appearance of their baby (no matter how cute!). On the other hand, Finns can handle an entirely different level of close interaction by happily going to the sauna naked with strangers. We had a good discussion about these contrasts.

In the question and answer section, many people had anecdotes about the perceived rudeness, or lack of civility, manners and greetings in Finnish culture. I emphasised that I do not think this is a lacking in Finnish culture, rather, Anglo-cultures emphasise these things very strongly and we notice them when they are absent. It seems to me that there is a cultural need in English-language speaking people  to require strangers, friends, children and others to follow certain rules of civility. These include: greeting nearly every person you meet in your daily routine with ‘hello’, a smile, nod or handshake; waving goodbye and hello (for children); saying ‘Please’ and other polite phrases particular to the English language; being excessively helpful by keeping doors open for others; making nice comments about other people’s appearance of how their children look or behave; etc… These features can be minimal or absent in many other cultures. Mind you, I do think it is perfectly fine for English speakers to ask for these cultural practices to be followed whenever possible to make them feel more comfortable!

One of the participants recommended reading further on this topic with Brown and Levinson’s “Politeness: Some Universals in Language”, which I am very curious to start reading soon!

If your organisation or business is interested in a talk from me on this topic, please get in touch. Thank you again to the AWC for organising this great talk!