Precision

Here I am, back in Brussels, an outer-Finn (Finnish expat) once more.

This time around I’ve met loads of other Finns around town so we have a tiny Finnish bubble in Brussels – you’d be surprised how many Finns there actually are.

The contrast with Finns and other people is thus even more pronounced; it’s easy to compare right on the spot. And one thing that has caught my eye is the precision which Finns practice in almost everything.

For example, I arranged to meet a friend after work and we made the arrangement by email. She suggested we meet at 18:35 and even specified the entrance in the building by which we should meet. She was then there at exactly 18:35 but apologised for being late since I was already there.

I on the other hand have adopted some bad habits – if I’ve been asked to a party or to a bar, I’ll turn up within 30min of the agreed time and don’t think of it as being too late. Most Finns will apologise in advance if they foresee a situation where they’ll be late even for 5 minutes.

Another form of precision is with money. Finns will pay exactly what they owed and make sure to pay it as soon as possible. Recently we went out with 5 Finnish girls and one Belgian guy – when the bill came the guy was ready to foot the bill but, alas, we had already calculated the exact amount each one of us owed and just gave it to the waiter. He was shocked by our habit of fumbling around with money and change and trying to figure out the best way of making sure we have exact change.

The night ended with me taking a taxi with my flatmates – two Finns – and it came up to about 13 euros. Flatmate 1 paid and then we quickly calculated that we owe her 4.33 euros which Flatmate 2 paid immediately. I now have 4.30e on my desk ready to be handed out and I feel bad for not having the 3 cents… Guess I’m not a true Finn.

Trust issues

Finns have major trust issues; we have to trust everyone. If Finns inhabited state of nature, Locke would have won that bet against Hobbes.

We’re taugh to trust each others. Doors can go unlocked without anyone worrying about it. I’ve even had a guy asking me to look after his baby while he went to get coffee, which I did and he got his coffee.

While times are changing and we do tend to lock our possessions these days, there are remnants of this trust and modesty still left in the national psyche.

For example, YLE reported on people being ashamed of hiding their pin codes when they’re paying with a credit card. It would be a sign of mistrust to the people standing next to you if you have to protect your pin code you see.

It’s a delicate balance of power – fighting the urge to mistrust people but trying to look like you do. The invisible cold war of values.

Secret language

There’s one things that sets Finns apart when abroad: we speak loudly.

In Finland these people go about their business quietly and whispering but as soon as you leave the country – the volume goes up. There’s an easy enough explanation – we think nobody can understand us.

It’s true enough, most people can’t even tell which language we’re speaking.

I’ve overheard Finns on the Paris metro, commenting something or other about fellow passengers. Friends snickering in a shop in Newcastle. A couple sitting at the table next to me in Prague. All having conversations not meant to be heard but not bothering to lower their voices, thinking nobody will ever understand them.

But I do.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Ever bumped into someone (literally) and heard them say hups or örgh? Well that was an apology in case you missed it.

Brits apologise for everything; someone is descending the same flight of stairs you’re using to go up – say sorry if they need to move. You open a door before someone else – say sorry. In case you’re doubting whether you need to say sorry, be sure to say it just in case.

In Finland, however, there’s no need for that. If you’re genuinely sorry then go ahead. But even if you’re almost ran over by a stranger, an oops (or hups as we’d say) is about as much you’ll get.

The half-hearted sori is also rather common among the younger folk and is usually taken as the less sincere form of anteeksi. If someone says sori, what they really mean is “you should have seen that coming, dumbass”.

Sometimes I wonder why did the Finns ever come up with a language? Seems like grunting would have worked just fine. But then you couldn’t send texts…

Now where is Finland?

Being a Finnish expat is, most of the time, wonderful.

There’s never any trouble crossing borders – just a flash my Finnish passport and a look of boredom will appear on the Customs official’s face as they see it’s only another boring Finn. Once on a train from Belgium to the Netherlands border patrol was about to give me a hard time for not having my passport with me but then they saw my Finnish driver’s license and literally said: “Oh, Finland, it’s ok!”

Sometimes, however, my country’s modest existence exhibits itself in people having no clue as to where it is.

The British are particularly bad at this. I put on my best British accent during my first year of university in Newcastle to avoid the dreaded inevitable question: “Where are you from?”

Because that, my friends, is a conversation killer if I’ve ever seen one.

Answer Finland and you’ll get one of the two responses: “Oh. That’s nice” and the person walks away.

Or: “So, how’s that like?” To which I answer one these: “Nice/Cold/Why do you think I’m here now?” which also ends up in the person walking away.

I’m sure some of my more sarcastic responses have resulted in people walking away thinking it’s a freezing tundra where polar bears roam free.

A Danish friend of mine, however, started singing this song