To understand the Finns need for personal space, you have to realise that until modern recent history, most Finns lived a simple life by fishing, hunting and cultivating the land. With so few people and such an expanse of land, this life was very lonely and often the only contact with people were with the family that lived with them. The vast majority of the Finns live in towns and cities these days, but they still remain a “forest people”. They love to be in close harmony with nature, and it has to be understood that sometimes Finns just like to be alone. They have no personal need for constant socialising, have a great respect for each others personal space, and can regard any unnecessary and irrelevant small talk as an invasion and intrusive.
From a Finnish Reader, Hannu Sivonen: “In a Spanish discussion group in Helsinki, the leader was Jorge from Mexico. One time, suiting the context at the time, I just gently wanted to inform him about the feelings that are raised in me (as an example of Finnish culture) when my (first or second) name is repeatedly mentioned when someone talks to me. I explicitly said that this is a habit of especially American (US) salesmen. I feel pushed and my personal space violated. Jorge dramatised it and asked desperately, how should he then address me, with “you, yes you over there or what?” He seemed to be genuinely somewhat embarrassed and insulted. Later I have talked about this with my countrymen and they perfectly joined in my opinion about the Finnish feeling.”
Indeed on a number of times I have travelled on an aeroplane and seen two Finns sitting next to each other. They might nod to each other on arriving and they will nod as they leave, but during the two- or three-hour flight they won’t talk at all. Above all, the Finns appreciate a calm, ordered society where each individual is accorded space and privacy.
The Finnish Manner
From Maria, a Finnish reader: the idea of personal space is very different here… Once I had a huge tulip painted on my face (long story). The tulip’s blossom was my lips but the stem went all the way up my nose and onto the forehead. I also had quite sizeable green leaves painted on my cheeks. I had to go home using several modes of public transport but no one batted an eyelid. There was one drunk guy who looked at me twice, but I think it was because he must have thought he was seeing things. It was only when I came home that my family erupted in laughter after seeing my face.
A quarter of the population of Finland owns a summer cottage—there are about 400,000 of them. The majority of Finns have access to one, either through the company they work for or their families. This is where the average Finn goes to get away from it all. The summer cottage or mokki is ideally located on the shores of a lake, surrounded by forest and in the middle of nowhere. These log cabins usually only provide the very basic of amenities. Normally there is no electricity or running water, but the two things that a mokki has to have are a sauna and a rowing boat. Most Finns don’t travel abroad for their summer holiday; instead they spend the time in their lonely log cabins by the edge of the lake. Some people will spend just two or three weeks at the summer cottage, but many will take their family for a long stay, and mum and dad will commute to work (children have 11 weeks holiday in the summer). This return to nature is a family affair. The love of the natural environment is common to all Finns of all ages, whether city dwellers or not.
A typical Lappish wooden cabin is your journey’s end after the reindeer safari. The cabins are surprisingly warm and well insulated, thanks to a central fire that is used for heating and cooking. Your nearest neighbour will be a long way away.
From a Finnish reader
I spent two months in England to learn the language when I was 17. The place was not a big city, but even so I felt very clear distress when I realised that there is never a place or a moment when I can be alone. In the parks and beaches and everywhere, there is always a bigger or smaller crowd around me. The feeling grew worse as time progressed. Otherwise I was very happy in England.