The Finns are a very tolerant people. This is derived from their value-set of leaving people alone and respecting people’s privacy. They fiercely defend their right to live life in a way that suits each individual, as long as it does not disturb or harm anyone else. This manifests itself in the way they treat people — there are absolutely no value judgements in the Finns psyche. People from other cultures find this confusing as they pass no comment on unusual behaviour, people’s dress sense or the colour of someone’s skin — it’s as though they are blind. However, they will not tolerate lateness — of anything.
From Maria, a Finnish reader:
“In the States, an elderly women saw me sitting on a bench and said to me “Your shoes are so cute!” I was taken aback and thought she was so rude. Why should this complete stranger have the right to make value judgements about my dress, and why should she think I»d care? After all, I liked my shoes (that’s why I was wearing them) and why should anyone else’s comments matter to me? With time, I have softened up a bit, and will compliment strangers myself.”
Foreigners are still a pretty rare commodity in Finland, and rather than being viewed with suspicion, they are viewed with interest. They are welcomed warmly because the Finns are basically pretty tolerant of odd and different people and strange habits. The Finns are very open to new ideas, and will soon adopt, adapt and improve any concept or thing imported from abroad. Finland has become known as a very accommodating and profitable place to do business.
The Olympic Games held in Helsinki in 1952 was the first time that many people in Finland saw the different races of the world. Although the Finns have a very great ability to accept people for what they are and judge them later, their attitude and treatment of people of colour can seem fairly racist to people used to multi-cultural societies. I notice that whenever I go through customs, anyone with a non-European look always spends more time at the customs desk. A black British colleague found she was often the object of attention and suspicion. According to one Finnish psychologist, the refugee situation is now becoming quite a problem in Finland with racism becoming a real issue. It never seemed to exist before because there were so few foreigners. Until recently, many people, seeing a person of colour in the street, would make the assumption that he or she was probably a refugee; it never occurred to them that the person could be a professor or a businessman.
Making Room For Others
There can be very few other industrialised nations of the world that have so few ethnic minorities. Finland, as previously mentioned, gave a home to many “desirable” refugees. With backing and sponsorship from the Red Cross, for the most part, these people were well-received and cared for. However in 1990, a real problem arose when a group of Somalis turned up at the Soviet/Finnish border, uninvited, unsponsored and unexpected. Most Finns did not want them to stay. This was little to do with racism but more to do with the psychological difficulty the Finns have with making room for other people and to share the fruits of their hard labour.
Things have changed enormously during the 1990s — especially since 2000 — as the younger generation has become more worldly and well travelled, and Helsinki very much more cosmopolitan, with a multi-cultural society. The whole society has opened up a lot compared with 20 years ago, and everyone seems to have accepted that Finland needs a workforce from abroad because the “baby boomers” are all retiring (retirement age is 65).
Some Finns still find it difficult to share or set up partnerships; this is due mainly to the fact that the Finns like to be independent and self-sufficient. They can view with suspicion partnerships and co-operations where they believe others may try and take away their hard-earned gains. Some people were extremely suspicious of joining the EU precisely for this reason. If you work for a Finnish firm and you are not Finnish, don’t expect promotion; it seems very difficult for the Finns to give that to a foreigner. However, things are changing, especially in this new millennium. Some of the large international firms in Finland are beginning to learn that they need to bring in foreign advisors and different international expertise. They have recognised that in this international and global economy, they must embrace their foreign workers as valued, trusted and permanent members of their companies. This is not the easiest thing for them to do; after all, they have been isolated for such a long time through geography, language and the Soviet Union.
One consultant I met was working on a project for a newly merged Finnish/Anglo/German company. She was doing an audit of the skills and qualifications of the workforce. She soon found that a number of foreigners were leaving after reaching middle management because they were not native speakers of Finnish and perceived they had reached a “glass ceiling”. When the Board were confronted, their response was, “After all, we are a Finnish company.”
The small town of Jarvenpaa, the home of Sibelius, has 35 different nationalities and about 50 different languages or dialects. They have an Orthodox church, a mosque and a Lutheran church and are well used to many visitors. But the rest of Finland is not like this. When you travel into rural areas, you will find that as a foreigner you will be the object of fascination. The locals will take the opportunity to take short stares when they think you’re not looking. For them, foreigners are what you see on the TV!
Not All Good News October 2006: Finland’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that a Gambian man who had been sentenced for an aggravated narcotics offence in 2003 would be deported from Finland upon release from prison in 2007. The court weighed the man’s offence against his family connections and lengthy stay in Finland. He had received a residency permit in 1998. The Helsinki Administrative Court had previously considered the fact that the man was married to a Finnish citizen and had a child by her to be weighty arguments against deportation. However the Supreme Administrative Court upheld a decision made by the Directorate of Immigration in 2004 and ruled in favour of deportation.