What Americans Notice in Finland

I was cleaning out some email the other day and found some quick advice from 2011 that I wrote for a young American couple considering moving to Finland.


I think the things an American notices about Finland are like these:

It’s much cleaner everywhere you look. My wife and I immediately noticed that about Canada, too, or Nova Scotia at least, when we visited in 2006. Couldn’t find a scrap of trash on a street or by a road anywhere.  Nor were there huge oil spots in the parking lots.  That would be such a disgrace in Finland.  A car dripping even a little bit of oil would fail annual inspection.

Machines work, and Finland tends to get gadgets 5-10 years before we do in the U.S. It was that way with business PC’s, cell phones, smart parking meters, the option to pay most machines by cell phone, the ability (in the day of office desk phones) to have phone calls at work follow your ID card around the office (via sensors in the ceiling) — just all kinds of stuff both in the workplace and elsewhere. I’m not even up-to-date on current technology there, since we’ve last visited in 2001 and 2009. [Update: and now also in 2017.]

Here in the U.S. we love machines, but they’re often poorly maintained. Soda machines are sold out, or the bill reader won’t work, or stuff like that. Or we build bicycle trails but don’t have money to repair the pavement 10 years later. Finns don’t tolerate stuff like that. They’re very organized and efficient about infrastructure.

Homes are smaller. People don’t accumulate junk, they never buy the cheapest they can find, and they take care of things so that they last. Finns tend to be very well informed about technical specs that only geeks in America know about. We buy the fancy feature-name; Finns buy the technical specs.

They don’t have our brand-name mentality. If they’re buying a rust remover or a soap scum remover, they’re likely to ask for a specific type of chemical rather than a brand name for which they have no idea what’s in it, the way we do.  [NB:  This may be changing now in more recent years, with younger generations of Finns losing knowledge their parents and grandparents had.]

Everything is more expensive, like 150% – 300% of the American price.

There’s virtually no worry about health care or health insurance. It’s very good and it’s much more affordable. It’s true that the best of American medicine is as good as anybody else’s and better than most. But only a small percentage of people in the US — well under 10% in any case — experience the best of American medicine.  And the average everyday of American medicine is absolutely NOT as good as the average everyday of Finnish medicine (or Swedish or German or Dutch or French).

There’s less choice in the stores, but I’ve always thought Finnish buyers (for retail chains) are very good at their job. They filter out a lot of the crap so you don’t have to wade through it. So in books, technology, etc., the selection in a store is likely to be significantly smaller but very well chosen.

Furniture and rooms are light. To an American eye they look Spartan and to some of us even poor, but that’s because we have so much clutter in our lives and don’t at first understand the aesthetic that favors real simplicity in Finland. Wall-to-wall carpet and thickly stuffed sofas and chairs are not popular in Finland.

People live close to the outdoors, but not with noisy boats and trucks. Many will spend most of their summer vacation at a cottage on a lake, enjoying the sun and the water and especially the quiet.

For the most part, people are very good at whatever they do. There’s a lot of competition and little room for slackers. But there’s also a lot of rigidity about education and credentials. Underemployment is common. That’s least true in Information Technology, but even somewhat true there. There are no bachelor’s degrees, at least not in the real universities. If you go to university, you’re expected to invest the time and energy to get your Master’s.

There isn’t a lot of bending of bureaucratic rules.

Finns are very blunt, for the most part, but also reserved. Small talk, flirtation, etc., are not the kinds of arts that they are in the US.  They perceive us as gabbing all the time about superficial stuff and in fact being superficial people. They don’t necessarily recognize that gab can be a different kind of privacy fence, much the way silence can be.

You just don’t see the kind of ridiculous waste and wretched excess that characterizes our American culture.

Everything is smaller. Finnish technology is respected around the world, but at the same time there’s room for everyone to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. The Big Time in Finland is much smaller than the Big Time in the US, in ways that are only healthy for all concerned. And yet their per capita production of internationally recognized musicians, designers, medical researchers, and some other professions is higher than most countries and much higher than the U.S. Remember, the entire population (north of 5 million if you count half a million Finns living abroad) is about the size of Greater Metro Atlanta. Or less.

When I moved to Sweden, I was speaking good Swedish in about 6-8 months. (That’s unusual, perhaps, but I was motivated and have a certain facility with languages.) It took me 3 years to reach a somewhat comparable point in Finnish once I moved to Finland. Many people say it’s the most difficult language of any developed country to learn. I had a brilliant professor of German language once back in college, long before I ever had a clue I’d go anywhere like Sweden or Finland. When I met him 20 years later, he had decided to prove there was no such thing as a difficult language. The language he taught himself to prove it was Finnish. But he was only so-so in conversation.  (He may have been better at reading and writing, as they afford a little thinking time.)  I’d say that 5% or fewer of foreigners, and even a lower percentage of Americans, ever become casually, easily conversant in Finnish. For the majority it remains a nearly impenetrable mystery. Many can struggle through a text, maybe; recognize some standard conversational expressions, catch the gist (maybe) of radio broadcasts, and make complete fools of themselves trying to put sentences together. Only a handful of people you’ve seen contributing to the conversation (other than the Finns) are able to hold up their end in random day-to-day conversation in Finnish. It’s not an easy place to move by any means.

But it appeals to some — such as me. I’m a lot like Finns, I discovered.  If your boyfriend really, really likes it (and doesn’t merely like the family he’s visiting), it’s possible he’ll want to move there. But statistically, it’s unlikely he’ll actually do it.