in English

The Finnish Way of Life

Finland is located in Northern Europe, Sweden is its western neighbour, Russia shares its eastern border and Estonia is located to the south. Since its independence in 1917, Finland has gradually grown into what it is today: a safe and stable welfare state with a fully functioning infrastructure, good health care services, an excellent education system and a lively cultural life. Finland has been a member of the European Union since 1995.

Who are the Finns?

The first human settlement arrived in the region almost 10,000 years ago. Modern Finns are said to be descending partly from Finno-Ugric tribes that originally lived in north-east Europe between the Urals and the river Volga, partly from migrants from the Baltic lands and partly from Scandinavians. As the Finns spread over mainland Finland the earlier nomadic Sámi settlers were driven north, where a small number still lives today in Lapland.

Today there are around 5,2 million Finns. With an area of 338,000 square kilometres for a population of this size, Finland is one of Europe’s most sparsely populated countries (17 people per square kilometre). The habitation however is not evenly distributed as more than half of the population lives in the south and along the coast. The biggest town is the capital, Helsinki, which together with the towns of Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen form the Helsinki metropolitan area with a population of 1,5 million. The other important towns are Tampere, Turku and Oulu. There are around 300,000 Swedish speaking Finns on the southern and western coasts and on the Åland islands. There is a smaller number of Romanies (Gypsies) mainly in the south. Of the Scandinavian Sámi population, 6500 live in Finland and most of them are located in northern Lapland. The conventional means of livelyhood of the Sámis include reindeer herding, fishing, hunting, agriculture and forestry and, increasingly, tourism. There are three different Sámi languages in Finland today and they are taught in local schools of the Sámi region. The Scandinavian Sámi region has its own Sámi Parliament and a flag.

Because the ancestors of the modern Finns came from different origins, it can be claimed that there is a variety of ‘Finnishness’. Häme people, Karelians, Savo people, Ostrobothnians and Lapps are said to have their own special characteristics. Nowadays, however, due to such events as post World War II mass urbanisation, the boundaries between the groups are lines drawn in the sand and the people represent a mixture of different characteristics. The majority of the people do not necessarily have any idea of which group they represent if any. Consequently, if one wishes to find distinctions between Finns of the different areas, it is probably easier to draw a line between those living in urban areas (some 65% of the population) and those living in rural areas.

Even though it is not possible to make generalisations, it is fair to say that Finns perhaps give an extreme degree of space to other people, which can mean that the initiative for making friends often falls to the foreigner. As a common characteristic, Finns seem to possess the capacity for silence and reflection and they may appear reserved, especially when meeting them for the first time. Many have however noticed that once the ice is broken, Finns are open, warm and trustworthy. Honesty and reliability are two characteristics Finns appreciate the most. Many have observed that since Finland joined the European Union, it has gained more self-confidence while still retaining its traditional modesty.

History shaped by East and West

Aspirations of the churches and politics of East and West have greatly shaped Finland’s history as Sweden and Russia especially during the second millennium AD fought for the mastery of the territory laying between them. Sweden won the ‘first round’, and from 1350 to 1809 Finland was under Swedish rule. During the Napoleonic wars Sweden ceded Finland to Russia. As a result, the country became an autonomous Grand Duchy ruled by the Tsar of Russia. Finland became independent in 1917 and after the civil war that followed the republican constitution was introduced in 1919. During World War II, Finland fought against the Soviet Union in the Winter War (1939-40) and the Continuation War (1941-44) as well as against Germany in Lapland (1944-45).

In order to pay the heavy war reparations to Russia, Finland was forced to industrialise and modernise quickly. Consequently, during the 1950s, started the great transformation of Finland from an agrarian society to today’s welfare state and technological pioneer. In 1955 Finland joined the United Nations and the Nordic Council, and in 1995, the European Union.

Finnish culture - From Kalevala to HIM

Finnish culture has its roots in three main sources: the old traditions of the Finnish tribes, and the influences absorbed from both East and West during the centuries of association with Russia and Sweden. Finnish culture remains strong, multi-faceted, and can be described as a mixture of the traditional and the avant-garde.

The beginning of the 20th century witnessed the so called golden age of Finnish culture. At this period of national romanticism the country’s desire for independence was strong and the artists were creating an identity for their country that had its foundations in nature and in the national epic, the Kalevala. The Kalevala was put together by Elias Lönnrot and published in 1835. The Kalevala is a collection of oral runes or stanzas which feature mythical heroes such as Väinämöinen and which predate the Christian era. The Kalevala has inspired artists beyond Finland’s borders: for example J.R.R. Tolkien was an admirer of Kalevala and his Lord of the Rings reflect this.

Among the 20tth century Finnish writers with an international reputation are Mika Waltari; Frans Eemil Sillanpää, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature; Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins; Arto Paasilinna and Mauri Kunnas. In the field of classical music the best known composers are Jean Sibelius, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Aulis Sallinen; the most famous conductors are Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste; and the most renown opera singers are Karita Mattila and Jaakko Ryhänen. HIM, The Rasmus, Nightwish, Apocalyptica, Jimi Tenor and Jori Hulkkonen represent more contemporary musical directions and have gained a level of attention abroad as well. In 2006 Finland won Eurovision song contest for the first time with the heavy metal anthem Hard Rock, Hallelujah by Finnish rock band Lordi.

Both Finnish architecture and design have become internationally well known and are both functional, natural and austere with purity of form and material. The big names in Finnish architecture include Alvar Aalto and Eliel Saarinen. Design brands Iittala, Arabia, Marimekko and Vuokko and the designers Tapio Wirkkala, Timo Sarpaneva and Stefan Lindfors are the best-known representatives of the Finnish design.

Four different seasons – four different Finlands

Four clearly defined seasons are characteristic of Finland. Winter lasts about four months in the south and six months in the north with temperatures between 1 and 25 degrees below zero Celsius. The winter is the period of the polar night when in the north the sun does not rise above the horizon for several months and even in the south there are only few hours of daylight per day. During this season one can enjoy the beautiful winter landscape and perhaps participate in some winter activities such as skiing, skating and sledding. This is also the best season to observe the northern lights (aurora borealis), particularly in the Northern part of Finland. During this season, it is very popular amongst the Finns to go skiing in Lapland. Many foreigners have noted that in the winter time Finland seems a little bit quiet.

You know that the spring is coming when the days get longer, warmer and brighter. The other sure sign of spring is that people are smiling more and more. The beautiful spring weather makes people more energetic and excited.

Compared to the winter, the situation is quite different when the summer comes. In the north during June and July, one can experience the midnight sun as it remains above the horizon the whole time. Even in the south it sets below the horizon for just a couple of hours, making the night just a delicate twilight. It might seem that suddenly the country has come alive with people being more active, out-going and more positive than they were during the dark winter months.

Autumn is harvest time and many people pick wild berries and collect mushrooms in the forests. In early autumn, the leaves change into bright reds and golden yellows. This is also the season of rain and the first snow. November is the darkest time of the year, when the leaves have already fallen but the light-reflecting snow has not yet arrived.

Islands, lakes and forests – the main elements of the Finnish landscape

Geographically Finland is among Europe’s largest countries. With a population of 5,2 million, the country is sparsely populated. Around 70% of the land area of Finland is forest and 10% is water. There are around 200,000 lakes and the archipelago in Finland's south-west waters is the biggest in Europe. Finland is the world’s northernmost cultivated area.

Nature has played a very important role in Finnish culture and continues to do so. Outdoor life and communing with nature are popular leisure time activities and even ‘urban’ Finns consider having an easy access to nature important. This can especially be noticed when the access is hindered. In Finland Everyman’s Right allows freedom of movement around the forests and countryside without the landowner's permission, and it also includes the right to pick berries and mushrooms. The environment must not be damaged in anyway and rules regarding protected species and the lighting of fires must be followed, however.

A stable welfare state with a strong competitive edge

Finland is a stable parliamentary republic governed by a multi-party system. Every four years, the people elect their representatives in Parliament. Legislative power lies with Parliament and the ultimate executive power lies with the President in conjunction with a government which has the support of Parliament. Both the State and the municipalities provide numerous services which citizens can enjoy from cradle to grave. Finland is ranked sixth in the latest United Nations survey of quality of life, and if the implementation of equal rights for women is included as a factor enhancing the state of a nation, Finland rises to fifth position.

In 2002, the International Institute for Management Development ranked Finland as the second most competitive country in the world. Finland’s investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP is among the highest in the world. The major export sectors include electronics, other metal industry products, timber and paper industries, chemical industry and biotech. The World Economic Forum has listed Finland as the leading country in the field of information technology. Finland has the world’s densest concentration of mobile phones (some 73 cellular phones per 100 inhabitants). Finland is also one of the leading countries in Internet use: only in the USA are there more Internet connections per inhabitants than in Finland.

Investing in education

Education is highly valued in Finland and the high standard of education is an important part of the Finnish national strategy. The Finnish education system is ranked as one of the best within the developed countries as measured by many of the OECD's education indicators. Finland invests more in education than the other OECD countries on average.

The literacy rate in Finland is 100 per cent and Finns read a lot indeed. When it comes to public libraries, in proportion to the population, Finland, has the highest number of registered borrowers and the highest borrowing rate in the world. Finland also has more newspapers per capita than any other country.

Sauna – an essential part of the Finnish way of life

The fact that there are 1,7 million saunas for 5,2 million Finns tells that this ancient old tradition is still an important part of the Finnish way of life. The Finnish sauna and the older version of it, the chimneyless sauna, are forms of the sweat bath tradition. Sauna is originally a Finnish word. In the old days, saunas were not only used as places for cleaning, they also functioned as a centre for medical treatment and even childbirth. The sauna was also used to smoke meats.

Even nowadays the sauna has several purposes: business people might use saunas to help with difficult negotiations, politicians meet in saunas to talk over important problems, over-stressed workers use the sauna for relaxation and many consider the sauna a good place to socialise. It is good to note that Finns view the sauna as a necessity, not as a luxury.

Land of sports fans

Finns have a real passion for sports: both as doers and as watchers. Finns are loyal fans and there are plenty of sports heroes to cheer starting from the runners Paavo ‘The Flying Finn’ Nurmi and Lasse Virén. Modern Finnish sports icons include the stars of the Formula One and rally world such as Kimi Räikkönen, Mika Häkkinen, Tommi Mäkinen and Marcus Grönholm. Many of the Finnish ice-hockey players are international stars such as Teemu Selänne and Saku Koivu. Other Finnish sports stars include alpine skier Tanja Poutiainen and football players Sami Hyypiä and Jari Litmanen.

Sports are the Finns’ favourite free-time activity. The country’s excellent natural settings and the change of seasons provide the Finns with a great variety of outdoor sports. Popular in the winter are slalom, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, skating and ice fishing. In the summer time Finns like for example biking, hiking, swimming, canoeing, yachting, fishing and playing golf. An increasingly popular year round sports activity is Nordic walking.

Finland has also received quite a lot of international media coverage for inventing new types of sports to celebrate the short summer. These crazy sports events include world championships in wife-carrying, boot-throwing and mosquito killing. Also several ice-swimming events are organised annually.

What do the Finns speak?

Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. Finnish is an Finno-Ugric language, related to Estonian and Sámi and more distantly to Hungarian.

Finnish is known to be quite difficult to learn. Even though you might not learn the language in a few months you can still grasp the most common words and idioms very quickly. Finnish is pronounced as it is written. Knowing some Finnish creates miracles - you will notice that when you try! Also, a basic knowledge of Finnish grammar is helpful when using the dictionary; without it, it is sometimes difficult to predict the basic form of the word you are looking up.

A little less than 6% of the population speak Swedish as their first language. Swedish is one of the Germanic languages. It is spoken in Åland, on the western coast and around the Helsinki and Turku regions. All Finns learn Swedish at school.

A few thousand Sámi people in the northern part of Finland speak Sámi as their native language.

Language studies are a compulsory part of the modern education system in Finland, and the most widely studied foreign language is English. One can get by with English in most situations in Finland, including most public offices, shops, restaurants and bars.

On Finnish language see:

Finnish for Foreigners (University of Helsinki Language Centre)

Uuno (Tampere Polytechnic)

Communication and customs

While a certain stiff reservedness and formality may be apparent when first meeting with a Finn, this will soon disappear after getting to know him/her. In general, the Finnish way of life is easy going and strict formalities are not really observed. Finns appreciate straight and honest talk. Unlike in many other countries, gaps in the conversation are not generally dreaded. Although Finns are not known as experts in small talk, they are attentive and good listeners. In conversation it is considered as polite to wait for the other person to finish what they are saying before presenting one’s own views. The atmosphere at work tends to be informal, first names are used and people dress casually.

When going out, it is common that each member of the party pays for themselves. When visiting a Finnish home it is polite to leave outdoor shoes by the front door. It is a common Scandinavian habit to take off shoes when visiting private homes.

It is important to note that smoking is forbidden in public places, offices and other workplaces. By law, restaurants and bars must reserve areas for non-smokers. At home, guests wishing to smoke generally only do so if their host allows it, and often smokers will go out on the balcony to smoke. Restrictions on smoking are taken very seriously in Finland and it is considered rude to break these regulations that are backed up by strict laws.

Finnish food

Due to the location of the country, Finnish cuisine is a mixture of European, Scandinavian and Russian cooking. Fish is widely eaten and in general Finns appreciate natural ingredients that are of good quality. Dark rye bread is very popular and Finns frequently drink milk as an accompaniment to their meals. Finns are the greatest coffee drinkers per capita in the world. Often visitors are offered coffee with a pastry called pulla.

Finnish festivities

The following holidays are commonly celebrated in Finland. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (joulu in Finnish) is mainly a family celebration. Prior to Christmas holidays many Christmas parties (‘pikkujoulut’) are organised by companies for their employees or by societies for their members. Midsummer (‘juhannus’) is at the end of June and it marks the longest day of the year. In general Finns leave cities and towns to spend midsummer in the countryside. On May Day (‘vappu’) Finns celebrate the coming of summer, the international workers’ movement and student revelry. Easter (‘pääsiäinen’) is an important religious celebration in Finland that includes secular traditions as well. Shrove Sunday and Shrove Tuesday (‘laskiainen’) are celebrated seven weeks before Easter by doing winter sports and eating pea soup or special pastries. Independence Day (‘itsenäisyyspäivä’) is celebrated on 6 December and it is a somber and serious day to mark Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.

Information on the internet        Discover Finland (Centre for International Mobility CIMO)       Virtual Finland (Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland)


CIMO Publications: ’Living in Finland’, 2003

Dahlgren, Maija and Marja Nurmelin: “A Survival Guide to Finnish Sauna, Sisu & Sibelius for Businesspeople”. Yrityskirjat Oy, 1999.

Snyder, Russell and Pertti Anikari: “ The Lighter Side of Finland for Businesspeople”. Yrityskirjat Oy, 1999.

Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland: “Virtual Finland – Your Window on Finland”. .

Oy Yleisradio Ab: “Find Finland: How to become a Finn”. Opetusjulkaisut, 1992.

Lonely Planet: “Scandinavian Europe”. Victoria: Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, 2003.

Helsinki Metropolitan Area

EVTEK is located in the cities of Espoo and Vantaa, which together with Helsinki and Kauniainen, make up the Helsinki metropolitan area. Approximately 1,5 million people live in this area — one fifth of the population of Finland. As well as being the political centre, it is the cultural, economic, and commercial centre of Finland.

Helsinki itself was founded in 1550 by the Swedish king Gustavus I as a trading port. Two thirds of the city’s surface area is water, and not surprisingly the sea has always been a focal point of Helsinki’s life. In addition to the industrial traffic that makes use of Helsinki’s harbours, it is possible to take pleasure cruises around the islands and to board some of the world’s largest passenger liners, which make daily trips to Tallinn in Estonia and Stockholm in Sweden.

The city of Espoo, immediately to the west of Helsinki, covers a relatively large, mostly residential area.  Espoo is a young city, that mainly developed after the Second World War. In addition to its residential areas, Espoo has one of the world’s ‘Silicon Valleys’, a large concentration of information technology. Nearly 500 international companies are established in Otaniemi, Espoo, many of them linked to high technology, including the world’s largest producer of mobile phones, Nokia, and the Helsinki University of Technology.

Although some of the earliest settlements in Finland were located in Vantaa, as a city it is relatively young. Vantaa has been built around the railway line from the late 19th century onwards. The city of Vantaa, located to the north and to the east of Helsinki, is still growing. It is very much a city for young people, with an average age well below the national average. It has a corresponding cultural orientation, with the emphasis on music, drama and sports — Vantaa has literally hundreds of well-equipped sports clubs. Vantaa is perhaps best known for its international airport, which has won numerous awards for efficiency. Vantaa is also the location for a large amount of industry and commercial enterprises.

Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen are linked together with an excellent public transport system. Helsinki has its own tram and metro networks covering both downtown and the residential areas. The local train is the fastest route to Helsinki from Espoo and Vantaa - it takes 20 minutes from EVTEK to the main Helsinki railway station! Espoo and Vantaa are also connected to Helsinki by a number of fast-moving roads on which regular bus services operate, and two ring roads, which encompass the entire conurbation link all three municipalities together. 

Information on Internet:                 City of Helsinki                   City of Espoo                   City of Vantaa            City of Kauniainen