Finland is an industrial and technologically advanced country with one of the highest per capita GDPs in Europe. The business landscape combines traditional industry (paper, timber) with high tech digital communications companies such as Nokia. In terms of structure, Finnish companies follow a more hierarchical model than their Scandinavian neighbours, all workers are clear about their responsibilities and role perimeters. This is not to say that managers are dictatorial – teamwork and collaboration are important and companies work closely with communities and the public sector, particularly universities. Finnish workers possess a higher level of general education than many other countries, further contributing to business success.
Finnish managers take a low key approach – tasks are delegated and are completed by subordinates without much intrusion from above. Decisions tend to be made by a team of senior managers and information is disseminated in a highly organised manner, ensuring everyone is secure about their role in a particular project. Finns are taciturn people and less is more when it comes to communication. It would be uncommon for managers to deliver motivational speeches, pep talks and frivolous sales targets and prizes – workers are expected to just get on with the job in hand.
On initial meetings, Finns can seem quiet and reserved but once the ice is broken business is relatively informal. Titles are used in certain settings, such as in academia and the legal and medical professions, however most are dispensed with once colleagues get to know each other.
Finland is often considered to be a homogenous culture, with less outside influences than other countries. This, along with a reserved communication style, means that Finns can be hard to read. However, once you break through this exterior, you will find that your Finnish counterparts are humorous, warm and hospitable to outsiders. The key to building relationships is to adopt a subtle style yourself. Over the top sales tactics and showy behaviour would be viewed with suspicion. A good indicator of being accepted into a Finnish team is if you receive an invite to the sauna, where the general nakedness can be a great leveller in business relationships!
Finnish business dress is conservative and formal. Men wear smart suits in muted colours and women opt for smart trousers, skirts or dresses. Casual wear, such as jeans and t shirts are often acceptable in more modern industries. Newcomers should be prepared for the freezing Finnish winters, where temperatures can drop to below -30°C. Hats, gloves, shoes with rubber grips and padded outerwear are essential when venturing outside the office.
A firm handshake and brief nod of the head is the usual greeting for both men and women. Finns value their personal space so kissing and hugging is reserved for family and friends and would not be acceptable in a business setting.
Punctuality is very important in Finland, where meetings are highly organised. Being even five minutes late would be considered rude. If you are going to be late – always call ahead to let your colleagues know.
For those not used to Finnish culture, meetings may initially seem a little strange. They are generally quiet, brief and can be punctuated by long silences. Finns have a sparse way of speaking, so if you haven’t got anything significant to contribute then it’s best to keep quiet. This can be awkward for those from cultures where filling silences with small talk is the norm. Meetings are seen as being primarily for the dissemination of information rather than for debate. Therefore, speaking over others or engaging in heated discussion would be considered rude. Being a good listener is a highly respected skill, so show that you are listening intently and wait for your turn to speak.
Finland is a tolerant country with a commitment to equality in all areas of life. Any aggressive or discriminatory behaviour towards others is unacceptable. Finns disapprove of hard selling or sales patter so it’s best to get straight to the point in a direct and honest manner if you wish to win them over. It’s also a good idea to avoid comparing Finns to Swedes and bringing up Finnish-Russian relations, as this may irk your counterparts.
Finnish is the main language used in business, although most Finns speak English fluently and will switch languages seamlessly in the presence of international visitors. Indeed, in some companies and institutions, English is now used as the principal working language. Finns learn languages from an early age and most also speak a good degree of German, Swedish, French and Russian. However, learning even a few Finnish words and greetings will help you to break the ice and gain respect.