Things to know about doing business with the Finnish
Every country has its own culture, customs and temperament. Whether you may be considering launching a new company in Finland or expanding an existing venture, here’s a primer to help minimise “culture shock” and to aid you in making a good impression with your Finnish clients, customers, and business contacts.
Why do business in Finland?
Finland is one of the largest countries in Europe by area and has over 5 million inhabitants. Its main industries are telecommunications, electronics, wood, metal and engineering – and foreign exports comprise nearly a third of the Nordic nation’s GDP. Its capital, Helsinki, has a population of over half a million people and is often acknowledged for its attractiveness and its first-rate transportation system.
Finland has found particular success in the technology sector with companies such as Nokia, Rovio Mobile (the creators of smartphone sensation Angry Birds), Supercell (the makers of Clash Of Clans) as well as Linus Torvalds (the creator of Linux). Well-known for its excellent standards of education, healthcare, and trustworthiness – Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index lists Finland tied in first place for the least corrupt country in the world along with New Zealand and Denmark – Finland represents a tremendous business opportunity to work with and reach a market of forward-thinking people open to new ideas.
Finland’s admirable education system is frequently described as “the best in the world”, with study after study confirming the quality of the schooling (for example, the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report lists Finland as ranked #1 in the world for “health and primary education”), and even university-level education is free. With very high standards of tuition in technology, science and mathematics, this has great implications for the availability of talent on Finnish soil – you are unlikely to find better-trained people with which to work anywhere else in the world.
Swedish was the main language of Finland for over 600 years, and today the country is recognised as officially bilingual between Swedish and Finnish. In addition, the Finnish have excellent English skills; one report of countries that have superlative English reading and writing abilities despite not speaking the language as their mother tongue ranks Finland as the fourth-best in the world.
The character of the Finnish people
Visitors sometimes find the Finnish to be quite reserved and serious on first meetings; they generally are not very expressive and prefer to keep their emotions to themselves. Therefore, personal questions about a Finnish person or their family may not be well-received.
Finns are generally very trustworthy – a popular saying in Finland is “take a bull by its horns and a man by his word.” If a Finnish person says something will get done, you can count on it; it is also very much the case that “yes” means “yes” and “no” means “no”, and a visiting foreigner may find it best to not say anything they don’t mean. Finns also prefer to work with people they know well, so taking the time to properly develop a strong relationship could be the key to getting the most from your Finnish business connections.
Many Finns understand that their culture is not very well-known beyond their own borders, and so are often flattered if a visitor is able to demonstrate knowledge of famous Finnish people or national accomplishments. In addition, visitors to Finland often also report being asked repeatedly for their opinion of the country, and many Finns seem to be eager to hear what the rest of the world thinks of their nation.
Business etiquette in Finland
The Finnish tend to be very organised people and consider punctuality and timekeeping to be important – if you find yourself running late for a business meeting, a phone call to explain is generally appreciated.
Finns mostly like to get directly to the point, so don’t be surprised if a meeting proceeds with a minimum of small talk and only perfunctory introductions. Broadly speaking, the Finnish people like to express themselves in a minimalist way, saying only what is necessary and listening patiently when others are speaking without interrupting. It is sometimes said that the Finnish are ill at ease around people who seem to talk too much, and silences that seem uncomfortable to visiting foreigners are commonplace.
When dressing for a business meeting, formal suits for men and skirt or trouser suits for women are recommended. Sometimes, the inclemency of Finnish weather may necessitate a second pair of shoes for outdoor use (Finnish businesswomen in particular quite often will change their shoes upon arriving at the office). If in doubt, understated clothing is always best.
The Finnish prefer not to ask too many questions if they can avoid it, and you may find them reluctant to query your business presentation. For this reason, it is advisable to ensure your talk or pitch contains as much information as possible – Finns are keen listeners and take particular interest in technical details.
What subjects are taboo in Finnish culture?
Finland is a very progressive country with a strong belief in equality. From 2000 to 2012 the nation had a female Prime Minister, and there continues to be many women in high-ranking positions of power. As such, comments that may be perceived as sexist, racist, or otherwise discriminatory are very unlikely to be well-received. In addition, when speaking in English many Finns are accustomed to using gender-neutral versions of roles and job titles (such as “chairperson” or “police officer”) and politically correct terms in general.
Also important to note is that Finland has had a complicated history with its neighbouring countries. The Grand Duchy of Finland, the predecessor of modern Finland, was historically part of the Kingdom of Sweden before being taken over by the Russian Empire. The Finnish Declaration of Independence was later introduced in 1917 – the adoption of which was accompanied by a short but bloody civil war, with half of the country fighting with Russian support.
Today, the Finnish opinion of the Russian Empire’s role in their history differs from person to person, and many Finns would describe their relationship with Sweden as a “rivalry” – so it may be safest to avoid making definitively positive statements about either neighbour.
All of the above having been said, however, Finns tend to take an understanding and amused approach to the faux pas of foreigners, and you are unlikely to do major damage to your reputation with a social blunder.
Ultimately, the Finnish are friendly and organised people who have been educated to a very high standard, making them exceptionally valuable business partners and connections. In addition, their strong moral character and trustworthiness makes forming a company in Finland a strong move for international success.