Business communication

Finland FlagAt the time of globalization, the marketplace is growing at a fast pace. This means expanding business borders and sometimes customising business practices. The information that follows give an overview of Finland’s business practice to give a comprehensive picture of doing business in this Northern country.

Regardless of the situation and place, the barriers-free communication can only be an advantage and bring benefits.

Face-to-face communication

When meeting each other, Finns shake hands briefly and firmly with a nod of the head. Only on the most formal occasions is a full bow or obeisance needed. No supporting gestures like touching on the shoulder are involved. It is important to make eye-contact and smile when shaking hands and is common practice to give your first and surname. You greet men, women and children equally. People shake the hands again when saying ‘Good bye’.

Embracing or kissing when greeting is possible with either family members or close friends. The Finns value their bodily integrity and are not very fond of being touched by strangers. There is also some regional variation in attitudes towards public gestures of intimacy. Most Finns feel that giving kisses when greeting is going a bit far. Men never kiss each other.

Finnish people are reserved. They also rarely enter into conversation with strangers. As foreigners often note, Finns are curiously silent in the metro, the bus or the tram. However, a visitor clutching a map will have no trouble in getting advice on a street corner or in any other public place. The hospitality of Finns easily exceed their customary reserve.

Many Finns are quite modest and spare in their gestures, which can easily be misinterpreted as a lack of interest. Finns tend to be very low-key, which can often lead to the underestimation of the Finnish business partner. In order to imitate their behaviour, subdue yourself a bit, especially if you are animated by nature. The key to being accepted and respected in Finland is to blend in rather than be conspicuous. Do not raise your voice when you talk to Finns, since speaking in a loud voice is considered rude. In conversation it is polite to wait for the other person to finish what they are saying before presenting your own viewpoint and this tends to slow down the rhythm of the conversation somewhat. Listening is very important to Finnish people.

Finnish people do not require face-to-face contact and, in fact, are quite comfortable using e- mail. This can help to save a lot of time in everyday transactions. Finns are regarded as being excellent time managers who prefer to organize their workdays meticulously in order to accomplish as much as possible.

What someone says is accepted at face value and this is a culture where “a man’s word is his bond” and will be treated as seriously as a written contract, so verbal commitments are equal with the written agreements.

Finnish business people can appear somewhat formal at first, and usually show their more informal side only to people they know. Once you get to know your Finnish counterpart however, you may have a friend for life. In meetings, Finns are likely to get down to business right away and are generally conservative and efficient in their approach. An invitation to take a sauna with Finns indicates the will to move to the next level of familiarity with you. In Finland, both men and women bathe in the sauna, but never together.

Language matters

Finnish is generally considered to be a difficult language to learn for foreigners. This may originate from the fact that it modifies the forms of its nouns, adjectives, pronouns, numerals and verbs depending on their roles in the sentence. Finnish is a very equating language, for it has only gender-neutral words. Because of this Finns may sometimes have difficulties with the genders of the nouns in other languages.

Finnish and Swedish are the official languages in Finland and children must learn both of them at school. In most cases the “second native language” is Swedish (94%) and is spoken by 5.5 percent of the population. The Swedish-speaking people live mainly at the coast and in metropolitan areas. English, however, is unofficially the second language of Finland with more people speaking English than Swedish as a second language.

For the most part, Finns speak fluent English and this is especially true in the business world. In fact, in some Finnish companies English is spoken as the first language. Being skilled in a foreign language other than English is also becoming more common among Finns as many study languages such as German, Spanish, Russian and French.

Here are some useful phrases, which may either help you to ‘break the ice’ in informal conversations.

  • Hello: Hei, Moi, Terve, Hyvää päivää, Päivää
  • Goodbye: Näkemiin
  • Yes: Kyllä
  • No: Ei
  • Thank you: Kiitos
  • What’s your name? – Mikä sinun nimesi on?
  • My name is John. – Minun nimeni on John.
  • Where are you from? – Mistä olet kotoisin?
  • I’m from London. – Olen Lontoosta.
  • I don’t speak Finnish. – En puhu suomea.

Finns often use first names in business. However, you should always wait until your host / hostess suggests it. It is easy to get onto first-name terms with a Finn, especially if it is evident that the parties will continue to meet regularly. However, it feels appropriate that the use of first names is specifically and mutually agreed upon. For a Finn, an explicit shift to a first-name basis is permanent.

Business relationship

Finns are not regarded as being very talkative or chatty and telephone conversations with foreigners may feel uneasy for some. Even if Finns are quite good at speaking English, many of those who use the language less frequently are a bit shy to ‘open their mouth’ at first. This applies mostly to the older generations since the younger ones are used to international communication and thus are more confident with it. Silence in conversations is considered an accepted aspect of social interaction and pauses are common.

Considering that Finns consider the verbal agreements very seriously,  avoid making engagements lightly. A handshake after an agreement is like a seal and you shouldn’t break it. However, written agreements are always signed too to confirm what has been agreed and to serve as legal documents in the case of a disagreement.

Business meetings are often set up by e-mail, even by SMS-messages. Be on time and wear business clothes. Meetings tend to be brief and to the point. Coffee, tea, soft drinks and biscuits are usually served.

Making contact

Business cards are exchanged without any formal rituals. Present your business card so it is readable to the recipient. Remember also to treat someone else’s business card with respect as it symbolizes the way you will treat them.

It is easy to start doing business with Finns, because they tend to be transactional and do not need long-standing personal relationships in order to conduct business. Yet, ultimately they do value long-term business relationships. Finns appreciate frankness in communication.

Relationship building often takes place outside the office: in a restaurant or at the sauna. Never turn down an invitation to use the sauna, as it is an entrenched part of Finnish culture and a sign of trust on the part of your host. Be daring and try the sauna even if you have never done it before. The basic idea in going to a sauna is just to enjoy yourself and relax. Sauna is very important to Finns; it’s a place to relax and to forget about work and talk about something else.

Personal titles

Even if Finns are quite proud of any honorary, academic or professional titles they may have, they rarely mention these when introducing themselves. Nevertheless, they expect to be addressed by their title in professional contexts by those they assume are aware of it. The Finns are not offended if a foreigner does not use their title and adopts the English practice of Mr/Mrs/Miss/Sir/Madam, or any equivalent.

When introducing themselves, Finns will give their first name followed by their surname. Women who use both their maiden name and their husband’s name will state them in this order.

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