Reflections of Finland

I was invited to Finland to speak at a Drupal conference. I had a great time (despite my cold) and met lots of awesome people who talked about everything from parenting to … well Drupal (software that powers many websites. You’ve used it, even if you don’t know it… :).

Helsinki Airport’s code is HEL. This is an ad for their public transportation. Get it? Welcome to Hel? Oh never mind I thought it was funny.

Here are some observations about Finland, cultural differences, American perspective, teaching, and parenting in no particular order:


  • Lots of spiral staircases.
  • Lots of smokers in the street. More than Italy, I didn’t expect that.
  • Very kind
  • EVERYONE speaks English and is happy to (opposite of Siena)
    • Apparently Finland is small enough and they don’t have laws requiring that movies be translated, so everyone in Finland is exposed to English at an early age.
    • Most sounded more American than British (probably because of the movies). One woman had a REALLY strong British accent, so when I asked her about it she admitted she’s been bing-watching Dr. Who and just finished EVERY episode.
    • As an aside Charlie and Max pronounce “processor” like the brits with (“pro cessor” instead of “prassessor”) because of the YouTube channels they watch.
  • I met a couple who’s planning to hike the AT (Appellation Trail) this summer. I promise to offer them a shower and Ice Cream when they get to Massachusetts. I hope they take me up on my offer.
  • Women are confident and strong. They’re not like German women, but they’re just as confident as the men-folk.
    • Some time last week a guy in Italy asked Christine if she lifted weights. When Christine said “yes” he asked “Why?” Apparently women don’t lift weights in Italy. He wasn’t be mean or anything, he was genuinely curious. Apparently women in Italy do dance exercises and that’s it.
    • Finland seems a little different. I saw a number of ads for Gyms and all of them had pictures of women with kettlebells or boxing or doing pushups or similar things.

      A couple of ads I saw for gyms in Finland. These are not Italian gyms.
  • Lots of international food and appreciation of it. Italy is VERY proud of it’s culinary heritage (rightfully so). The Finns I met on the other hand seemed prouder of… well being more worldly. This not only applied to food but also work. People I met sounded very proud that they worked with people from many different countries and cultures, and one person spent a good 5 minutes telling me how important it was to them to be exposed to people that think differently than her.
  • Elk burger was yummy, but apparently they’re more for tourists. The Finns I was with chuckled when I mentioned them and just ordered hamburgers, which apparently is the easy fall-back food because it goes good with beer.
  • I was told before coming that Finnish were standoffish. They’re definitely more reserved than some southern cultures but were always super friendly. For example:
    • IMG_1519
      Restaurant Day in Finland!
      Awesome cakes and a couple of Finns being very careful to not make eye contact with a potential customer.

      Today was restaurant day. That means ANYONE can sell food on the street without a permit (no health inspectors or anything). There were a fairly large number of asians selling food. They made eye contact and said hello and offered everyone food when they walked by. Well I assume they said “Hello” but I don’t speak Finnish. Whatever. The Finns on the other hand kept their eyes down or talked to the people working with them in their booths so they wouldn’t have to look at people. As soon as I approached anyone they made eye contact and gave a big, genuine, smile and were super friendly, but they never initiated. In the meanwhile there was one table with spaniards selling Spanish food. They were dressed in white with red kerchiefs and had a Spanish flag and were playing Spanish music on the radio and running up and down singing loud and boisterously.

    • There were LOTS of cakes and cupcakes for sale today.
  • The conference was fun and in English.
    • Only half a dozen people out of 150 weren’t native Finns. I asked and was told:
    • Usually when giving a talk at a computing conference the speaker will ask “does anyone speak English” and if ANYONE says yes, the whole talk is in English, otherwise it’s in Finnish… BUT that makes it hard to prepare. Since people write code in English and comment code in English and their screenshots are in English, it’s actually often easier to just give the talk in English EVEN IF everyone is Finnish in the audience.
    • This sort of blows my mind. There were a few times where I walked up to a conversation in Finnish and people would switch to English for me and I’d hear it trickle down, so people NEXT to us would just talk in English to be polite.
    • First time I’ve been naked at a business meeting.
    • I discovered I can only last about 30m in a sauna before I start to feel lightheaded. A couple of people were in there for a couple of hours with a couple of short breaks. Insane!
    • Less women at the conference than at the US, which is sort of dismal because of how few women are in tech in the US.
    • Interestingly the women in Finland that WERE at the conference were more… typical women. I’m not sure if that’s the right way to describe it, but I guess I feel like there’s a decidedly “punk” or “sci-fi geek” look to women in technology in the US. Not all of course, but from my small sampling of Finnish tech scene it seemed that either that subculture doesn’t exist or maybe that there’s less stigma about women in tech and less pressure to “fix it” and so it just is what it is… I guess I felt like they were developers first and women second, where in the US I’m not sure that’s always the case. I don’t know… maybe I’ll get in trouble for saying this because I’m a guy… just observing not judging… :)
    • Oh and yeah, since I’m mentioning diversity Finns are mostly white. Go figure… but they’re VERY open to other cultures.
  • Cars drive VERY slowly and are HYPER aware of pedestrians at crosswalks. Probably the most pedestrian-friendly city I’ve ever been in.
  • I’m also about 95% sure that in the entire 3 days I was in Finland I was the only person to J-Walk or to cross when there was a “don’t walk” sign up.
    • I’m told Finns are very patient when I started crossing and realized my group waited on the curb.
  • The sun sets at 3:30 and it’s dark by 5PM. Like dark dark. Not getting dark, but dark. Confused the heck out of me.
  • I was told that this is the worst time if year to come. Rainy and wet and cold, but not pretty snow. I can attest to that weather. I was fine in a light spring jacket, but I do wish I brought light gloves.
  • Many people mentioned how honest Finns were. Both Finns and someone I met from Cambodia who’s been living in Finland for a number of years.
    • I asked how he likes it and he said he loves it because it’s safe and because he didn’t have to work as hard at school as he did in Cambodia… :)
  • It’s interesting to hear local stories of education
    • I heard a few stories while here that kids as young as 7 are taught creative thinking. One example is 7-year-olds are broken into groups and given a question like “why do things die” to discuss and try to “solve” on their own. Then they present their findings to the class. The thought is to teach critical thinking and also make sure that students know that not everything has a yes-no answer.
    • I also heard the opposite. One parent expressed concern that there isn’t enough testing and as a parent he wants to know how his children are doing in school and so he wants testing to start earlier.
    • Apparently when they do start testing (around age 12 I think he said) it’s pretty fascinating. Children CHOOSE which level of math test they want (presumably with parents?). Easy. Medium. or Hard. Very cool… I think? Fascinating either way.
    • Another fun parent conversation I had was with a Portuguese living in Germany. He mentioned that in Portugal EVERY parent is a helicopter parent these days, which is different from when he was young and almost set a park on fire… but how Germany is all about teaching independence.
      • One example he gave is the first week of school parents are NOT allowed to drive their kids into school for any reason. They need to walk, or bike or whatever. After that parents *can* drive kids in but apparently there’s a stigma about it. He said the other day he had a doctor’s appointment and offered to give his kids a ride in, they asked to be dropped off around the corner from the school because they didn’t want to be seen getting a ride in.
    • Another Finn shared how she took a couple of years off before getting her degree and doing a thesis and it felt sort of silly to her. There was a “format” she had to follow and a certain word-count to hit and having worked in the real world she knew that more than half of her thesis was a waste of time and just checking off checkboxes.
    • Other people mentioned that they have similar problems with college grads that we have in the state, which is College teaches them how to follow rules, not create things.
  • Lots of died blond hair. What’s super interesting is many young people had GREY hair. As in it was died so blond it was grey. This wasn’t just one or two people, it was a lot, like a style. A couple of times I literally thought the person in front of me was 70 from the back but were in their 20s or 30s (crap I’m now old enough I can’t tell the difference between those two).
  • In terms of the city… honestly I didn’t see much.
    • IMG_1520
      Helsinki Airport’s code is HEL. This is an ad for their public transportation. Get it? Welcome to Hel? Oh never mind I thought it was funny.

      Between meetings, the conference, the pre-conference party and the after-party I was only out and about for a few hours. What I saw as very pleasant. Holiday decorations were going up. The Restaurant day was so much fun I wished I could have stayed for another day or two. The architecture is renaissance-formal on the outside and Scandinavian on the inside (think Ikea).

    • The showers a HOT. I guess it’s a cold country but I’m confident I could hard-boil an egg in 15m with the hot water in the shower turned up half way.In terms of the city of Helsinki… honestly I didn’t see much.
    • IMG_1525
      Cool subway tunnels. Clean. Empty. Awesome stone walls.

      The underground feels almost fake. Like DisneyWorld. I mean I KNOW I’m underground but everything is so clean and new looking that I feel like I’m in a set… but a fairly sparsely populated one. Unlike most cities Helsinki’s infrastructure seems like it could VERY COMFORTABLY support 3-4 times their current occupancy rate. I don’t know what the housing/real estate situation is, I’m just speaking of public transportation and public spaces and roads. Or maybe that’s what a city *should* be like, not stretched to the max? I don’t know, interesting…

Over all this gives Helsinki has a very small city feel. Safe. Comfortable. Plenty of amenities. People, but still private space. I think someone told me something like half of the people in Finland live in Helsinki and apparently people from the country don’t like driving in the city (despite the SUPER-wide roads and surprisingly polite and calm traffic on fairly empty streets). Public transportation is great. Everyone is super friendly and nice. There’s a huge variety of food (it’s not cheep, but still). Their internet is stunningly fast and cheep (opposite of Italy). They’re very technology savvy as a country (more so than the US or Italy) and appreciate technology. People are laid back… and apparently depending on where you are in Finland the sun either never sets in the summer or only sets for 45m.
Excited to come back some day!