A Nordic individualist meets the Polish unofficial system

A characteristic Finn? – cultural differences inside my own country

I never thought myself as a typical Finn or typical Scandinavian. Unlike the stereotype of a silent Finn I am extremely outgoing and talkative.

Well, in East Finland (where I grew up and where my family comes from) people are more talkative. After 10 years in Southwestern Finland I am willing to state that the Southwestern part lives more up to the reputation of the Finns as Bertol Brecht put it in 1940 during his exile in Finland: “Volk, das in zwei Sprachen schweigt“; “a nation that stays silent in two languages”.

  • Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish.

When in East Finland, the Southwestern Finns get intimidated when the strangers start talking to them. I must admit, though, that even in the East Finnish scale I’m way over the average talkativeness – but my geographical & genetic origins are a handy excuse in Southwest!

You might easily think the difference is due to the differences between small village vs. big city. But it’s more than that. Last November I participated friends’ birthday party in small Southwestern village. We drove through countryside and forests towards the party locals, winter evening growing dark around us. In front of us we could see the backlights of two cars heading to the same direction. There was no one else to be seen around the village. We all pulled out to the same parking lot, indicated in the party invitation. As everybody got out of the car I greeted the strangers in the other cars: “I guess you’re also heading to X’s place?” One of them answered: “Yes. I think it’s that house over there with the lit lanterns”. I waited for a moment that we would walk to the house together – after all we were going to celebrate our common friends and our hosts would probably want to introduce us to each other. But no. My friends started towards the house as the strangers stayed put at the parking lot. As I followed my friends – all of them from Southwest – they quided me with a mock reproach: “Hey, try to remember we’re in Southwest Finland now: we don’t talk to strangers here!”

For me it would have been such a natural thing to walk to the house together and a small poll among my Eastern friends stated the same. As even the least outgoing of my friends put it: “Well, it could have been awkward and I might not have come up with any small talk. But still I would have walked there together.” But my invitation to walk to the party locals together was interpreted as a question which one of the houses was the right one.

So it’s kind of relief to sometimes notice that I am a true Finn, after all!

Nordic individualism & buying train tickets

If I never thought myself as a typical Finn I definitely didn’t think myself as a Nordic individualist. I have been more like the hippie who lives in a shared apartment even though the student phase of life has already finished and the real job&salary would permit an own apartment.

So then I arrive to Poland. I’m planning to travel to Ljubljana, by train. I have checked the international train timetables in internet (here). So now I just need to know if I can buy the tickets at the nearby town’s railway station. Bravely I try to call to the station (keep in mind I my Polish is very elementary!). The number I dial is for some kind of railway security services and as I’m trying to stammer something about timetables they just hang up to me.

So I ask a colleague if could she make the call for me. Not so simple as I thought.

First my colleague starts to look information in internet for internet sale of international train tickets. As she can’t find it she tells me she will call a friend whose father works in the Polish railways. The friend will ask her father if it’s possible to buy the tickets in the nearby town. Then next Saturday the friend can come with me to the railway station to buy the tickets. Or, I’m informed, I can just go to the train station and when I start to talk in English everybody will know who I am and what I want and they will have prepared everything for me.

For a brief moment there I felt like “Would you just make the freaking phone call to the station and if it’s a yes I can just go there this eve and buy the freaking ticket myself?!”

But it was only a brief moment. Of course it was really sweet how everybody was willing to help me. And  when I finally went to buy the train ticket with this friend of a friend we went afterwards for lunch and got to know each other a bit. So now I know one more Polish person.

  • I wanted to offer her the lunch but she insisted on paying it. When I tried to keep my stand “Yes, I will pay!” this quiet young girl took me by surprise by starting yelling “No!” so loudly that I got shocked, and as I didn’t want to disturb the other customers of the small grandmother’s restaurant any more than what I had already done I just whined meakly “Ok then”. My Polish friend informed me, that if you want to pay you should go around at least 3 of these yes-no rounds. And then if you actually manage to pay you should be prepared to face the fact that people will be “mad” to you for paying it.

But this whole ticket buying episode made me realise that such a thing as “Nordic individualism” really exists!

  • I told about my realisation to a Finnish friend who spent 9 months in Slovakia. Her opinion was that in East Europe you can just forget stuff like that. “Individualism? What is that?”

I‘d say it’s about preferring to make the things yourself instead of relying or believing on somebody else taking care of it. You feel more sure when you know that it’s you who has asked the questions and heard the answers. It might also have something to do with counting on the officials: in Finland even if I knew somebody working at the railways I’d still make the call to the officials. I wouldn’t disturb my friend on his/her freetime with a call about trivial workrelated business.

My Polish friend, who’s been living in Finland some 5 years had the opinion that in Poland the official information is out there, but as it’s hard to find (chaotic websites etc.) the unofficial way is the easier way to find things out. So it’s not about mistrusting the officials (which I guess might be the case in some other countries), it’s about the society working in a different way.

Officials, helpful strangers & buying bus tickets

Which reminds me of my first day in Poland.

I arrive to Warsaw airport and want to take a bus to central railway station. At the bus stop it’s indicated that the tickets can be bought either from the vending machine at the airport or from the bus driver. When I get to the bus

1) the driver is too lazy to sell me a ticket and tells me to use the vending machine in the bus. The machine works only with coins. Having just arrived to the country I only have bills.

2) TWO of the other passangers buy me a ticket: first a young man (who was also trying to buy a tickets from the driver and was rejected as well) and a young woman. The woman doesn’t speak English, so she doesn’t understand when I try to explain that the man already bought me a ticket. An elderly lady sees the whole episode and chuckles. When leaving the buss the young man smiles and wishes me good continuation for my day.

Neither of these two things would have happened in Finland.


Knowing myself & my culture again a bit better  – and feeling myself a bit more Finnish than before.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts and experiences about individualism, unofficial information and offering lunch in your culture or in the countries you have lived in / visited! Anglo-saxons: Do you recognise yourself in the individualism description?