Why Finnish people tell the truth
(Listen to the text while you read.)
In Finland, people are assumed to be honest all the time, and trust is implicit unless proven otherwise.
It was December, and I’d just arrived in Helsinki. Fresh snow lined the roads and I frantically covered myself up against the cold; gloves, hat, scarf. I headed to the train station, looking for a Finnish SIM card, and popped into several shops and kiosks to find the best one. At some point, I realised I’d left my hat somewhere and retraced my route in frustration. I peeked inside the stores, mimicking wearing a hat, asking if anybody saw it. I finally spotted it, sitting atop a small Christmas tree on one of the kiosk counters, and picked it up with a smile.
That led to one of my first observations about Finland: that the Finns are a very honest bunch. During my visit, I would slowly go on to discover that honesty is highly valued in society here and is the bedrock of all interaction: people are assumed to be honest all the time, and trust is implicit unless proven otherwise.
“Being honest is a characteristic of Finnish culture – at least if we compare to other cultures,” said Johannes Kananen, a lecturer at the Swedish School of Science at the University of Helsinki. “In English there is a saying that the truth is so valuable, it should be used sparingly. But in Finland, people speak the truth all the time.”
My hat situation was by no means unique, as in Finland lost possessions seem to always make their way back to the owner. “It’s a very quirky habit around here, leaving lost mittens on trees,” said Natalie Gaudet, who works at Aalto University, explaining that this makes them easy to spot from a distance. “Kids are always losing mittens, and people tend to hang these up on a nearby tree so that the loser may find them on their way back.” In a society where honesty is implied, it’s understood that only the owner will claim the lost article.
A few years ago, Reader’s Digest did a “Lost Wallet Test”, where their reporters “lost” 192 wallets in cities across the world. Each wallet had $50 with contact information, family photos and business cards. Eleven out of every 12 wallets dropped in the Finnish capital were returned to their owners, making Helsinki the most “honest” city of those tested.
But what makes Finland such an honest country?
The state of Finland is not a very old construction; for centuries, what is now Finland was under the Swedish kingdom. While Swedish was the language of the upper class, Finnish came to be associated with the lower classes, the peasantry and the clergy. It was only in 1809 that Finland got autonomous status from Alexander I of Russia in the Finnish War and became the Grand Duchy of Finland, the modern predecessor to what is now Finland. This was when a strong Finnish identity began to be built, and Finnish language began to flourish.
Being honest is a characteristic of Finnish culture – at least if we compare to other cultures
Says Urpu Strellman, a literary agent from Helsinki, “An image was created, a stereotype of the Finns as stern, modest, hard-working, God-obeying people who get through difficult times, taking upon them whatever [fate] throws their way. These are features that relate to honesty very closely.”
The vastly rural landscape, combined with the dark Arctic winters, necessitated an adoption of these attitudes if Finland were to build itself up. The Finnish word “sisu” describes this concept of grit, resilience and hardiness that was built into the national identity and cultural characteristics.
Additionally, once Finland broke away from the Swedish kingdom, it was able to establish an Evangelical Lutheran Church and a Protestant ethic. In the book On the Legacy of Lutheranism in Finland, Klaus Helkama and Anneli Portman examine the Protestant roots of the Finnish value of honesty, which they argue are brought about by Protestant missionary activities that focused on mass education and mass printing, which in turn brought about self-reflection and led to activation of honesty. The Lutheran church in Finland is one of the largest in the world.
Those qualities are now deeply rooted in Finnish culture, Kananen said. “Truthfulness and honesty are greatly valued and respected.”
He cites the example of the scandal that hit Finnish skiers when Finland hosted the FIS Nordic Ski Championship in 2001. Six top Finnish athletes got caught doping and were disqualified. The scandal was covered in the national press as a matter of public shame, and there was a sense of collective embarrassment in the country.
“For the Finns, the worst thing about the doping scandal was not, however, the scandal itself,” reports an article published in The International Journal of the History of Sport. “The worst thing was that, along with the facade of honesty in sports in general, the myth of the honest, hardworking Finn came crashing down.”
“The whole thing was about national pride,” Kananen said. “As a contrast, in Norway when one of their women skiers got caught for doping, the whole country defended her and wanted her punishment to be as mild as possible.”
Truthfulness and honesty are greatly valued and respected
Indeed, Finns derive a great deal of pride from the high level of social trust present in the society, which in turn is an indication of the perception that people are believed to be acting honestly. “In Finland the state is a friend, not an enemy,” Kananen said. “The state is perceived as acting for the collective good – so public officials act in everybody’s shared interest. There is a great deal of trust – towards fellow citizens and public office holders, including the police. Finnish people are also happy taxpayers. They know the tax money is used for the common good and they know no-one will cheat when collecting the taxes.”
Often, though, it comes down to simple matters of size. Gokul Srinivasan, a robotics engineer and entrepreneur living in Helsinki, explained that in a small community if someone is caught lying once, they won’t be considered trustworthy again. Though Finland is nearly three times bigger than England, it has just one-tenth its population – with most of the country’s 5.5 million residents concentrated in the urban centres in the south. As a result, there is a good chance people in a specific field already know of each other.
“If a Finn considers you untrustworthy, you should consider that bridge burned, and it would lead to other bridges being burned as well,” Srinivasan said. “They are not in the habit of talking behind your back, but if someone were to ask for a reference, it will be a problem.”
These seem very heavy ideas for a country that was recently voted the “Happiest Country in the World” for the third year in a row, I thought. When I arrived in Finland, I was eager to see how this level of “happiness” would manifest itself. Happiness is, after all, connected to honesty: in a report published by the American Psychological Association, a study established connections between improvement in mental and physical health and telling the truth.
Honesty aside, the nation’s alleged happiness certainly wasn’t obvious. To my eyes, Finns were helpful but not interfering, warm yet stoic, and clear but not extremely expressive. What was apparent, though, was their direct communication style, something Strellman attributes to their core values of honesty and straightforwardness.
“We are bad in small talk – always better to be silent than talk about something with no point,” she said. “There is a strong idea that you have to speak things as they are, not making empty promises, and not trying to polish up things. Finns appreciate bluntness over eloquence.”
If a Finn considers you untrustworthy, you should consider that bridge burned
Finns take the words they say seriously, so every word actually means what it says. In a study by ethnographer Donal Carbaugh, he explains how superlative statements sound presumptuous to Finnish people. The one rule of Finnish communication, he writes, is to be invested in what you say.
Kananen agrees: “Finns tend to take expressions quite literally. So, if you say you had the best burger ever, that could lead to a conversation where you talk about all the burgers you have ever had and the exact criteria for judging which one was the best. Unless you can prove it was objectively the best burger ever, you are a bit suspicious, and, yes, presumptuous for sure.”
Of course, there are pitfalls to this, too. “The flipside of this culture is a tendency to allow only one ‘truth’ to exist at a time about many things, the economy, health, technology,” he said.
“This is the truth we can read from newspapers and, what the experts tell us. We are not very good at tolerating diversity of opinion as there is a deep-seated belief that there is only one truth.”
Mostly though, honesty does turn out to be the best policy, as Finns might tell you – although it takes a bit of time to get used to it. Later that week, a Finnish friend and I headed to Turku, a city in the south of Finland, where we roamed around the centre, looking for good beer. We went to different bars, leaving our coats on hangers by each entrance. As we drank and chatted, I couldn’t help but cast furtive glances at my jacket. There were no security locks, and no-one to watch them.
“Don’t worry,” my friend reminded me, for what might have been the 100th time. “No one will take it.”
I was finally starting to believe that.