Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Finnish Love

There is an old saying here that only on two occasions will a Finnish husband and wife actually say aloud the words “Minä rakastan sinua”. (“I love you”). One is on their wedding day. The other is on their deathbed.  

Okay, it’s a joke. I think. It does illustrate, though, how Finns are not widely considered to be the most expressive people in the world, even when it comes to matters of the heart. It’s not that Finns aren’t romantic, in their own way. It’s more that they don’t make a big deal about it. Or a public spectacle. This isn’t Paris, after all.

It's not as if here, like anywhere else, love isn't the most consuming human emotion there is. The airwaves (or, more likely nowadays, the broadband streams) are full of a never-ending string of romantic pop songs. A current Finnish favorite is titled “Kolme pientä sanaa” (“Three Little Words”). No prize for guessing what those three little words are. No, it’s not “Missä on olutta?” (“Where’s the beer?”). 

Another well-worn Finnish joke marries romance with a certain politician’s awkwardness with the English language. Supposedly, Ahti Karjalainen, foreign minister back in the 60s and 70s, became smitten, so the joke goes, with an English girl he met in London. On a romantic evening out, he was leading her gracefully around the dance floor when he mustered up the courage to glaze into her eyes and tell her in his uncomfortable English, “I love you.”

Without hesitation, the girl softly whispered, “I love you, too.”

Ahti, not to be outdone, excitedly blurted out, “I love you three!”

Maybe it’s folk humor like that that makes Finns keep their more amorous feelings to themselves.

Kidding aside, Finns really do do some things differently. That was impressed upon me a few years ago when I had a minor cross-cultural insight at the big transnational company where I worked. For years, I had been the only American in a team of eight or so colleagues, mostly Finnish. My “sole Yank” status changed, however, when we got a new boss, a fellow American, and I was reminded how free Americans can be with the L-word.

Rooted all day in our tight cluster of cubicles tucked away in one corner of the office, we couldn’t help overhearing each other’s various phone conversations, including personal calls with husbands, wives, and kids.

What I noticed very quickly after our new American boss arrived was how he ended his brief phone calls with family members in a way that no one else in our team ever did. He always signed off with a “Love you”. Every single time, no matter how mundane the call.

I’d forgotten how very typical this is in the States, and it made me realize how assimilated to Finnish customs I’ve apparently become, in one small way at least. Or maybe I’m by nature just a hopeless unromantic. In any case, I have probably never finished a call to my wife with a “Love you”. Not even once.

It’s not that I don’t love my wife, but it’s not something she would expect me to remind her of after discussing which one of us was picking up the kids from daycare or whether we still had milk at home. It’s not how they do it here.

In fact, I’m sure that if I ever did end one of our phone calls with the words “I love you”, my very Finnish wife would think something was very wrong indeed. 


  1. Interesting. It's no wonder nations fight wars and kill one another. We're all so alien when we compare ourselves even to people next door.

    I can't recall a phone call with my wife that I didn't end with an "I love you".

    1. It's true that there are so many differences, some small, some big, between countries, even quite similar countries. Finland is often considered (by some) to be the most "American" country in Europe. But, of course, it's all relative.

  2. Yes, "I love you" is not something you just throw around in Finnish. The word has some serious weight and it's assumed that your feelings match that in depth and durability when you say it. We don't love cars, cell phones, movies, songs or ice cream. We may love pets (but don't make a fuss about it) and usually love our family and significant others (and don't much fuss about that either). That's pretty much it.

    (The more common three little words: vittu saatana perkele.)

    1. Very good point about those three other little words. Much more common!

    2. I would imagine the other three little words are more common after a phonecall. Not necessarily from the wife.