Claudia and the dog Elvi on a boat
Adapting,  Culture,  Living Abroad in Finland

Making Friends as a Foreigner in Finland

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Dear Hanna,

I know, this is a blog about living abroad and thriving in Spain, right? Well, four years ago I decided that I wasn’t going to live in Spain any more and chose to pick up my life once again and more to Finland. Now, over three and a half years later, I am still here and enjoying my life in a way I never really expected to. I haven’t talked about life in Finland much, but I want to change that because I feel like, while different from living in Spain, as my abroad story continues, I can bring value in other ways to you.

Earlier this month, Dani shared in this post about how it has been difficult for her to make friends in a new moment of her life. She calls it “friend dating” and it isn’t easy! In the post, she gets really specific about how vulnerable it makes her feel to put herself on the line, how important it is for her to be meeting the types of people who fit into her life now, and even shares the kinds of messages she has been sending.

Today, I want to share with you my same take on the topic, with a twist—making friends in Finland. It is going to be a slightly different format than our posts normally take because I also want to share about some cultural stereotypes and how they reflect reality, as I see it. If you are interested in learning more about life in Finland or have your own experience in different places, let us know in the comments!

However, before diving in, I want to take a step back and say that I personally think it is hard to make good friends anywhere and even harder to make local friends. In my experience, it doesn’t matter where you are or how friendly the people are; foreigners tend to feel that they don’t have as many local friends as they would like. In my opinion, this is logical⁠—local people don’t have to work as hard for friends because, most of the time, they have their own social groups already set up. The opposite is true for foreigners who are looking to find groups and make connections. This difference in expectations can feel very frustrating and, in my experience, this is equally true for Finland as it is for Spain and the other places I have lived.


Some Finnish stereotypes

I have to admit that when I moved to Finland, I was a bit nervous about what I would find here. You see, Spain had conditioned me to think that as you go more north you go, the colder people get—and that only refers to Spain! In addition, I have found that Finnish people may even perpetuate this stereotype about themselves as being cold or that it is hard to make friends with them by even talking about Finns in general in that way.

Now, the question is: are Finnish people cold? I personally don’t think so and have many incredible experiences meeting Finns and making Finnish friends. However, the circumstances that you will connect with Finns though may be different than what you are expecting based on other experiences. In my personal opinion, this is for two main reasons: Finns tend to be more introverted than other cultures I have spent time with and the weather greatly impacts social relationships.

This is because, unlike Spain, where life happens in the street, life in Finland tends to be very intimate and happens at home. That is not to say that Finnish people don’t like to go out to get a coffee or drink, or that they don’t like to go out to eat, but that people here spend a lot of time at home and invest a lot in their home lives. If you are lucky enough to be invited over, you will often find spaces that have been curated for living as the person wants to live. However, because the development of these friendships will happen in the close intimacy of someone’s home, you can only expect an invitation once the other person feels quite comfortable with you.

All that said, in my personal experience, I haven’t found it more difficult to make close friends in Finland than in other places I have lived, even if the process has been a bit different than in the past. So, let’s dive into it!


My first actions moving to Finland

I have to be totally honest with you and say that when I first moved to Finland I did absolutely nothing to meet people and make friends. I felt tired and a bit alone in this new country and I needed around a month to even find the desire to go out and meet people. I was also frequently in contact with people back home and had daily interactions at work, so I didn’t feel an overwhelming need to be social. However, when I decided I was ready to make friends, there are a couple of things I feel really contributed to finding my community.

1.) Joined teams: When I was first trying to meet people and find my place in the Finland, sports was one of the first places I looked. You might be thinking I’ve only been playing “normal” sports like football (soccer) or volleyball, but living in Finland, I’ve taken things one step further and started by joining almost anything I was invited to. That means that I’ve tried Gaelic football, AFL, and touch rugby in the last three and a half years. I’ve also played some sports more known to me such as football (soccer) and futsal.

Joining teams is a great way to meet people who are already involved in an activity. Depending on the group, you will find that people are more focused on only playing the sport, with little socializing outside, or groups who are really social and hang out together too. One of my favorite sports for casual socializing is AFL because we train right next to a local bar and often go for a beer after training. On the other hand, my ladies 7-aside football team is also great because there is very little social commitment required if I am tired as we mostly focus on the games.

And, even if you’ve never played sports before, playing sports like Gaelic football in a country other than Ireland (where it is from and where it is very competitive) gives you an opportunity to start from zero without anyone being disappointed in you. As someone who enjoys team activities but isn’t a natural when it comes to sports, this has given me the freedom to explore within the sports without stressing that I am not good enough (too often at least). I have also found that these kinds of team sports can give you the best kinds of communities if you are looking for them because the more experienced players and coaches really take the newbies under their wings.

2.) Spent time in bars: These days I rarely spend as much time in bars as I used to but my first year here I spent a couple nights a week in a bar that became my “local” place. I made friends with the other people who frequented the place and, most importantly, one of the bartenders. I say most importantly because while most of the people I interacted with were fun to get to know, that bartender has become one of my closest friends and introduced me to another one of my closest friends.

Now, I don’t necessarily believe that telling people to hang out in bars and get drunk is a good idea, but I do think that a bar is another place where you can meet people. In Finland, like most places, I would say that you have to expect that at every bar there will be people who are mostly focused on getting drunk. There will also be people who are looking to get to know others and knowing the type of friends you want to make will help you decide if you are looking to spend more time with the party people or the other regulars or bartenders.

In addition, often in life, the people you meet (like the bartender) are connectors to other people you want around you. Sometimes when we least expect it the friend or brother or coworker of someone we know can really make an impact on our social life. Which brings me to the third thing I’d say I do when I am trying to make friends.

3.) Be open to different opportunities and experiences: And say yes when people ask you to do “weird” things. I’m not saying go way outside your comfort zone but definitely spend time exploring the opportunities around you and connect to people in different ways. Look for people who are interested in the same things you are and see where you connect. For example, I am big on volunteering (read more about what I think about volunteering in Spain) when I can and have made a couple of longer volunteering commitments while here in Helsinki. I cannot say I have made any super close friends there, but it was a good experience and I easily could have!

In addition, just by being open, I believe you will attract more opportunities. For example, I joined Gaelic football because a coworker asked me to. Playing this new-to-me sport not only introduced me to several social groups of people, it also introduced me to other sports that are also less popular in Finland but have similar social circles.

If you are like me, all this makes a big difference because I normally only meet one person at a time, really focusing on them, but different sorts of activities allow you to test the waters with many people at once and the more people you meet, the more likely you are able to connect to someone. At the end of the day, it is my opinion getting to know people, even if they are just random connections at first, is the best way to find people who fit with you. If you are not meeting enough people, you might find you don’t meet anyone who you really click with either (although, “enough” is a bit of a tricky word because what it means to each individual will vary).

My closest friends in Finland

Coming to the end of this post, I would like to share with you some of the people who have become my closest friends in Finland. I feel like I have a pretty good group here in Finland, a mixture between Finns and foreigners, and definitely feel grateful that I have been able to spend time making friends.

Coworkers: At my current job there are no people who have spilled over from my professional into my personal life yet, but I made some amazing friends at my previous job, some who I am still in contact with. These people were some of the first contacts I had in Helsinki and helped me find the groups that filled up my cup. That is not to say that they have led to all the friendships I hold dear but I would definitely say there have been connection points to most of them.

How did my previous coworkers support me in finding the social groups I was looking for? Well, they invited me to do different activities and I said yes. From playing Gaelic football to watching sports to having a drink at the local bar, my work friends connected me in so many ways to the groups that brought me value. I know that everyone doesn’t have the best work community but, for me, it was something that really worked out well.

The bartender (and her friend): Two of my closest Finnish friends, like I alluded to previously, are the woman who used to work at my “local” bar and one of her friends. I still remember the first time I hung out with them⁠—I was at the bar with a friend from work and they asked if I wanted to go for dumplings with them. I whispered to my friend that I would really like to but did he think it was a real invitation. He said he couldn’t imagine them inviting me if it wasn’t, so I went.

The rest, you might say, was history. We hang out separately and together and I am very grateful to have found them both. We’ve been on some adventures together (think road trips, moving each other, and week-long bike trips) and also really enjoy cooking, sitting, and drinking tea together. Even as I write this, we are planning a meet up soon as one of them will be heading off to Spain in the coming weeks. I cannot wait to visit her in December, when I go to see my family, in a different context as well.

The people from football(s): I have met many amazing people at the different footballs I have played in Helsinki and I am very grateful for that. Some of them have just been acquaintances, some have become friends, and the closest one has become my permanent roommate. I didn’t start playing any of these sports with the intention of making certain types of friends or looking for a partner and every person has been a bit of a gift.

It doesn’t mean that you like everyone that crosses your path, of course, but by meeting more people, I have had the chance to connect with the ones that fit who I am looking for. You can never know what will come out of these relationships, so that is why being open is so important in my mind. Now, I cannot imagine my life without the friends I have made through the sports community, not to mention my partner and his family.


On that note, I want to leave you with two things I think are so important to keep in mind: understand that different cultures are different and be open to being vulnerable. Firstly, we have talked about it multiple times (for example, this post on cultural competencies) but I think it is so important to highlight the idea that different cultures are going to be totally unique experiences for you. In my opinion you cannot go to one place and expect it to be like another place you have already been. Even within the same country you can find regional differences that can throw you off if you go in expecting the same thing.

These expectations put us in a place where we want things to be the same as what we are used to (it is more comfortable, I know) and can often lead to our disappointment. However, it is not the fault of those around us if they don’t match our expectations and we have to be open that different is not inherently good or bad, only different.

Secondly, I would encourage you to be vulnerable when going into new relationships and making new friends. I dive into it a bit more in this post and I think it is such an important thing to remember. Now, this doesn’t mean you should be so super vulnerable that people are not comfortable to be around you but more that you create a space where the other person feels safe. This may take some practice as we all like to appear strong to the outside world, however, putting yourself out there first means the other person doesn’t have to. And, trust me, many times, they will appreciate that!

So, there you have it, my thoughts on making friends in Finland. Please let us know what you think and if you are interested to see more posts like this about life abroad in Finland.


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