The Bad American Habits I Kicked in Finland

From to-go mugs to small talk


“Well, you’re just special. You’re American,” remarked my colleague, smirking from across the coffee table. My other Finnish coworkers, from the school in Helsinki where I teach, nodded in agreement. They had just finished critiquing one of my habits, and they could see that I was on the defensive.

I threw my hands up and snapped, “You’re accusing me of being too friendly? Is that really such a bad thing?”

“Well, when I greet a colleague, I keep track,” she retorted, “so I don’t greet them again during the day!” Another chimed in, “That’s the same for me, too!”

Unbelievable, I thought. According to them, I’m too generous with my hellos.

When I told them I would do my best to greet them just once every day, they told me not to change my ways. They said they understood me. But the thing is, now that I’ve viewed myself from their perspective, I’m not sure I want to remain the same. Change isn’t a bad thing. And since moving to Finland two years ago, I’ve kicked a few bad American habits.

1. I don’t fear awkward silences.

I have yet to meet an American who doesn’t dread the awkward silence. A lull in any conversation is to be avoided at all costs—even if it means talking about the latest viral cat video or celebrity breakup.

The Finns I’ve met, on the other hand, embrace the awkward silence. They understand that it’s a part of the natural rhythm of human interaction. Sure, Finns know how to have conversations, but they’re not driven by a compulsion to fill time and space with needless chatter.

On a recent school day, as I dug into a lunch of fish sticks and steamed potatoes at the teachers’ table in the cafeteria, I was joined by a Finnish colleague. We exchanged hellos (since, you know, we hadn’t yet greeted each other that day), and then ate our meals in complete silence. We had been teaching all morning, and those fleeting moments of quiet were like a rest for our souls. After 10 minutes, I glanced up at the clock and, seeing that my next lesson was about to begin, broke the calm by saying goodbye. Even though we had just given each other “the silent treatment,” no harm was done. Quite the opposite, actually. I pushed in my chair feeling refreshed.

On the morning commute to my toddler’s daycare, the subway is often so packed that we can’t find a spot to sit. And yet it’s remarkably quiet. On the rare occasions when someone speaks—whether to bid farewell to a friend or make a quick phone call—my son Misaiel asks me, “Why they talkin’, Dada?” He is just two years old, but he already understands the culture of comfortable silence here.

2. I don’t say things I don’t mean.

Before we moved to Finland, my Finnish wife Johanna and I would visit Helsinki for two to three weeks at a time. I enjoyed these trips, but they were always jam-packed with get-togethers with friends and family. As a result, we could only realistically see a given friend or relative once while visiting Finland.

Even though I understood our time crunch, I couldn’t keep myself from saying “I would love to meet up again” at the end of each visit.

The Americans I know are in the habit of saying things like “Come on over anytime!” or “Keep in touch!” when we know it will be difficult to follow through on such sentiments. But to refrain from using these warm words would almost seem impolite. So, on one visit to Finland, I wielded this strategy—and it backfired, leading to the following exchange with my wife:

“Tim, I just spoke with my mom. Her friend is still waiting to hear back from us. Did you really say that you wanted to meet up again? You know we don’t have the time.”

“I never said I wanted to meet up,” I explained. “I just said ‘I’d love to meet up again.’ It’s like an expression.”

Johanna was not satisfied with that. “Tim,” she said, “you can’t speak like that here. In Finland, people take you at your word.”

Since that day, I’ve endeavored to say only what I mean.

3. I don’t leave food on my plate.

After returning to school from Christmas break this year, I found an official announcement on the whiteboard of my teachers’ lounge. Its message was straightforward: “No bio waste.”

In January, my school launched an initiative to combat leftover food, dubbed the “Eat What You Take” campaign. The methodology: remove the school’s compost bin. Now, when a student (or teacher) clears his tray and has food on his plate, there’s nowhere to ditch it. In the cafeteria, the only available receptacle for the 450 people in my school is a small container the size of a beach bucket, but it’s not for food. It’s only for dirty napkins.

Under this new policy, students who have food remaining on their plates have two options: take a seat and polish off the leftovers, or take a bold step into the kitchen and issue an apology to one of the lunch ladies.

I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this in the United States. But I have heard of American kids wasting a lot of school food. To take one example: In a study of Colorado elementary- and middle-school students conducted in 2010, those observed in elementary school, in the authors’ words, “wasted more than a third of grain, fruit and vegetable menu items.”

As for me, I learned my lesson last year when my sixth-graders caught me throwing away nearly half a plate of food. I had severely miscalculated, taking too much food without having enough time to stomach it all. Walking back to our classroom, I knew I’d need to make a slight change to my lesson plan. I’d start with a public apology.

4. I don’t take coffee to go.

Americans have a reputation for doing things on the go: breakfast in the car, lunch at a desk while catching up on email and, of course, coffee on the run. “America runs on Dunkin’,” right?

In Finland, my experience is that people are more likely to slow down when they drink coffee. They sit. They sip leisurely. I often catch them staring into space. It’s no surprise then that Finns consume nearly twice as much coffee as Americans.

And now I’ve become one of those coffee-drinking space cadets. But recently, I had an American relapse. I needed to rush out of the apartment, and I didn’t have time to sit down for a cup of coffee.

Frantically, I rummaged through the shelf that held our cups. Eventually, I found one silver to-go mug, but the cover was warped. And when I poured the coffee in, the bottom of the mug started to hiss and form tiny bubbles.

I shouted gruffly to my wife, “Why don’t we have one decent thermos in this house?”

Johanna snapped back, “Because we live in Europe. And Europeans don’t take coffee to go!”

5. I don’t feel uncomfortable in my own skin.

In the land of 3.3 million saunas, it is inevitable that you will eventually find yourself naked with people you don’t know—and not care in the slightest.

I didn’t realize that I had reached this level of Finnishness until this fall. A close friend from New York was visiting, and I insisted that on his last night in Finland he join me for a trip to one of the city’s public saunas. I was convinced that he would fall in love with this Finnish pastime, but I was wrong. Very wrong.

I explained that Finns go naked into saunas, but there are separate ones for men and women. The activity of taking a sauna is not, in any way, sexual. When we were in the changing room, I smiled and remarked to my friend, “This is where we leave the towels, man.” He was not amused. Clutching his towel around his waist, he growled, “No way.”

Unfazed, I hung up my own towel and strolled into the sauna Finnish-style. I found a spot on the top platform along with another naked man. A few moments later, my American buddy timidly opened the door and located a spot on the lowest bench, still gripping his towel as if his life (or manhood) depended on it.

He lasted about three minutes before declaring “enough” to me and the other naked strangers in the dimly lit room. I couldn’t help but laugh. I stayed seated—in silence, of course.