Friday, 13 March 2009

Mail culture

A lot of communications are done by e-mail, nowadays, and in Finland even more than in my home country. I expected that. I was also told that people here do not write as formally and tend not to include as many politeness formula as we do in French. But I still had to face a small culture chock in the field of mail writing.

The first problem when you write a mail to some Finnish person, when you know his/her name but not the person itself, is located in the very first line: "Dear M./Ms. ...". This choice between the male or female greetings is a very hard one. Finnish first names often do not indicate the sex of their owner for those who are not Finnish. A little quiz for you: would you say these first names belong to men or to women ? 1) Eemeli, 2) Lempi, 3) Tapani, 4) Kanerva, 5) Jutta, 6) Juha, 7) Jussi, 8) Aino, 9) Aimo, 10) Onni. The answers are here-under... and let me know how many you got right !

When I first wrote to the post-graduate studies coordinator at the university and received an answer in which she called me by my first name, I was a bit surprised. But then I met her and assumed it was an extension of her generally friendly behaviour. But it happened again: here people are reluctant to use your family name, they'll tend to use your first name as soon as they can. This might be because, in Finnish, calling someone Mr or Ms Something is considered as usually over-polite. They also use the polite form of verbs less and less often; while it is still present in some of my Finnish-studies book, my teachers and friends all say you would use it only if you were adressing a superior in the army, or in the civil world, someone like the president. But if, thanks to English, I can get used to adressing everyone with an unformal "you", I can't help feeling weird when calling someone I haven't even met by the first name...

But usually, it makes me only smile. Last week for instance, I had to send some documents to a tax inspector. This person is in charge of deciding if I would have to pay a tax on the car I am bringing to Finland, and this tax can amount to several thousands euros. She is around 50, has some power, I cannot choose to deal with someone else but her, and as a public agent she has to behave very very badly before she would be sacked. That is to tell how mean she could be if she meant to.

So I sent the documents one evening, asking kindly - but rather formally - to acknowledge reception. The next morning, I got an e-mail from her:
1) that was sent before 8am, a time when in my home country these public agents haven't even switched their computers on;
2) that started with "dear Nathalie"...
3) that was together very nicely written
4) and that included a very cute little smiley :)

And only two days later, I received by post the decision of the customs, which means she processed my case and sent the mail on the very same day. That's what I call efficiency wrapped in kindness, I love that !

Answers (in white color, highlight the next ligns to see them):
1) male, 2) female, 3) male, 4) female, 5) female, 6) male, 7) male, 8) female, 9) male, 10) male. See there if you don't believe me !

1 comment:

  1. Oops, I got 3 wrong! I thought I knew the finnish names...

    About the finnish way of mailing, I was very surprised too the first time I sent job applications and got as an answer Hi Joachim, ...

    I'm still amazed nowadays of this simple way of communicationg, with my customers, my boss, the finnish officials with who a simple Hi, ... is enough to start a mail. No manners, no problems :)

    Let's remember that already at home and school, finns are used not to be confronted to any hierarchy! Everybody is at the very same level, and I like that!