The Case of Finland
When coffee drinking was spreading and becoming commonplace in the early 20th century, Fin-land was still an agrarian society where the majority of the population lived in the countryside. The coffee culture of those rural villages contained a lot of tacit, unspoken messages. Joint coffee breaks played an important ritual role both in everyday life, and on formal occasions and festivities. They signalized cohesion, reinforced group spirit, demonstrated hospitality and maintained social hierarchy. (Lindstén 2017.)
In the historical past, the etiquette of a major coffee party – say, on the occasion of a big birthday, wedding or funeral – reflected the rank order among the social layers of a given rural community. The code of conduct determined who was served first and who could take the first slice of cake. The vicar, the doctor, the apothecary and the teacher were considered persons of the highest standing, followed by the wealthiest farmers with large estates (VIPs). In West Finland, property was more crucial for the social hierarchy than in East Finland where age was emphasized more. After the VIPs had received their cups of coffee, it was less definite who came next at the end of the waiting queue. (Lindstén 2017.)
One’s social standing could be detected by observing one’s fashion of drinking coffee. Lower-class women used to drink their coffee from a small plate rather than from a cup. They mixed some cream with their cup of coffee and put a sugar cube into their mouth. They then poured the hot coffee from their cup onto its dish, blew it slightly to cool it down, and slurped the coffee from the plate. Some old people put salt into their coffee, instead of sugar, though the latter was not a common habit. Both of these customs have vanished.
Ceremonial hesitation and procrastination in approaching the coffee table are to some extent still surviving elements in the Finnish coffee culture. The hostess must encourage the guests several times to eat and drink before anyone dares to make the first move. On one hand, it would be inappropriate to rush to the table before persons who are older or who have a higher social status. On the other hand, a combination of shyness, modesty, prudery and preciosity make people belittle and downplay themselves. For the same reason, one should not eat too much. Hence, the hostess is once again forced to persuade the guests to take the second round of coffee and bun/cake/biscuits/sandwiches. The Finnish language knows a specific term for this ceremonial hesitation, namely ‘kursailu’. Many modern people regard it as annoying.
In addition to class differences, gender roles had an impact on coffee culture in the past (Lindstén 2017). When men were celebrating a coffee party, they added liquor to their coffee. Their coffee had to be strong and black in terms of the beans, too. Women’s coffee table gatherings were connected with gossiping, which sometimes threw the shadow of chauvinist contempt on them. Comparing an event with a women’s charitable sewing circle is even today a depreciatory, pejorative expression.
Although women prepared the coffee, men controlled the financial means to purchase it, as they defined the wealth of a household. How frequently coffee was drunk, how strong it was and what kinds of pastries were served with the coffee indicated the level of household economics. Thin coffee and scarce catering – e.g. mere rusk – could be associated with stinginess, too. Moreover, the quality of coffee revealed the domestic skills of a housewife: Did her coffee and bun taste good? Were the cups clean? Did her kitchen create am impression that she is taking proper care of her home? (Lindstén 2017.)
Although serving coffee has been an automatic way of showing hospitality in Finland, regional differences in customs have nevertheless played a certain role. In South Finland, a hospitable, polite hostess hurried quickly to make a cuppa in order to signal the guest is welcome. The point was to grasp the kettle immediately. In Lapland, instead, the Sami people acted in the opposite manner. First, chatting for a while until the guest was saying that he/she should leave. Then the hostess proposed instead to ‘let’s drink coffee’ and in this way, she prevented the guest from leaving.
The collision of these divergent regional traditions led to a misunderstanding when a young lady from South Finland married a Lappish man in the 1950’s and moved to Lapland. She heard how local villagers were reproaching her behind her back, accusing her of being arrogant and non-hospitable. The young wife could not comprehend why she was judged so unfairly although she tried her best. She always rushed to put a kettle on as soon as a guest arrived. The Sami people misinterpreted her behavior, thinking that she tried to get rid of the guests as fast as possible.
Nowadays, Finns are the people with the highest per capita consumption of coffee in the world, at 12 kilos per person per year. The most popular coffees in Finland are filtered light roasts. How-ever, trendy youngsters in cities have also found darker roasts, perhaps mixed with special flavors. Accordingly, fashionable cafes and coffee shops have given rise to a mushrooming of the modern coffee scene in Helsinki.
At the same time, traditional coffee parties in their purest form, as described above, belong to the customs of the elderly generation. When youngish city people invite guests to their home, they prefer to serve wine/beer and snacks, or a meal. Yet, it is likely that one drinks coffee after dinner.
Coffee dominates over tea both in private and business (e.g. in meetings). There is a large pot of coffee and a small pot of hot water for tea bags, if any. Alternatively, a host may ask the guests specifically if there are any tea drinkers, while coffee drinking is the default. As Finns hate to make a nuisance of themselves and try to avoid causing any work for others, tea drinkers are inclined to keep silent so that the host will not face a double trouble.
In everyday use, robust mugs have replaced the old-fashioned coffee sets with fragile cups and small plates. Hence, coffee culture is intertwined with Finnish design. Each decade had its typical outlook on a coffee table, as well.
Lindstén, Helena (2017). ”Olkaa hyvä ja ottakaa. Pankaa sekaan ja kastakaa”. Kahvinjuonti suomalaisten maaseutukotien arjessa ja juhlassa 1920-luvulta 1960-luvun lopulle. Annales Universitatis Turkuensis C 244. Turku: University of Turku. ISBN: 9789512969319