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I wrote this to list some cultural EA considerations from a Finnish/Nordic perspective. I guess some other people might find it useful too. And some others might feel that all of this is very obvious to them.

If you spot any mistakes or disagree on something please let me know in the comments!

US/UK cultural stuff

  • Many EA folks are located in the UK, especially London and Oxford
  • Even more EA folks are located in the US, especially in the Bay Area, which is an area in California and has places like San Francisco and Berkeley in it. This area is also known for having many IT companies (if you have heard of Silicon Valley this is the same place). This place is so common for EAs to live in that if you see posts like “is anyone up for going to the park” in an EA group they probably live there. (Kind of like people from Helsinki forget there are other places in Finland.)
  • And some US EA folks are in Boston which is on the other side of the country. Of course there are EAs also in other US places but these are some of the biggest ones.
  • It is more common to move to countries within the anglophone world (for example from Australia to the US) for work or study. People in EA might assume you’d be willing to do that (or that what is stopping you from doing that are external conditions and not for example “wanting to live in Finland”).
  • Many cities many EAs live in have very high living costs. Thus, even full-time working adults often do flat sharing. This is why some people have set up EA (or rationalist) group houses: they’d prefer to live with like-minded folks. Edit: People have pointed out in the comments that it is common to do flat sharing even if you could afford living alone, and that this might be more common for EAs than non-EAs.
  • Since the state is not that great at taking care of people in the US, many people feel a social expectation to give money to their struggling relatives or acquaintances, for example if they don’t have enough to pay for a medical operation. 
    • Because of this, US non-EA folks might think they are already being altruistic in their daily lives – they are, but it is not the impartial and cost-effective type.
    • In Finland it might be more common for non-EAs to feel like they should not be asked to donate, because helping all people should be outsourced to the state and helping should not be the responsibility of an individual. (I mostly agree with the sentiment but we don’t live in an ideal world, so help from individuals is still needed.)

Other geographical stuff

  • There are quite some EA/rationalist folks in Central Europe as well, in particular in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
  • Also, Prague has a lot of EA/rationalist folks and established locations that are used for rationalist workshops and EA coworking.
  • Many other Western places have EA groups, some of them bigger than others.
  • There are also EAs in non-Western places but many non-Western groups are still small. But not all, for example EA Philippines is quite active.
  • Out of Nordic countries, the probably most well-established EA activity happens in Norway, but all Nordic countries have active EA national organizations and are catching up.
  • In the EA context Estonia is sometimes counted as a Nordic country. It has more EA activity than other Baltics and participates in some Nordic collaboration.
  • If you are interested in the cross-cultural aspect of EA, you are in luck
    • A lot of EAs like meeting (or even housing) other EAs when traveling, so if you are going abroad anyway, a good option is to check if there is a local group where you could meet new interesting people.
    • You can also connect to other EAs across the world through online EA stuff such as EA Anywhere or the EA Gathertown Coworking Space (you don’t need to be working on anything directly EA related to spend time on the latter!)

Donations

  • In the US, it is quite common to donate large sums of money. This is because there are significant tax benefits in doing so, effectively meaning that in some cases you can somewhat choose to either pay taxes or to donate to an organization of your choice. Edit: It appears I had an exaggerated idea on the amount of taxes you can convert to donations, see discussion on comments.
  • Many other countries also have tax benefits for donations. (In Finland you can only get tax benefits only if you donate to one of a few selected education and art related beneficiaries, and only and only for specific types of tax – practically the average person never needs to worry about this.)
  • Anyway, most people in Finland still donate some money to charity. According to surveys, around 80% of Finns have donated within the last year and have 20% set up a regular monthly donation to some non-profit. 
  • Some religious (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) people around the world practice tithing, which often means giving 10% of your income to the local religious organization. Thus, the Giving What We Can pledge with its 10% of income to effective charity might sound familiar to people who know about tithing. In Finland tithing is maybe not that well-known as churches usually get their income from a church membership tax. While GWWC has not chosen this percentage for religious purposes, the already established similar practice is said to help people consider taking the GWWC pledge as well.

Careers

  • Many people living in Finland would strongly prefer to continue living in Finland (including me). This can sometimes pose constraints in applying for “EA jobs”.
    • Many EA organizations and other places recommended on the 80 000 hours job board only hire for location specific roles. None of these locations are in Finland. (Currently there are two registered EA organizations in Finland: EA Finland and Aalto EA.) Most EA jobs are located in the US or UK.
    • Some organizations allow remote work too (or are completely remote). 
      • Unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean you can live in Finland and work for these roles. For example, the organization might not want to adopt a policy that is compatible with the Finnish employment legislation. It could also be that they want all employees to be within a certain time zone range. 
      • So if you are applying for a remote role, remember to check that the organization knows where you are located so that you can make sure if they can even hire you.
    • Legally, working as a contractor or as a grantee is usually much less location specific.
      • If you need to calculate cost estimates for contracting or being a grantee yourself, remember to check what taxes and other side costs apply. This is very nation-specific.
  • For the specific case of Finns who want to have children and want to work in remote roles at EA organizations: the organization’s idea of “generous family leave” might not match your expectation of a (minimal) family leave, because Nordic countries have unusually strong state support for people taking care of their infants and then returning to work when the child is a little older. My recommendation here is to be open about your wishes for family leave during the hiring process, but I don’t know anyone in this situation who has actually gotten that far in an EA organization hiring process so this is somewhat hypothetical.

Education

  • In many countries, people start their university education at a younger age than Finland. (In many places the typical age of finishing upper secondary education is younger than in Finland and the university admission process might not give you chances to try out next year again until you get to the program of your choice. Gap years before starting university are not often encouraged / well-perceived like in Finland.)
  • Moreover, Finland is uncommonly flexible about the speed in which you need to complete your studies. In many other places, students are just expected to complete the program they attend in a given time, and delays or gap years might not be permitted. Studying at a slower speed in order to work aside your study might not be possible.
  • As a result, many people in EA might have obtained their university degree at an age that feels weirdly young to Finns, but recent graduates might not have that much working experience and might not have tried out different study programs to the extent that would be common in Finland.
    • Many other countries also put less emphasis on self-sufficiency and “adult skills” on students than Finland
  • In the US/UK, people care a lot about attending a good university. This might matter even more than your field of study. 
    • People might introduce themselves as “I am X from Y” – if you don’t know what Y is, it is probably a university US/UK folks consider well-known. (In Finland it would be more common for students to say “I’m X and I study Z” because there are not that many differences between universities.)
    • Unfortunately none of the Finnish universities are considered “good universities” in this sense: not particularly bad either, people just don’t know how to rate them. (It does not matter much that the University of Helsinki is well-placed in international rankings, because this is about the general reputation of the university.)
    • I actually have no idea what the real difficulty level of for example an “Oxford PhD” is compared to a "University of Helsinki PhD". Is it significantly more difficult to actually get the PhD done or is it just difficult to get in a PhD program? Do people from elite universities have way better skills or do they mostly just get a reputational advantage? I don’t know.
  • Finnish employers also place more value on hiring someone with a directly related degree. This means if you want to apply for jobs in the global EA space, you can place less value on having “the right education” to the position than you would normally in Finland.

Community building

  • So, Finnish students tend to be older and have more relevant work experience than a median EA student. In EA, a lot of community building work is done by students, especially if the target group is students. As a result, if you do community building, people might assume you are younger and have less experience than you actually have.
  • Even if you are not a student, people might assume you are a student based on the fact that you are doing community building work. (This is not that false given that many people working in EA Finland are in fact students or have a student status despite having no intention to actually graduate because they’ve been in working life for such a long time already. But EA Finland is still a national organization and it does not target students only.)

Language

  • Your level of English is fine! I promise.
  • If you don’t understand something you read on the EA forum and think it is a language issue, it might actually be about jargon or domain specific vocabulary; or the content just might require some context you don’t have. It is of course still annoying not to understand things, but in this case, native speakers are affected too.

Tone (especially hype)

  • Sometimes EA folks or materials can use “hypey” language that might seem off-putting to some Finns. 
    • In Finland, hype might be interpreted as a sign of incompetence, fluffiness or even dishonesty, so it can take some time to get used to the tone.
    • But on the other hand I feel like this happens way less in EA than in some other technology contexts, probably because EAs need to reserve words like “the best [solution/method/way]” to something that is actually the best, not just “good”
  • It can be especially intimidating to see some program advertised to “high-achieving” or “extraordinary” or “extremely talented” folks because in Finland this is not a typical way to advertise anything
    • Most Finns have no idea how to even find out if someone is “extraordinary” or “high-achieving”. Many other countries have things like university class ratings, so students can for example know if they are the 8. best student in their year. Finnish education system is not compatible with giving anyone this information, so many students estimate their performance is “average” even if it is unlikely for everyone to be average at the same time.
    • Even if people know they are “best of Finland” in something they might think it is not a very good achievement “because Finland is so small”. (If you think this about yourself, please stop: most likely you have still achieved something quite important.)
    • And even if someone actually does something clearly extraordinary, there is a cultural expectation to emphasize that it was not because they were special or anything. For example, when Olli from EA Turku finished his 5 year degree in Mathematics in 2 years and entered a PhD program as a 19 year old, they interviewed him for the newspaper but emphasized that he is actually a “balanced young man” who just likes math and enjoys hanging out with friends.[1]
  • People from some other cultural contexts actually like things with a hypey tone. While a Finn might think “this program is for extraordinary people, so not for me”, some others might be motivated to be able to join something that is for extraordinary folks because this means joining is worth their time, and maybe getting accepted can feel nice, “it is a proof of my extraordinariness”
  • But again on the other hand non-Finnish EAs are often also intimidated by this kind of language, and it is often repeated that imposter syndrome is common in EA. So if you are from Finland and an EA, you are very likely to underestimate how talented etc. you actually are.

Interacting with EA folks

  • Sometimes when talking to other EAs I feel like they perceive me as more shy and inexperienced than I actually am. I’m not sure if this is a cultural thing (it might also be that people assume I’m younger than I am) but it could also be because Finns are less assertive even if they are feeling confident. So maybe I come across as insecure/lost when I just don’t feel like saying anything (for example because I already know everything the other person is telling me and don’t need to ask questions).
  • I have the feeling people sometimes just disappear even if we already agreed to have a call or to meet up (but for example did not agree on the time yet). This of course happens occasionally in Finland too but I feel like it is more common in EA than what I am used to. I suspect this is a cultural thing (what I think of as “promise” the other person might have thought of as “suggestion”). Some Finns told me this could also be the result of some complex rationalist calculation that ultimately leads to having more meetups but I don’t think this is likely.
  • I think many Finns will enjoy the fact that EAs are more likely than average non-Finns to get straight to the point, skip small talk and communicate with high integrity. EAs like effective communication and this can make you feel at home.

Bonus: On “efektiivinen altruismi” as a term

  • For the history of the term “effective altruism”, see here
  • Some of the folks of original Effective Altruism Finland started using the most straight-forward translation in 2013 and it is now what the movement is called in Finland
  • There are downsides to this term, most notably that nobody ever understands it at the first go
    • “efektiivinen” is technical term that can refer to efficacy and impact, but also to something being approximated 
    • outside of these technical uses and in “efektiivinen altruismi”, "efektiivinen" is not really used in Finnish
    • people might not exactly remember what "altruismi" means either (for example I've heard people translate it as "self-sacrifice")
    • “EA” in Finnish commonly refers to “ensiapu” (“first aid”) which can sometimes lead to funny misunderstandings
  • There are also upsides to this term
    • since nobody understands it on the first go you’ll at least get their attention to explain what you are even talking about
    • it is easy to automatically detect if someone is talking/writing about EA because they would not use the words in any other context
  • Even if I consider the term very uncatchy and too technical, I haven’t been able to come up with a better translation either – especially nothing that would justify changing the terminology now. 
  1. ^

    One example of this cultural phenomenon is that I asked Olli if it is ok to post this example here, because I was worried he'd be uncomfortable with me talking about his achievements. He was ok with it, and said one of the reasons this was emphasized on the article was that the journalist had a model of his life being really weird, and he wanted to correct them by explaining that his life is pretty normal.

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:47 PM

Not the intended audience, but as a US person who lives in the Bay Area, I enjoyed reading this really detailed list of what's often unusual or confusing to people from a specific different cultural context  

I loved this Wikitravel article about American culture for this same reason.

This is also great, thank you!

  • In the US, it is quite common to donate large sums of money. This is because there are significant tax benefits in doing so, effectively meaning that in some cases you can somewhat choose to either pay taxes or to donate to an organization of your choice.


I've seen this misunderstanding before by non-Americans, which seems weird because most places have similar setups. In the US, charity is tax deductible, but not a tax credit - so at any income level, you will personally have more money not donating than donating. And given that typical maximum marginal tax levels between state and federal taxes are under 50%, it means you are losing $0.50 for every dollar you give away, which is far less than needing to pay he full amount, but not anything like "pick whether to give the dollar to the government or to a charity."

The near-exception is donation of significantly appreciated assets. I think you virtually always still lose money, but it can get close.

You can donate up to 30% of your annual income as appreciated assets valued at market price. If I have that option in a relatively high-tax state like CA, then the decision can be between me keeping $1 or the charity getting >$6.

Suppose I pay $1 for an asset, it goes up to $100, then I donate it. I'd avoid paying 20% (federal) + 12.3% (state) + 3.8% (obamacare) =  $36 in taxes on the $99 of capital gains. On top of that, I'd get to take a tax deduction of $100 which will save me about 37% (federal)+ 12.3% = $49 on my tax bill. So overall I'm saving $85 in taxes for every $100 donated.

(Not sure if those calculations are wrong or if I'm missing something.)

I think that checks out, though it depends on being in a high-tax state, when your marginal income tax is in the top bracket - 37% is for income above a half million dollars. You need enough income to actually get the large tax deduction in the year you make the donation - startup founders and inheritors of appreciated assets could often get a tax credit for more than their normal income, if they donate it all at once. For lower income people, it also takes a large donation to make it better to itemize than to take the standard deduction. And this only occurs for relatively wealthy folks with high incomes. (Which probably describes you at this point, so congrats!)

But overall, I'd still say it's not "quite common."

 

I really appreciated this post, so thank you for sharing your experience! I am from the Netherlands but also recognized some elements (e.g., my feelings about moving for work or caring about the status/ranking of a university).

Something else I have experienced in the Netherlands is that people are very suspicious of organizations handing out freebies, like EA local groups giving away free books to attract people. Maybe that's just the Dutch cheapskate mentality, but I have noticed people become skeptical of your approach when they feel you're not careful about how you spend your money. I think it's worth considering that this could put some people off and might actually be counterproductive.

Sometimes I also feel kind of uncomfortable about how people from the US can, in my experience, be very "jovial"/outgoing and "give out" hugs much more easily. Something else is that they tend to ask "how are you doing?" as a conversation starter all the time, but the answer is always "I'm good, how are you" and then the conversation turns to what they really want to talk about. Maybe it's a bit cynical, but if I feel like asking how someone is doing is made such a casual thing and there is not a lot of empathy involved, I become kind of disconcerted (especially if I am feeling kind of low that day but think it would be inappropriate to mention) and wish the other person never asked the question in the first place. I think people in the Netherlands tend to reserve these kinds of questions for when they are closer to someone and when they really have the time to actually listen to the answer, whatever it might be.

All in all, I hope that, as EA grows, people outside of the US/UK might find their own approach to EA and it might feel less like all the other "cool" things that blow over from the US/UK but are not really part of our own culture, and more like something that feels welcoming to everyone.

I share your feeling about free books! It is not super common for Finnish (student) organizations to give out free stuff unless it is for advertisement, so I would also be suspicious if somebody handed me over a free book and would probably not read it if I was not very interested in the contents in beforehand. As an alternative we've been selling books for a token sum, hoping it makes students value them more. We've also loaned books so that they can be read by many people.

I've heard Dutch people pride themselves about their straightforwardness, so I can definitely imagine it feels weird for to say you are doing well if you aren't. I also have the same feeling sometimes. In Finland I would try to give an answer with some content other than "good" as a conversation starter even if I would aim to sound positive. For example maybe tell about some good thing in my day so that we can talk about it more if with the person if we can't come up with some more relevant topic.

I also feel like it's really important for EA folks in different places to find ways to do EA from their perspective, not just copy from preexisting EA culture. Aside from being welcoming, this is also good for the variety of thoughts and approaches within EA.

The idea of selling books for a token sum is really interesting! I usually offer to loan books first indeed.

And I also definitely agree that EA people from different backgrounds can all add something. That's also why I'm so excited about all the local groups that have popped up everywhere recently :).

I have the feeling people sometimes just disappear even if we already agreed to have a call or to meet up (but for example did not agree on the time yet).

This is stereotypically seen as something people in California do, and is complained about by East Coasters. People will both agree to get coffee or lunch at some point and then never follow up. Maintaining the ambiguity is considered polite. Overrepresentation of Bay Area residents might be the explanation here.

On average, non-American EAs seem to bail on me without explanations or with minimal explanations more often than Californian EAs do (To be clear I don't count something as bailing unless we've arranged fairly detailed plans).

As a native of Southern California that has lived on the east coast (D.C. area) for the last 10 years, I can believe that we Californians are worse offenders of this; but I think a more accurate generalization might be that this is a behavior of American millennials. I've seen this a lot on the east coast and I think it's more of a generational thing i.e. the lack of follow-through on suggested plans.

 

I'd be interested if this an anglo-millenial thing or if you see it across millennials in the Global North. I've just always imagine that French and Dutch people, for example, do the same thing.

Might correlate with other sorts of prosocial behaviour (though there may also be specific norms about meetings). Below is a Science wallet return study, "Civic honesty around the globe". Could also look at surveys of social trust.

 

Interesting, I've never heard this before!

I also wanted to hop on this thread and add some datapoints, which is useful because I'm the lowest status person in the comments. Super low status!

As the OP said, and other people noted, non-EA culture in North America, and especially the West Coast is flaky. People often suggest making plans or following up, that don’t pan out. Making plans happens as a sort of verbal decoration in casual run-ins. However, not showing up is much rarer.

Note I think that this NA culture also includes people not responding to follow-up emails or messages, even if they seemed very interested before. One reason I’m pointing this out is that there is a flip side to this norm—it makes it more natural to follow up after not getting a reply, under some norms (say, wait a decent 4 weeks; make sure the follow-up doesn't mention any ignored emails, but instead suggest a promising update).

Again, super low status! Bottom tier!

Datapoints:

  • Someone I know has had a few EA meetings. For confirmed meetings, this person's experiences suggests EAs are unusually scrupulous and conscientious about attending meetings. They have had only a small number of cases of missed meetings, and it seemed unintentional because the people who missed rescheduled and they gave lots of effort in meetings. 
  • EAs very rarely make promises or plan things that don’t happen, when they say these things in 1on1s outside of a conference. 
  • However, in conferences or to get togethers, it’s common to make plans or discuss things where there isn’t follow up.  This actually isn't because of a culture, but I think because people get genuinely excited and overpromise.
  • A high level of conscientiousness seems especially true for more established EAs. Senior EAs have say, pointed out a minor typo in an email (like a broken link), which no one does, basically.
  • In certain situations, the norm of silence or not following up seems efficient or even welcome. It’s extremely awkward for certain people to actively give negative signals in specific situations. 
    • For example, a grant maker who thinks your introductions are unpromising isn’t going to say “Hey, this person you introduced me to seems unpromising and you should stop” or ”Hey Charles, I don't know you but you've sent me 15 PMs on the EA Forum last week, please stop —Linch". 
    • They’ll just not reply, and combined with the norm about responding, this seems pretty efficient.

Many cities many EAs live in have very high living costs. Thus, even full-time working adults often do flat sharing. This is why some people have set up EA (or rationalist) group houses: they’d prefer to live with like-minded folks.

This is only partially true. There are many EAs living in group houses who could afford to live alone but prefer group houses.

Also money isn't free so if you're neutral between the two, might as well save money on what is probably your largest expense.

right, thanks for the clarification! Do you think this is mostly common for EA/rationalist folks or do people from many social circles like group houses? In Finland flatsharing for non-necessary reasons is somewhat considered alternative lifestyle so most working adults who do it are "purposefully" questioning the nuclear family unit. I'm trying to understand if living in an EA group house would come off as a "statement"or just something people sometimes do.

In the Bay Area, it's very common for younger people to share accommodation (and not an alternative lifestyle). But this is often a set of somewhat random people living together and not an intentional group house of like-minded people. As people get older and have higher incomes, people are less likely to share (AFAIK). 

So EA group houses do indicate an alternative lifestyle ... but in places like SF and Berkeley such alternative lifestyles are also pretty common outside EA.

I think that among non-EAs, flatsharing is much more common in the UK than in the Nordic countries. Relatedly, average household size is afaik bigger.

https://landgeist.com/2021/07/27/household-size/

I think this difference largely ultimately has economic causes.

I live in London and have quite a lot of EA and non-EA friends/colleagues/acquaintances, and my impression is that group houses "by choice" are much more common among the EAs. It's noteworthy that group houses are common among students and lower paid/early stage working professionals for financial reasons though.

effectively meaning that in some cases you can somewhat choose to either pay taxes or to donate to an organization of your choice.

I think this is rarely of ever the case. It’s true that you can donate effectively “pre tax” in some countries. However, it almost always costs you something. But it might say, cost you only $750 to have the charity get $1000.

Thank you so much for this post! I really enjoyed reading it :) Although I am lucky to come from a country with a large community (Germany), many of your points resonate with me!

Especially the points about the implicit assumption that everyone could/should move to US/UK for a job and how people tend to finish university later (as it is free and you thus have less time pressure).

From my experience, the focus on US/UK can be very intimidating if you can't imagine moving there, up to the point where people do not really feel part of the community.

I think posts like this and talking about this in local groups is really important :)

This is useful for people outside of Nordic countries also. I'm an American who has spent the past decade outside of the US, and it is strange and interesting to read about the hype, the group living, and the polyamory. I'd love to see guides like this expanded (so that the guide covers different EA communities and their cultures) and deepened (so that it covers more details about each EA community an it's culture).

Related job ad, but not by the forum team; feel free to remove if not appropriate

The Against Malaria Foundation is close to Finnish time zones and completely remote. It currently has employees in the UK, Germany, and South Africa. One employee is working part-time due to parenting. AMF is hiring for several roles.

>In many countries, people start their university education at a younger age than Finland.

IIRC, Finns start university at 20 (or later if they take gap years). My sense is that many people who are strong academically could benefit from starting at 17 or 18. If that's not possible in Finland, I'd suggest people consider applying elsewhere (EU is often free, US/UK is expensive but worth it for many people). 

The most common age for Finns to finish upper secondary school is the year they turn 19, so the lower bound comes from having done the matriculation exam, not because the university would not allow younger students. (So if you've started your school a year earlier than most kids or skipped a grade or done your upper secondary school in 2 instead of 3 years, you could start university the year you turn 18; if you've done several of these things then even younger.) 

But gap years are quite common because trying an entrance exam several times can make it possible for you get in the program of your choice, and also many people consider this a good time to try out something else than "being at school" to gain more self-sufficiency. Although there are people who do as you recommend and study abroad to avoid having to try an entrance exam several times. I considered going to Germany for this reason (I was actually accepted in a program in psychology but decided to go for math in Helsinki) and one of my best friends studied political science in Glasgow (psychology and political science are both popular programs, so hard to get in).

Out of curiosity, what do you think is the benefit of starting university at 17 or 18? I know some Finns who have done this but I don't know if I can directly point at the upsides it has had in their lives/careers.

Benefits: 

  • Meeting more like-minded people sooner 
  • (For people serious about academics) In some fields (like AI), learning is faster and more efficient if if the teachers are active researchers. You can do research as an undergrad.
  • For people focused on work, you can start working earlier and so it's easier to try more jobs/internships. (Many jobs require BA/MA and so you can't do as much of this before starting uni). 

right! I think many of the same benefits can be gotten from starting to attend university courses while in high school and/or studying at a faster speed than the official recommendation. But I realize now typing this that this is also not that commonly possible outside of Nordics. (And could be hard for an upper secondary school student who does not live in a university city. OTOH moving to a different city to live on your own can be harder for some people with 17 than 19, even if they are very bright.)

In the US, it's (relatively) common to attend university courses while in high school, but not that common to attend courses from top universities while in high school (and in some cases this is almost literally impossible, e.g. because the best universities are physically too far away) .