Our Finnish Listener's Reaction to the Episode #25
Around 10 days ago we received an interesting email from one of our Finnish listeners. It included interesting views on the stereotypical behaviours of Finns that we discused in the episode #25 Finnish Social Culture. We were so amazed by the knowledge and insights shared with us that with the permission of the author we decided to share it with you all.
I just now found your podcast and really love it, thank you for the episodes! I've been looking for something like this for a while, to hear thoughts and to reflect our society and culture without the usual lack of perspective or objectiveness which appears if talking with only Finns themselves - unless they are academics studying the whole thing or just psychologically aware... :)
I especially found the episode #25 Finnish Social Culture really interesting, because most of what you two talked about are things that have been bothering me A LOT my whole adult life, even though I am a Helsinki-born Finn myself. I've had big problems trying to understand my own home country in why people are often so stiff, so unfriendly, so hard to reach, so incredibly shy that it crosses the line of being rude, and sometimes seem ignorant or even indifferent about simple social "rules" in how to be kind to others. I can be very introverted and peace-loving myself, but still! This stiffness has happened with one or two expats as well, but mostly with Finns and I have a few theories about it. Maybe you've already received comments as well about this and the episode. Usually if I raise the subject with other Finns they either get defensive, depressed or make a joke about it ("yes we're all just poor asocial peasants") but me and my husband have several Finnish friends who find it annoying too and want to make a change.
I have to say that I have also found Finnish groups or communities where all this unkindness and weirdness does not apply at all, eg. some job environments in Helsinki I've been in, choirs, shops and bars in cities, some villages in the countryside etc. These haven't been exclusive to Finns and I have seen some expats happily find them, which is nice <3
But what you said in the episode about people growing up in their group of friends and family and just sticking to it is right, I've noticed this myself and wondered what the heck. I don't have that kind of background myself and find it really unfamiliar: my circle of friends has always been mostly changing during years, with people coming and going just like I myself am changing, and that's wonderful. I've had chats with a international friend about the weirdness of eg. ending up in a party where everyone belongs to an old, tight circle of friends going waaay back and who either don't know how to welcome a new person or just are afraid that with a new person things might CHANGE, oh dear! Also my family has a culture of being interested in new people and has regarded it really important to be polite, friendly and where small talk is self-evident like riding a bicycle. And while for us it has been natural and desirable, there have been many times when we have stumbled on the feeling of being some weird exotic animals among Finns. I have felt this many many times, felt very depressed about it and wondered if I've been born in the wrong country. How can it be?
I'm a history nerd, I think there are historical reasons behind all this behaviour and my family history has offered some insights on this too. My mother's side of the family is from Helsinki, 5 generations back, and my father's side is from around Terijoki in the Karelian Isthmus that was lost during the Second World War. Both places - Karelian Isthmus before the war and Helsinki before 1960s/70s - had lots of people travelling forth and back, lots of trade and lots of languages and ethnic groups especially during the time of Imperial Russia. So the local Finns were used to "urban living" and how to socialize and be polite to each other. My mother's and also my friend's family tales from old Helsinki are full of accounts of how eg. Punavuori and Vallila were like their own villages where people chatted with everyone and took care of each other and were always interested in new people. But then something happened of course to get us where Helsinki is today, with tales of Helsinki snobbery and rudeness: during the 1960s and 70s Finns couldn't get their living in the countryside anymore so they pushed to cities and to Sweden, and Finland became urbanised really really fast. No more nice village atmosphere in Punavuori or Vallila. Lots of new areas and suburbs were being built fast and filled with people with no networks in the city and maybe even no experience of living in urban areas. Some were propably relieved to get away from the small village circles and social control, to just be anonymous. Some maybe considered the city frightening and thought that in order to blend in one must behave distantly towards others or one will be "found out" as not being a real, cool urban person. And voilá, we get the culture we see today. At the same time some Finns have been going on like "what the hell happened"? I saw a lot of this even during 2000s/2010s when I was active in a student organisation for people with a background in Eastern Finland; most people there had moved to Helsinki as young and insecure and were carrying out this very same pattern.
Also Finland since the recession in 1990s has been and is mentally an engineer country, and the engineer-way of thinking dominates a lot in our culture. Meaning that Finns believe in keeping it calm and rational all the time because there's always some economical crisis or fear of it (or the everlasting fear of war) lurking around. That means that often there has been no space or tradition for emotions, at least not in a normal, day-to-day compassionate way but more like in occasional bursts in art and fiction or when someone is drunk. Being polite, friendly, open to new people and doing small talk as a norm (= riding a bike) requires constant social awareness and accepting empathy, how it would feel to be in the other person's shoes. This is perfectly normal and self-evident in many cultures, but most Finns just don't think or dare not to think about that because it goes in the zone of emotions and changing your behaviour. And why _changing_ your behaviour? Because I think in most cases Finns lack a tradition for it: if no one in the family ever taught you or showed you how to be polite, friendly, open and how to do small talk = to ride a bike, then it requires a lot of courage, skill and learning by yourself to start from scratch as an adult. And maybe the lack of tradition comes from the war: it made the old generation feel that they somehow can't afford to openness and emotions, which they passed on to the next generation who in turn has been passing it on to their children. Now Finnish millenials have propably been the first big group to question this way of behaving, but still it's a long way if you have to start from scratch. Luckily one can always go abroad to learn and import back, which many many Finns have done :)
Also one addition to the podcast: I don't believe openness in Finns is only present if the family has some kind of international background or education, at least that doesn't apply to my family and Finnish friends except for brief periods abroad later on as an adult. I think it's only about what kind of role models people have had regarding empathy and politeness when growing up :)
So, long story but I hope this helps to light the issue to you and other expats. You are not alone <3 Thank you once again for the podcast!
Thank you again for this great and thoughts inducing email.