The Almost Nearly Perfect Country

I just finished reading Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth Behind the Nordic Miracle (Random House, 2014) and figured it is as good a place as any to start writing a blog/series of reflections about life in Finland as a researcher, teacher, and editor. Booth is a British journalist living in Denmark and he uses the English speaking world’s recent fascination with all things Nordic as a point of departure for unpacking the reality of life in the far north. Finland, for example, has in recent years been rated the best country in the world to live in by Newsweek magazine, the best country in which to be a mother, the country with the best educational system, the least corrupt country in the world, and the country with the most livable city in the world (Helsinki). Building on this hype, a recent article in Washington Monthly admonished Americans that if they want to find the American dream these days, they had better go to Finland. For their part, the Finns have also recently been ranked the second happiest people in the world, most notably because of the security provided by the comprehensive social welfare system. But no sooner had Newsweek released the results of its study than the Finnish media claimed it had crunched the numbers incorrectly and that Switzerland was in fact the better country. Ah, self-sabotage. A quality that fits well with Finland’s own admitted national inferiority complex. Many other Finns also took issue with the study, claiming that the numbers did not take into account the high levels of depression, violence, and alcoholism, the long, dark winters, and the famed Finnish reserve bordering on antisocial behavior. Booth humorously notes in his introduction that bookstore shelves are buckling under the weight of memoirs about time spent in Greece or Provence, but asks where are such titles as A Year in Turku? Indeed, few Brits or Americans can even find Finland on a map, let alone ask informed questions about Turku or Tampere.

The Finnish reaction to attempts by outsiders to draw conclusions about Finland or the character of its people highlight the problem of how to truly know a country famed for its insularity. One of Booth’s main informants in Finland is academic Richard D. Lewis, author of Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf, a chronicle of how Finland’s ‘lone wolf’ policies helped it transform itself from a poor, war-torn nation to one of the world’s most highly developed and successful countries. That is the successful part of the story. But it is too easy to move from there to a list of generalizations about national character traits. To his credit, Booth is one of the few outsiders to hint at the darker side of Finland’s complex historical relationships and its social costs. He notes that a people famed for its reserve could not easily have found a safe space to talk about wartime traumas, especially the men. It took Finland 50 years to come to terms with the Civil War of 1918 between Reds (communists) and Whites (capitalists), not least because of the compounded effects of the Winter War and the Soviets breathing down its neck and influencing policy for the better part of the 20th century. The Finns have also struggled to find their place in the world amidst shifting historical ideas about East/West, European/Asian, Caucasoid/Mongoloid, and Communist/Capitalist, cultural lone wolf notions aside. Caught between great power conflicts since the 12th century, Finland’s geopolitical balancing act has both defined its strengths and given rise to a national psyche riddled with deep-seated taboos. One recent psychological study found that the Finns have more taboo subjects than any other people in the world. While lists that rank people and countries as best or worst/most or least are notoriously problematic, the point still stands that Finnish silence is not so much a matter of shyness as something else. For a nation known as one of the most homogeneous places on earth (along with Quebec, Canada), the Finns are extremely divided by competing attitudes of being interested in and prejudiced against the very peoples and countries that have influenced them the most — Sweden, Russia, and the United States — not to mention strong regional divisions. Booth wonders if many of the most distinctive hallmarks of Finnishness — the drinking, violence, reticence, and even the sauna — are symptomatic of a people defined less by what is said than by what is unsaid. This, set against the fact that the future has in fact never looked brighter for Finland, makes the country an interesting and challenging place to live. Though an outsider, I will strive to provide insights into these challenges, both good and bad, by drawing upon my years of experience and discussions with a wide range of people.