Silent Waters Run Deep

Sitting here in Portland, Oregon, it is possible to gain better critical distance on discussions of Finns and Finnishness and my own time in Finland. An episode of Welcome to Sweden humorously showed a Swedish woman studying the apartment block landing through the peephole to find the moment when no one else was outside their apartments and try to make a run for it down the staircase and out into the street. She proceeded to explain to her confused American boyfriend that it is best not to have contact with the neighbors, and that if you do see them in the stairwell, just say a quick “hej” and move on. He refused to believe her and tried introducing himself to the first woman he saw when going down the stairs, much to everyone else’s embarrassment. Michael Booth, in The Almost Nearly Perfect People is highly critical of how rude of the Swedes can be at times. So is this a general northern European phenomenon, one that Americans have a difficult time understanding?

Even still, it is a topic that does touch a nerve with many Finnish people. A flurry of letters to the editor in Helsingin Sanomat have helped keep the debate going in the last week of July. For instance, while one Finnish cultural anthropologist living in California took opportunity to weigh in on the recent flurry of articles and editorials on Finnish silence by saying it is symptomatic of a people who are not very courteous or caring of others, other Finnish scholars have been quick to defend silence as a part of Finnish culture (in fact, as a sign of politely respecting another person’s privacy) and not something that should be changed to suit American tastes. The question was even raised as to whether Finns may not always greet their American neighbors because they are shy about speaking English and not sure how to behave. But this bumps up against another, less friendly, debate about tolerance the reasons behind Finnish insularity.

A new study by business think tank EVA on how Finns characterize themselves found the respondents believe that, in general, Finns are greedy and not particularly generous, wanting mostly to look out for themselves and not help others so much, and that they do not co-operate well with one another or value teamwork. Additionally, respondents suggested that Finns are not very tolerant or open-minded, even compared to their Nordic neighbors. In terms of positive characteristics, Finns work hard and respect basic values. Not an entirely flattering opinion poll. Another study by the University of Eastern Finland found that even with greater levels of internationalism among younger generations, young Finns still have a rigid and restrictive definition of what it means to be Finnish. You need to have been born in Finland, have at least one parent living in Finland, and speak either Finnish or Swedish, preferably (in the minds of most) Finnish. Even groups like the Roma, who have been in Finland for 300 years, are not really considered Finnish. The researcher was in fact surprised by the level of bigotry towards ethnic minorities.

Many Finns have been quick to suggest that this prejudice does not extend so much to Western Europeans or to Americans. But foreigners have not necessarily cut the Finns much slack in this department. Foreign academics, especially those from Great Britain, have for a long time been complaining about discrimination. I know this because I have been reading articles on the problem for several years now in the journal Acatiimi and even Yle news has recently picked up on the story. The nepotism does run deep here. But it works against Finns as well who are trying to move from one region to another or even to a different city. They often get passed up for a job, even when they seem more qualified, because they do not know those on the hiring committee as well as another candidate. The adage “it is not so much what you know as who you know” applies everywhere, but in Finland the idea of six degrees of separation seems to get whittled down to about three degrees of separation. One joke is that Finland comes out looking so good in measures of global corruption because, in order for corruption to take place, money needs to change hands, but in Finland this is not necessary since everyone already knows everyone else to some degree.

Jokes aside, my general concern and interest at this point is in this insularity that Finns exhibit towards outsiders, even people with Finnish heritage living abroad, and how to resolve this to the seeming obsession with being international and with American culture. When mentioning to a reporter last summer that Finns seem to see me principally as American and not as having both a Finnish and an American identity for an article she was doing on me and my family for the tabloid Ilta Lehti, she nodded and said, “yes, you can be one thing or another, but you cannot be both.” So what to make of this since it loops back into discussions of tolerance and openness? Is there such a divide then between the identities exhibited by Finnish Americans (even those who travel to Finland on a regular basis and/or regularly keep in touch with Finnish news and popular culture) and the identities of those born and raised in Finland? I do notice that educated Finns are quite interested in such annual Finnish American festivals as Finnfest. Is there more of a transnational identity that some people can lay claim to? Are such festivals primarily propping up high culture? With such questions in mind, I am eager to take advantage of my time in Portland and reconnect with what Finnish Americans are now saying about Finland. Though a part of the Finnish American community in Berkeley, California while growing up, I have been away from such heritage festivals for a long time (I attended Finnfest in 1986). So I am excited to head up the road tomorrow with the family to the Finnish-American Folk Festival of Naselle, in Washington.