We Finns

15 January 2010 | Columns, Tales of a journalist

Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

Is it so bad to criticise a Finn, if you’re a Finn? Columnist Jyrki Lehtola takes another look at what you think about us Finns out there

Recently, the word ’Finland’ has been repeated in Finland, and generalisations made about what we Finns are like.

Last year saw the seventieth anniversary of the Winter War, and we congratulated ourselves on what a fine fighting nation we are.

A government branding work group tells us at regular intervals how creative a nation we are.

From time to time someone remembers to mention the sauna, while someone else is a little more critical and says we are also an envious nation.

It is business as usual in Finland. We tell ourselves clichés about what we’re like.

Until someone made a mistake and let the outside world in on some of the clichés about what we’re like.

Oh dear, that upset us badly.

At the end of 2009, there was a debate in Finland, typically Finnish in its absurdity, in which everyone talked about different things and in the end agreed what a good debate it had been; the subject had been given a good airing.

The Finlandia Prize-winning author Sofi Oksanen went abroad to market herself, this time to Denmark. At the same time she gave an interview about Finnishness to a Danish television programme.

In the interview, Oksanen described Finland as a dismal country in which the men drink too much and kill one another while the women are driven by depression to eating disorders.

Oksanen’s views were stereotypes raised to the level of cliché. A glance at the news reports demonstrates their truth, but at the same time their inadequacy, for the news is full of stories about Finnish men who drink too much but do not kill anyone,just passed out.

But then Oksanen’s image of Finland reached the Finnish newspapers and headlines, and everything became strange, in a very Finnish way.

Oksanen – an upstanding Finnish writer – took fright and began to correct her comments. Errm, like, that’s not quite what I said. It was the kind of sensationalist piece which made a tabloid-like presentation of stereotypes concerning Finland and Finnishness, and somehow it ended up with, like, me giving credence to those stereotypes.

Next there began a debate in the Finnish fashion, crystallising around this absurd question: is a Finn allowed to say bad things about Finland outside the Finnish borders, or should dirty washing be hung out at home?

Of course you can say just what you want. The criticism about the nature and current development of one’s own country is a long intellectual tradition in countries with even a slightly longer cultural tradition. In Great Britain, for example, a large part of literature and entertainment has always been based on national stereotypes and their ironies.

But it’s a little difficult for us to understand that, and so it was necessary to discuss such a crazy question. All the worse that it was a writer who made the criticism. We have tried to get used to the comments of businessmen and brand gurus, but writers – they should, historically, be on the side of the Finnish people.

That attitude reflectss something essential about Finnishness: low national self-esteem combined neatly with a sense of intellectual inferiority.

A pity that our discussion was, once again, slightly beside the point. A more interesting question would have been: isn’t it a bit embarrassing that a writer is unable to describe her country in anything but tired clichés? And are clichés expressed by a writer somehow of greater value than, for example, those spoken by a sportsman?

And perhaps the most important question about Finnishness: what kind of a country do we live in, if even an award-winning writer takes such fright after criticising Finland abroad that she feels she has to retract her words?

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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