The main reason for discontent among immigrants in Finland is inadequacy.
To be specific, the inadequacy between reality and initial expectations.
(Image from here.)
An utopic society
What’s the best way of insuring that someone will develop a dislike for his/her new home country? You could try selling them an image of near perfection, a paradise in earth – like you see in much of the English language information coming out of Finnish public offices. Promise them a society unlike everything they’ve known, where people are happy, honest, highly educated, the economy is prosperous and competitive, the economic climate favours the innovators, and where gender equality can be found.
If you’ve been following the news, you ought to know that Finland ranks among the top countries for every single one of these attributes:
- According to CBI (Country Brand Index, 2012´), Finland’s world rank is 6th in quality of life; 5th in values; 9th in business environment; 4th in education system; 5th in healthcare system; 6th in standard of living; 2nd in environment friendliness; 2nd in stability of legal system; 3rd in tolerance and 10th in freedom of speech. In 2010, “Newsweek” considered Finland the best country to live in.
The above quote is translated from an Op-Ed on a Portuguese newspaper, where for the last ten years or so the media has continuously broadcast the wonders of the “Finnish model.” Friends from Brazil, Spain and other countries tell me they’ve read and heard much the same.
After a while in Finland, the honeymoon is over and a reality check is unavoidable. Those that were fooled – or wanted to be- resent the broken “promise”.
Don’t get me wrong, Finland is an excellent country to live in, at least for those with an occupation and a reasonable social network, but reality is different than the rosy image created by media, tourism and PR-offices and our wishful imagination.
What follows is a list of some of the main issues facing those moving here.
Finns are different, as you’d expect from any other country. However, unless you’re coming from a nearby country, you are most likely to underestimate these differences. For example, they’re very direct with their words (while indirect in their intentions) and keep a personal space larger than most foreigners consider necessary:
Ignoring this space is to invade most Finn’s comfort area and it can cause resentment and bad feelings, of which the “invader” will remain oblivious because nobody will explain it to him…
You can start by reading this guide to Finnish customs and manners.
You probably know that if you lose your wallet in Finland, it is that it will be returned. But that doesn’t mean that people are more honest than anywhere else (although I’d bet they are) only that, in general, they behave more honestly. Yet, there’s this association that all Finns are blue eyed honest people. Always. When you think of it, it’s kind of silly because you wouldn’t expect otherwise. Yes, some Finns lie, and others lie to themselves in order not to lie to you. Or, as George Constanza would say, it’s not a lie… if you believe in it.
The lack of Communication, burying the Emotions
Finland is a country with some traits of a high context culture: people are expected to read between the lines and understand non-verbal language. For example, if the employer was keen on hiring you but it now seems that the place requires fluent Finnish, it really means “no.” They knew very well you weren’t fluent, just don’t want to tell you that you didn’t convince them.
This is a problem for foreigners, because they lack the tools to decode the messages and are often mislead to expect a straightforward answer. But, it’s also a problem for natives, as they tend not to communicate their emotions. Particularly during Winter (see below) it’s quite common for people to go around accumulating negative emotions and spreading them – emotions are contagious, particularly negative ones. The worse happens when we get hit with these passive-aggressive charges, which are rather common, since people tend to shun conflict. People end up piling up bitter and negative emotions; and when people can not point to the source they end up identifying with these emotions, without even noticing these emotions were never theirs to start.
On the positive side, there’s less conflict in this society, people can understand what others intend, or at least get out of their way. Problems tend to be solved rather swiftly.
Shame is one of diseases of modernity and in that respect, Finns are better than most anyone else. If they weren’t, they’d die of shame.
I’ve lost count of those conversations where someone is telling me about their hobbies and invariably adds “but I’m not very good.” I feel like slapping them and say “listen, if this is not what you do for living, it only matters how much it makes you happy.” Finns are almost annoyingly good at pretty much everything they do but the voice on the back of their head whispering “you’re not good enough” is always present. It’s almost epidemic, as if standing out without being perfect was a crime. Not good enough to speak up, to be different, to demand, or simply to be…
However, Finns aren’t ashamed at all of their naked body: you go on a sauna without clothes, following on a bath on the lake or the sea. Often in mixed groups. You see, sauna exists to purify the body and not to admire others’ bodies. Strange at it might seem, sauna has no sexual connotation whatsoever.
On weekdays Finns often drink milk or other dairy during their meals. On weekends that is usually not the case…For many, alcohol serves as an emotional laxative: the burden of frustration, sadness and even joy that one has and is unable to express regularly. All of it comes out with an occasional binge drinking.
I don’t think that alcohol consumption is bigger than in most of Europe. What is peculiar, and perhaps shocking, it’s how visible alcoholism is, probably because it’s done on the open and in a very particular time and space – on weekends and on city centers and certain alleys. It’s also true that alcoholism gets to stand out because other social problems are not as bad as many of us are used to.
When I arrived, I was told that Finnish language is not hard, only different. It’s different all right, and unless you come from Estonia, it’s nothing like you you’ve seen before. As for difficulty, you tell me.
Please note that if you’re staying here for a short time you don’t need to learn the language – not that you would do it, anyway. But if you come here for 5 or more years (or if your short stay stretches and stretches which happens quite often…) lacking language fluency will severely limit your life.
Getting a job is hard for anyone; unemployment is rising and it affects more foreigners than natives. Foreigners employment in Finland is positively associated with one or more of these factors: having skills in demand (eg. IT, Healthcare), being fluent in Finnish, having a network of contacts, being willing to work more or receiving less than others.
Yes, there is discrimination. Sometimes it’s quite positive (if you call yourself an expat or been approached by attractive ladies you’ve most likely experienced it), other times it’s quite harsh. It affects some more than others and it also depends on the persons traits and their personalities. I don’t think Finland is a racist country but we do definitely have racist people here.
Winter and Darkness
We just passed Winter solstice and, here in Helsinki, we get 7 hours of light. This year we had a great autumn, with more sunlight than usual. Cloudy, dark days can last weeks and for those working in closed environments is even darker. A small minority suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, and we all live with a slightly more depressed mood.
Even if snow has only now arrived, it’s guaranteed that the winter will last 6 months. Some suffer particularly with the lack of light in November; others, like me, have a harder time in March and April. After months of winter usually some promising days of light and warm come. However, as you might have guessed, it’s nothing more than a prank from the weather gods, mercilessly raising and then crashing – what Finns call takatalvi; our hopes. Realistically, it will take a few more weeks for Spring to settle in.
Worse than darkness and the long winter is the social climate: people suffer emotionally and withdraw to their homes. Social contacts decrease, people are more distant and negative. That is why Vappu, on the 1st of May, is such an important celebration – people fetch their happy faces and expressions from their closets, where they have been kept waiting for warmer days.
At this point you’re already sceptic and anticipating my critical remark. Well, I must say that Finns are fairly happy bunch (and no, their suicide stats are no longer standing out, not that it really matters, anyway.) I must, however offer two caveats. First, the happiness index where you see Finland and other Nordic nations on top, measures happiness not cheer or joy. This is the satisfaction of having one’s needs met, it doesn’t mean people are dancing on the streets. It’s important to understand the difference, in case your idea of happiness is dancing samba in Rio de Janeiro or partying in Albufeira.
Second, indexes like this don’t really mean much, given that only a handful of first world countries can be expected to make it to the top. Countries where people go thru wars, corruption and have hard lives cannot compete. It is not that I want to take credit away from those in charge of this country, but it is different being at the top when only a few country can compete with you.
I must add that these indexes try to measure the average happiness of a population – and this may say very little about the foreigners living there.
In our forum, some members pointed out Finland’s geographic location, the lack of cheap flights and of customer service, the lack of familiar food and the high cost of living. Indeed, some people adapt better than others. However, please note: you can live well and be very happy in Finland. The main requirements are a job/occupation, a social network and suitable expectations. If you can afford the luxury, one or two weeks of holidays during the Winter will make wonders.Learning to communicate and to understand the social context will be useful. Beyond the cultural differences, Finns are very friendly and good hosts.
When you are prepared for what is ahead of you, you will be able to appreciate better what this country can offer.
I’ll leave you with an hilarious clip that many Finns describe as what is like to be a Finn (minor inconvenience at 1’40”, last 10 seconds.)