‘Forget Cultural Homogeneity, FINLAND is Multicultural Now and That is Good’ [Finland 100/Suomi 100]

Mahmudul Islam
Jul 13, 2017 · 16 min read
While acknowledging that extending help to those who are in need is a responsibility in today’s globalised world, Anna notes that Finland alone cannot help the whole world when it comes to addressing crises resulting from war, violence and famine in different regions. Courtesy: Anna Gustafsson

As Finland is celebrating its 100 years of independence in 2017, I could not come up with a far more excellent idea than talking to Finnish people from different walks of life about the idea of Finnishness. The centenary year gives the Finns plenty of reasons to look back at the past and rejoice at all their glorious achievements. I wanted to listen to the stories of Finnish people in order to get an insight into what it means to be a Finn, the Finnish way of life and future hopes for this Nordic nation. As would be expected, not everybody will tell the same story but combining them together can produce a powerful Finnish narrative that comprehensively reflects what this north European nation is like.


Anna Gustafsson is a journalist based in Helsinki. She is currently involved with Safe Stadi, a project that facilitates Helsinki’s cultural diversity and promotes pluralism so that people from different backgrounds can all live in harmony. The project is run by the City of Helsinki’s Youth Department, and its main goal is to increase feeling of peace and security, especially among young immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers living in the Finnish capital.

Anna believes Finland has much to gain if it can tap into the consumer market in China and that Finland’s EU membership is not any less important than the country’s independence from Russia. The EU membership has brought Finland peace and prosperity, she asserts, adding that Finland’s cultural uniformity is a thing of the past because it is now a country of many cultures.

Drawing on her experience of living abroad for a decade, the journalist argues that the Japanese are actually more silent than the Finns. She also strongly disapproves of the present government’s move to slash education funding, noting that the academic freedom of Finnish universities might be badly affected because of the institutions’ attempts to secure funding from the private sector against the backdrop of budget cuts.

Read more about Safe Stadi project here. Also, follow Anna on Twitter.

Enjoy the interview!

Q. Tell me briefly who you are and what you do.

I am Anna Gustafsson. I am a journalist and a mother of two children. I live in Helsinki.

Originally from a small village in the countryside on the west coast of Finland, I have lived in big cities most of my life. I have lived in London, Tokyo and Beijing, but have been back in Finland for almost two years now.

I work as a journalist for the City of Helsinki. I am covering international and multicultural issues, writing mostly on migration and refugee situation. This is a very current topic, as we in Finland now have to face changes in our society due to globalisation.

Q. What makes a Finn a Finn? What does being a Finn mean to you?

I have lived abroad for almost 10 years of my life. When living abroad, your idea of your nationality somehow condenses to the point where only the core is left in your daily life. While abroad, being a Finn, for me, meant eating smoked salmon and smoked cheese, rye bread and enjoying sauna. Very simple things.

For me, being Finnish means traditions and customs that I have grown up with. Our traditional holidays and the food around them are also very important to me.

But there is no definition of what makes someone a Finn. With my light hair, skin and blue eyes I might have the stereotypical image of a Finn, but I am not more of a Finn than someone who has moved here from somewhere else and has a different background.

Q. What are you most proud of as a Finn?

I am proud of the fact that Finland has managed to raise itself from being one of the poorest countries in Europe after the Second World War to a highly advanced and rich country that we are today, with equal opportunities to study and work for all. We are one of the safest countries in the world and least corrupt as well.

[Related: Read my 2016 article on what it is like to live in the world’s safest country]

Q. Finns often prefer isolation to social interaction. Does that mean Finnish people consciously want to live an isolated life by avoiding a vibrant social life? Or is it just the way of life that has been going on for generations?

We definitely have no social pressure to do any small talk! But I do not think we are any less social than others. You can go to any park or event during summer and find loads of people talking and enjoying life together. I myself end up talking with strangers quite often. So I think we are pretty open to talk with each other as well.

Social and economic inequality has become wider in the Finnish society. We now have people begging on the street. That rarely happened 10 years ago but now it is so common that people do not even pay attention.

What has changed from when I was a child is the role of home. Now Finns consider their home a very private area and do not ask friends over that often. When I was growing up, at least in the countryside, there was someone popping up in our home every day!

Q. In 1940, the New York Times said ‘sisu’ is a word that explains Finland. If sisu is such a key part of Finnish identity, then I would define Finns using three words that all start with the letter ‘S’ — sisu, sauna and silence. To what extent do you think my definition is correct?

I do hope that sisu still defines us. Somehow I think we have lost some of our sisu. We used to pull together much more and be resilient. Now people want a good life, preferably without any effort from themselves. Let us bring back sisu!

Sauna is definitely very Finnish. For us, it is something very common. It was interesting when I lived in Japan for four years and I found many similarities with Finland there. They also have similar bathing culture and they enjoy silence.

Travelling from Tokyo to Helsinki, I actually found Finnish people quite loud. In Japan no-one speaks loudly on their mobile phone while on public transport or walking on the street. Here in Finland, it is another story…

Q. Can you explain more, perhaps using examples, what it is like to be a Finn with sisu? Let us say you have been unemployed for long or experiencing some insurmountable life challenges. So if you are a Finn who has sisu, what will be your course of action to overcome these challenges?

Sisu means when you are playing an ice hockey match against Sweden, with only 10 minutes of play time left and you are losing 3–1, you still do not give up the fight.

Q. One way of describing sisu is the ability to persevere in the face of extreme adversities. Success, as we know, comes with hard work and great perseverance. Do you think having sisu increases your chance of success in life?

Definitely. Also, the ability to learn from mistakes helps.

Q. Let us add two more words beginning with ‘S’ — salmiakki and shyness. Salmiakki holds a special place in the heart of Finns, and Finns have been described as shy people. Tell me more!

I have tried to make foreigners eat salmiakki, with very little success. It is just too salty and strange. Actually, you can also buy it in the pharmacy. It is used as a medicine for low blood pressure.

For Anna, working as a journalist is a source of happiness and she believes Finland is home to the most delectable strawberries in the world. Courtesy: Anna Gustafsson

I think we definitely can be considered shy when compared to some other cultures. For example, the way Americans are taught to use very positive language when referring to themselves sounds boastful to our ears.

If someone is bragging about one thing or another, it just makes me cringe and embarrassed. We do not like to speak so highly of ourselves, and rarely give compliments. That just sounds phoney and fake to us.

Q. Finland and other Nordic countries are regularly ranked among the world’s happiest nations. Why are the Finns so happy? What is your definition of happiness?

Our society is based on equal opportunities. This means despite your social or economic background, you can educate yourself as much as you want and have equal opportunities to find employment.

We often have short distances to work, and compared to many countries, we work very short hours and that is why Finns do have a lot of time to spend with their families. We have clean air, water and food — things we often take for granted.

Moreover, at least in the past, people could trust the system to take care of those that need help in life, such as unemployed, sick and elderly people. I am not sure if the system works as smoothly anymore, but in theory there would be support for those in need.

Personally, I am still looking for happiness, but I have many happy moments every day, talking with my children or taking my dog out in the park. Besides, my work makes me happy.

My definition of happiness is a bit like that of love. Once you experience it, you will know.

Q. In contrast, we have an upsetting picture. Research says 1 in 10 Finns suffers from chronic loneliness. Also, depression is a big concern and suicide rate is high here. What is your opinion on ‘Finnish happiness’ when you take these saddening issues into account?

In our welfare society, not everyone is well. It is contradictory that we have all the opportunities in the world, but many people feel hopeless and miss the direction in their life.

I think especially for men, the idea that you should always manage on your own, with sisu, and not ask for help from anyone is a big cultural problem. Besides, there is still stigma over mental health problems, even if they can be treated and cured just like any other illness.

Anna regards her mother as her national hero and says the independence of Finland reminds her of her grandfather, who fought in the war. Courtesy: Anna Gustafsson

I am worried about young people. They have a lot of pressure from social media to look a certain way, be successful and only have extremely interesting and instagrammable moments in their life. I am worried they are not prepared for the inevitable things in life. There will be setbacks and disappointments, not everything is going to go as you wish and you really have to work for the things that you want.

I really hope the younger generation will be strong enough not to give up.

Q. In 2010, Finland was named the best country in the world by American weekly magazine Newsweek. Also, World Economic Forum’s 2015 travel and tourism competitiveness report ranked Finland as ‘the safest place on earth’. What is your reaction to these rankings?

Finland has had a lot of good publicity with these rankings. Especially, our good results in PISA education surveys published by the OECD has generated a lot of attention in Asia. Maybe as a result of that, we are seeing a boom in tourism from Asia at the moment, especially as the Chinese middle class have started to travel to Finland.

For many, Finland can offer something unique: the climate, our people and culture, which is a mix of Eastern and Western influences.

Q. If you were given the choice of living anywhere in the world, would you live in Finland? If yes, why? If not, why?

I love living in Finland as my family, friends, my parents, relatives and many people who are important to me are here.

However, my dream country is Japan. I love the culture, food, people and weather there.

Q. Finland is gradually becoming a more culturally diverse country. Immigration is an increasingly important driver of population growth while there has also been a massive influx of refugees in the recent years. How do you feel about this? Do you think multiculturalism will make Finland ‘less Finnish’?

I think in a global world, we have to take responsibility for those in need. There are more refugees in the world than ever before, approximately 66 million as estimated by the United Nations. The ongoing crises in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan mean that these countries are not going to be able to provide safe living conditions for their own people in the coming future. At the same time, famine and violence are on the rise in some African countries.

There is a lot of pressure for people to try to find a better life. No one leaves their home country, family and everything they own and love if they have other options. It makes me frustrated that we are not able to do more for these people.

My personal definition of happiness is a bit like that of love. Once you experience it, you will know.

But Finland is a small country, and we alone cannot help the world. I hope people will be open-minded and accept that our world is changing. We cannot close our borders and hope no one comes knocking. That is just not an option.

When people say Finland will become less Finnish if we take more people in, they usually think of how Finland was 100 years ago. That time has already passed, and Finland is now an international and multicultural country. That is a good thing.

Q. Do you think Finland can benefit from the skills of foreigners?

Many entrepreneurs I have met have talked about the same thing. They need skilled professionals and would like to employ more people from abroad. Many sectors in Finland are already dependent on foreign workforce.

Q. In what ways do you think Finland’s cultural and social landscape have changed in the last 10 years or so?

Social and economic inequality has become wider in the Finnish society. We now have people begging on the street. That rarely happened 10 years ago but now it is so common that people do not even pay attention.

At the same time, research shows that children from academic families are more likely to get higher education and therefore will be better off than children of poorer families. This means children from poor, uneducated parents will be more likely to be unemployed or to live on welfare than those from richer families. Thus the gap widens even more.

Q. What are the challenges of living in Finland? Also, what are the positive sides?

I guess everyone says that the biggest challenge here is the weather.

On the positive side, we have clean air and water, lots of beautiful nature, good schools and in my opinion, the best tasting strawberries in the world!

Q. Finland’s economy is not doing well in the recent years. In 2015, Alexander Stubb described Finland as ‘the sick man of Europe’. And in 2016, the European Commission said Finnish economy was among the worst in the EU. What is your future hope for the Finnish economy?

Actually, the economy has taken a turn for the better, and we are on a growth curve now. Things are looking good, we still have good trade relations with our biggest partners such as Sweden and Germany, and as the Russian economy is experiencing a downturn, we have found a new market in China.

Anna is proud of Finland’s rise as a well-developed and affluent country, and hopes there will be many more brave moments for the Nordic nation in the years to come. Courtesy: Anna Gustafsson

There are huge opportunities in the consumer market in China, and so I hope we could come up with commercial success for the Chinese buyers.

Q. How do you feel about the austerity measures taken by the present government? Finland has gained worldwide fame for its educational success but education budget has been heavily affected by these measures. Do you think it will mean a loss of quality of education?

Absolutely. I do not agree with education budget cuts. I think the early childhood education is extremely important; especially in giving children from different backgrounds a fair and equal start.

Additionally, I think the independence of academic world is very important. Now our universities are forced to look for funding from the private sector and that might influence academic freedom.

Q. Teaching has been one of the most respected and admired professions in Finland, and is particularly popular among young women. Why do so many Finns want to be teachers?

Teachers are respected a lot in Finland. It is a profession that everyone appreciates. Finnish teachers also have a lot of freedom. They can choose the teaching method independently, and even use the material and books of their choice.

I think in teaching, you are able to find balance between work and family, and perhaps that is why many women opt for a career in this field.

Q. Starting from January 2017, Finland, as part of a new 2-year basic income experiment, will give 560 euros a month to 2,000 unemployed people each. The objective of the trial is to see if it can increase employment and reduce poverty. What is your opinion on this? Do you think it will finally be able to boost employment figures?

I am extremely curious to see the results. I have some doubts though. The amount that will be given is too small to really make a difference in someone’s life, and maybe will not give the boost in the economy that the decision-makers want to see.

Q. Who is your national hero in Finland? Tell me more.

My mother. I think her story is very typical and a telling example of how far our society has come in just a few decades.

My mother was born into a very poor family in the northern part of Finland after the war, but she beat the odds. She not only graduated but earned two master’s degrees and also completed her PhD later on. She ended up having a career in politics, being one of the longest serving female members of the government.

At least in the past, people in Finland could trust the system to take care of those that need help in life. I am not sure if the system works as smoothly anymore, but in theory there would be support for those in need.

To me, she is a representation of how the Finnish society can be at its best: your destiny really is up to yourself.

Q. For a foreigner, it is difficult to befriend a Finn. If I am a foreigner and I want to make a Finnish friend, is there any golden rule that I can follow?

Do it over a drink. Sometimes people drink too much, but often a few beers make a Finn more laid back and relaxed.

Q. What does Finnish independence mean to you? And what is your wish for your country as it is celebrating its 100th year of independence? Is there any area where you think Finland can do much better?

My grandfather fought in the war. So independence makes me think of him in his army uniform in the photo that we had in our childhood home.

I hope many more brave moments for Finland in the future, but I do hope we would value our membership in the European Union as highly as we do our independence. Being a European country has really given us peace and prosperity.

Q. Finland is a highly egalitarian society, with women enjoying equal rights and opportunities as men in all fields of life. Gender equality is deeply rooted in the Finnish society. What is it like to live as a woman in such a society?

I am in my 40s now. When I was growing up, men certainly did not do any household work and the majority of top business and political figures were men. Things have changed a lot. We have had female prime ministers and a female president.

When I talk to my younger colleagues at work, I am fascinated to know how much young men participate in the family life these days. They take interest and also participate in their child’s life. They do not necessarily consider household chores women’s task.

I have a daughter and a son. I am interested in seeing how their life will be in the future, and if gender plays any role in the decisions they make.



If you are a Finn, I’d love to hear your story and your ideas of Finnishness.

Your academic background, profession or other aspects of your life are not important at all for responding to my interview. If you are a Finn, I want to know what you have to say about Finnish society, life, culture and everything else that define Finland and Finnishness. Just throw me an e-mail at r2000.gp@gmail.com and I’ll be in touch ASAP. You can send me the answers to the interview questions by email, and I will publish your story on this blog. In other words, where you live does not matter — from north to south to east to west, wherever you are, I am here to hear.

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Mahmudul Islam

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Trying to write engagingly. Finnish karaoke singer. Personal Development| Intercultural Relationship| Meaningful Conversation