‘I wish we could broaden our view of Finnishness in general’ [Finland 100/Suomi 100]

Emma, who divides her time between Berlin and Helsinki, wishes that Finns would stop being obsessed with nationalistic elements such as the Winter War and sisu, and start appreciating more diverse ways of being a Finn. Courtesy: Internet

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.

Emma Taulo is a screenwriter and director who specialises in documentary film and reality television. She has extensive experience in communications and PR in the field of film and TV.

Emma, who studied at the University of Helsinki and Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, is the script editor of the 2012 film “The Marshal of Finland” (Suomen Marsalkka). The film is based on the life of Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. A six-part documentary on how the film was made was also released, and Emma wrote the screenplay.

Emma, who was one of the speakers at TEDxHelsinkiUniversity event held in May 2017, believes that Finnishness is not a very old concept but it has always been very diverse, that egalitarianism has played a crucial role behind Finland’s success in many areas as a country, and that ‘sisu’ is more of an individualistic concept but not a collective national feature of Finland.

Enjoy the interview!

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

My name is Emma Taulo. I am a scriptwriter and director. Recently, I have been working a lot on TV series about Finnish identity and culture, and I just wrote a drama series about the events of 1917, the year Finland became independent. It will be broadcast on Yle in December.

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

I notice my Finnishness especially when I am abroad. I live both in Helsinki and Berlin, and thus have the opportunity to observe my national identity a lot.

The things that I feel are very Finnish in me are trust, obeying the authorities, tendency to take things very literally, and like all small nations, being a bit obsessed with what others think of us.

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

I am proud of the welfare society that we have managed to build. I am happy to come from a country where education, equality and welfare are mostly obvious to most people.

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?

This feels like a bit of a generalisation to me. I will not say Finns necessarily prefer isolation. I think it is more of a question of what we are used to. Finland has long been an isolated and homogenous country where people lived in isolation from each other and got used to that.

It is true that Finns, like all Scandinavians, appreciate their personal space because they have always had that luxury to have some personal space. Also, I think if you look at the younger Finns living in the cities, this might not apply to them.

Q. In 1940, the New York Times said ‘sisu’ is a word that explains Finland. If sisu is such a key part of the 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?

To be honest, sisu, in my opinion, is just a lot of bullshit. It is a nationalistic narrative and discourse that was invented while creating the myth of Finnish identity in the 19th century and was strengthened after the Second World War. It was a time when we needed to move on after a dramatic war. A very practical idea from the point of view of the rulers, don’t you think?

It is of course true that historically, it has taken a lot of persistence to survive in this country. Finland was a small and poor agricultural country for a very long time. People had to survive in the turmoil of wars, famine and difficult weather conditions. However, this applies to Iceland and Ireland as well, for example.

Overcoming one’s self and being very persistent — it is not specifically a Finnish phenomenon. We have just branded it well.

Interestingly, most of our ancient folklore and collective stories do not have anything to do with sisu. These stories are about losers and anti-heroes, and we still love underdog tales the most.

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?

My everyday life experience is that sisu is very much of an individualistic feature, and not a collective national feature. To me, it means you are not supposed to fail and give up even though that would be better for you.

I also think that people can cope with difficulties, thanks to the still relatively strong welfare state we have. There is always a safety network. Institutions and society are there for you, generally speaking of course. Not many people have to survive completely on their own if they get unemployed or sick.

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?

If you really think of it, sisu is actually about sacrificing yourself. It means glorifying your suffering and becoming a martyr. It is not about finding creative solutions or achieving things together. Rather, it is about completing a task you were given by yourself, no matter what.

In terms of history, we have one ruling narrative about Finns defending their country in the Second World War, but not really a narrative from the time we actually got independent in the first place.

I would argue that we would have lower suicide rates and less alcoholism, if we were not so obsessed with this sisu thing!

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 am not sure if I agree with this. I think it is more about the Finnish culture where it is inappropriate to interrupt others and step into their personal space. That might come across as shyness. Finnish discussion culture is also not as advanced as in many other, especially a bit older societies. When I grew up, we were not encouraged to speak up or have a lot of opinions or make mistakes or being wrong because that would be shameful. I hope this is changing now.

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?

It is a good question. I am sure it has a lot to do with the welfare society and quality of life in general. In Finland, we have a clean, safe and functioning society.

I would define happiness as Don Draper did in Mad Men: Happiness is lack of fear. We do not have a lot to be afraid of in Finland, compared to many other countries at least.

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?

This is related to things that were discussed about sisu above. You are not supposed to ask for help or seek comfort because that would make you look weak. (I am making strong generalisations here since you have done so in the question as well!) Many people also don’t have the means or tools to deal with negative life experiences.

Suicide has long been something that men tend to commit. Finnish society has a strong shame culture, and this has connections to the suicide rates. My theory is that losing one’s face, like being bankrupt, is considered to be so shameful and such a failure that it leads to suicide.

Even though suicide rates have been decreasing, more and more young women are committing suicide and that is alarming. But why this is happening is a bit unclear to me.

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?

I do agree. I feel safe in Finland most of the time, and compared to many other countries, I think this is most likely true for a native Finn. If I understood correctly, it is still harder for foreigners to integrate into the Finnish society than in many other European countries, for example.

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 really like living in Berlin. Compared to Finland, it is more easy-going, less uptight and more diverse. (And the weather is so much better!)

But usually, it is also always nice to come back to Helsinki for a while.

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’?

Of course not. Finnishness is a very young invention, dating back to the 19th century. Before that, people identified themselves with their villages and areas. And before the Second World War, Finland was way more diverse.

In reality, Finnishness has always been very diverse, and so should it be. Attempts to isolate ourselves and “our culture” (which is based on Swedish, Russian cultures etc) is suicidal behaviour. Again, this, of course, is a Finnish thing.

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

Of course. We need more talented and experienced people.

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

This question is so wide that it is hard to give an answer in a nutshell. Finland faced the second economic recession within my lifetime, and this has had an effect on the society both economically and mentally. We are not so isolated from the rest of the world anymore, and that has affected every area of the society.

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

The weather is depressing, and it seems that climate change is making it even worse. Finland feels small and narrow-minded very often. It is still a pretty small place after all.

But again, I am a fan of our healthcare and education system. I am a happy taxpayer, thanks to these two services and many more things.

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?

Well, recent figures from this year do not look so bad, do they? At least there is some light at the end of the tunnel now.

But if I knew the answer to this, I would not be a scriptwriter I guess. I would be working in the field of economy to make it better.

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?

Yes. I think that is the worst possible result. Uneducated people lead to loss of democracy and welfare. Education has been the cornerstone of the Finnish success, and now it seems to be crumbling. The brain drain also makes the situation worse.

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?

I do not know really. Maybe people have good experiences from their school years and want to keep on sharing that. Also, teachers used to be very respected, even though this might be changing but I am not sure. In my opinion, teachers should be paid more.

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 think it is a very interesting experiment. I look forward to seeing the results (even though the sample size is so small that the results will not be statistically very reliable).

Egalitarianism in Finland is one of the things I am most proud of but there is sexism in Finnish society and that is structural. I myself bump into it every single week. Oftentimes, it is just very subtle.

Personally, as a freelancer, it sounds like something that would benefit me and secure my living. Looks like project work and freelancing is increasing. So I think this would be something very welcoming.

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

I would name Minna Canth, if I have to pick one. She was a writer, social activist and feminist who played a big part in fighting for women’s rights in the 19th century. The mother of the Finnish equality, if you like.

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?

To be honest, I have never heard anyone saying that it is easy to make friends in another country! To begin with, maybe it is harder to make contact with Finns because of the low level of social interaction and absence of small talk. In Scandinavian cultures, social interaction and small talk do not play a key role.

If a Finn suffers from loneliness, maybe it is hard for him or her to befriend another Finn too.

Everyone loves when they are asked about themselves. This usually works when it comes to making friends. Just give it some time and you will have a friend for long. At least that is what people say.

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?

This is an extremely complicated and broad question again.

Independence is a crucial part of the Finnish identity and society. Because we have been struggling to be independent and have not really coped with that. It is somewhat a national pain spot.

In terms of history, we have one ruling narrative about Finns defending their country in the Second World War, but not really a narrative from the time we actually got independent in the first place. What I have tried to do in the past two years is to tell our stories from the other sides of the history.

In short, I wish we could broaden our view of Finnishness in general. Stop focusing and being obsessed with things like the Winter War and sisu and all that nationalistic stuff, and start appreciating more diverse ways of being a Finn.

As for the question about what Finland can do better, you will find the answer in my other answers.

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?

This is one of the things I am most proud of, and I believe it is one of the reasons why Finland has been so successful.

But this does not mean that Finland is truly equal. For example, women still do not get paid as well as their male colleagues in many areas, and receive hate speeches online more easily (like in all countries). We also have an extremely high domestic violence rate in Finland, and women, in most cases, are the victims. Harassment of women has not disappeared.

Sexism in the Finnish society is structural. Well, I myself bump into it every single week. Oftentimes, it is just very subtle.

I feel that I need to work harder and cannot afford to make any mistakes compared to my male colleagues. So there is still some work to do in this area over the next hundred years!

DO NOT miss other Finland 100 interviews:

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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