‘In Finland, There is The Freedom To Choose One’s Own Path’ [Finland 100/Suomi 100]

Kirsti, who as a Finn is most proud of how people are treated equally in Finland despite their professional status, says the Nordic country should continue developing itself in order to become an even better country to live in. Courtesy: Kirsti Härö

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.

Kirsti Härö is a young Finn who graduated from the University of Oulu in January 2017. She has an overseas job, working in customer service in Germany.

Kirsti, who studies languages on her own, thinks Finland has big potentials in the future despite the current economic slump, that the present government’s austerity measures will not substantially lower the quality of education but there will be less support for students who lag behind in school, and that ensuring equal pay of men and women in similar positions will mean progress for Finnish egalitarianism.

Enjoy the interview!

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

My name is Kirsti Härö and I am from Oulainen in the Northern Ostrobothnia region. I graduated this January from the University of Oulu and am working in customer service in Germany now. I actually decided to live abroad for a while at least because I want to see and experience the world beyond the Finnish borders.

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

I think every single person is different and it is not easy to find common traits in people. Of course, we can make generalisations and say that the Finns adhere to the rules, and are persistent and punctual. Most Finns are probably like this, but some are not, and that does not make a Finn less of a Finn.

One common thing about Finns is that they are proud of being Finns and of their country.

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

In Finland, I like equality between different people. It does not matter if one happens to be a doctor or a cleaner. Everyone is treated the same way.

Since I have lived abroad on several occasions, I have realised that in Finland things seem to run smoothly, even with bureaucracy (although many Finns would disagree on this point). For example, in Germany, I had to do lots of paperwork to move here and it was not easy because everything had to be done in person and during office hours.

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?

I think this depends on the person and occasion. Some people require more time in solitude than others. Even more social Finns want to spend some time alone occasionally.

One of the challenges of living in Finland is finding a good job. For those who do not have work experience, it is hard to get a job when there are a few hundred applicants for only one position.

It does not mean that we avoid a vibrant social life even if we want to spend some time alone or spend time with only a few close friends or family members.

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 agree about sisu and silence but I do not think sauna plays too big a role in Finland. Although many Finns like sauna, there are plenty of others who do not have sauna or just do not use it regularly.

Silence is also a part of Finnish people. In social situations, it is completely okay to be silent for a while. There is no need to talk nonsense during possible silent moments.

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?

In this case, sisu means putting in more efforts in finding a new job or solving the situation. If it takes longer than expected to get the job, then it means a Finn will not give up. In the meantime, he will think that it is a hard time for him right now but with enough hard work, things will get better in the future.

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?

I think sisu has a huge impact on my own life. If I want to achieve my goals, I know I have to work hard and have to be consistent in my actions. That is why I want to continue learning after graduation. Here in Germany, I learn languages on my own because I want to be fluent in those languages one day. That is the goal I have set for myself and I am going to keep working on it.

Finland can benefit from the skills of foreigners but the companies should be more interested in hiring people who do not necessarily speak Finnish.

It is sometimes hard for me to understand people who do not seem to care about doing things properly. For example, they are always arriving late or forgetting important things.

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 definitely miss Finnish salmiakki now but I think I can survive without it.

As for shyness, I do not think Finns are shy. Being silent should not be interpreted as shyness.

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?

Happiness is really hard to define and I think it means different things to different people. I would say that good food, nice company and doing things I like to do makes me happy.

In Finland, people have good opportunities to do what they want to do with their lives. There is the freedom to choose one’s own path. I think the free education really helps people become what they want to become in life, no matter if their parents are poor or rich.

The funny thing about those rankings is that if you read about Finland’s rankings in that kind of surveys on the Internet, the comment sections are full of negative comments.

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?

I think there are always some unhappy people in every country, and I would not say that Finland is an exception in this case. Loneliness might be caused by different reasons, like moving to another city for work and then not finding any friends there. In Finland, people do not usually talk to strangers and this can be the reason why it is so hard to make friends in a new city.

Since I have lived abroad on several occasions, I have realised that in Finland things seem to run smoothly, even with bureaucracy (although many Finns would disagree on this point).

Depression and suicide are really sad things. One of the causes is probably the high unemployment rate. It is depressing when you are unemployed and have nothing to do, and you can feel useless and worthless in such a situation. You can feel like there is no reason to live anymore.

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 agree about the safety in Finland. Finland is really a peaceful country, especially in smaller cities and villages. But I do not know about the travelling part. It depends on what people want to see and experience in their travel destinations. If they want to see the Northern Lights, and clean and beautiful nature, then Finland is a good destination.

On the other hand, if someone wants to experience the life of big cities, then they should go elsewhere.

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 love Finland but at the moment, I want to live elsewhere. Right now, I am working in Germany. It is not because I do not like Finland or because I was not happy in Finland. I want to travel and see new things while I am still young. I will probably move back to Finland at some point in the future when the employment situation will improve and I have gained some work experience.

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’?

The population of Finland is aging and that is why we need some younger people here. If foreigners who move here can integrate into the society and be a part of it, then I have nothing against it. But because the unemployment rate in Finland is high at the moment, it is not easy for foreigners to find a job, especially without Finnish language skills and higher education.

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

Finland can benefit from the skills of foreigners but the companies should be more interested in hiring people who do not necessarily speak Finnish. In some fields, there are not enough Finnish workers available. So in those jobs, it would make sense to hire foreigners.

I do not believe the basic income trial will improve employment figures significantly but it could make the life of the unemployed a bit easier since they would not have to worry about the paperwork which Kela requires for disbursing financial support.

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

I think the number of foreigners has been increasing for the past ten years. So Finland has become more multicultural. Probably also the difference between the rich and the poor has been growing. It is nowadays harder for the children of the poor families to become rich when they grow up.

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

One of the challenges is finding a good job. For those who do not have work experience, it is hard to get a job when there are a few hundred applicants for only one position. Apart from that, things are running smoothly in Finland. The positive sides include the clean and beautiful nature

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?

I hope the situation will improve in Finland. This will probably take years and the steps taken by the government are not going to make any huge improvements in this case. I still believe that with so many highly educated and talented people, Finland has big potentials.

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?

I do not think the quality of education will change that much but the support for those who are not doing well in school will decrease. When I was in school, the pupils bad at languages had different classes where the teacher would try teaching them basic grammar rules and so on.

However, in the future, class sizes will grow and teachers will have less chances to adjust teaching according to the individual needs of students.

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 have an important task in the society. They teach really important skills, like reading and writing, foreign languages and mathematics etc. These are required in our daily life.

To me, Finnish independence means the right to make our own decisions and not being regulated by other countries.

The job is a good choice for people who like to spend time with children and prefer a social working environment. Moreover, the employment prospects remain good since schools will need more teachers in the future as well. Teachers also have much longer summer holidays than the average employees.

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 do not believe this kind of action will improve employment rates significantly. Of course, there are some people who would like to try self-employment if the basic income is guaranteed but I do not think there are so many of them. It could make the life of the unemployed a bit easier since they would not have to worry about the paperwork which Kela requires for disbursing financial support.

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?

I suggest you go to different events and then choose some Finns who have the impression that they are also looking for a friend. It does not really hurt to try at least. Nobody will judge you for that. Or maybe you could offer them some alcohol and drink it together. Haha.

23. 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?

I think independence means the right to make our own decisions and not being regulated by other countries. Finland should continue to develop itself and become an even better country to live in. Even though the economic situation in Finland is bad at the moment, the government should not give up taking care of the unemployed people and investing in the better future of children by providing high quality education.

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 think Finland is a good place for women to live. Of course, there is still room for improvement in this area too, like ensuring that women get equal salary as men in similar positions. It is great to feel that as a Finnish woman, I have equal chances of achieving my goals and being successful in life as men.

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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