Conversations from the Sauna: On Privacy, Openness, Nudity, and Coming Together
The Finnish sauna is a closed space where people open up.
—Molly Schwartz, PhD student in Media and Communication Studies, School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University, Sweden
This story is part of the Openness publication. Other stories include Digital Archives, the Museum and the Culture Snacker and Openness without Persecution.
Going to sauna is a sacred tradition that extends back as far as any Finn can remember. Women gave birth in the sauna. Families gather in the sauna. Finnish presidents conduct diplomacy in the sauna. Tough old men cry in the sauna. It is a place where people connect.
Warm, steamy, and enclosed, the sauna is an intimate place where nude social interaction is decidedly non-sexual. People gather in these humid cocoons, with friends, family, strangers, or alone, devoid of clothing or technological gadgets, to relax and escape from the cares of everyday life.
Ask Finns, and they’ll tell you that the sauna is a space of equality. Stripping down requires shedding the trappings of everyday life and acknowledging that beneath it all, we are humans.
Finnish Secretary of State, Pertti Torstila, gave an address at the XV International Sauna Congress in Tokyo in which he said:
“In sauna all are equals. There are no superpowers or minipowers in a sauna, no superiors or servants. You don’t keep your politics up your sleeve when you are not wearing sleeves. If you discuss and agree on something when you are all naked, it’s difficult afterwards not to keep your word. For us it’s as natural as it gets and networking in the nude is an absolutely moral good.”
We are Rae and Molly, two Americans who were living in Finland, and we entered this closed space to talk to a Finn about what sauna means, how it is practiced, and how it evolved as a tradition. By recording and publicizing a conversation from a traditionally private space, we are exploring the conditions for openness in an unconventional setting.
Are physically enclosed meeting spaces inherently open, because they create a space of trust and intimacy for the parties involved; or are they inherently closed, because they exclude those on the outside? What happens when these kinds of meetings facilitate political decisions? How does physical comfort, or discomfort, relate to emotional openness? Does disconnecting from technology make us more open or more closed to human connection, and which kinds? We are blurring the lines between public and private, broadcasts and conversations, open people and closed spaces, in order to explore some of these questions.
The audio piece (embedded above) is a discussion recorded from inside a sauna that took place between Rae, Molly, and Sebastian Slotte, a Finn who grew up going to sauna every week and who brought a pop-up sauna along on a cross-country bike trip. Opening to the sound of water hissing as it is thrown on the sauna stove to create steam (known in Finnish as löyly), this is a candid recording in which the three of us openly discuss nudity, human connection, silence, political transparency, equality, and the role that sauna has played in Finland.
Recorded on 22 February 2015 in Helsinki, Finland.
About the author
Molly Schwartz is a writer and researcher, currently pursuing a PhD in Media and Communication Studies at Malmö University in Sweden.
Rae Ellen Bichell is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., writing for National Public Radio (NPR).
Sebastian Slotte is a Swedish-speaking Finn from Ostrobothnia, Finland, and a librarian at Stockholms stadsbibliotek, Tranströmerbiblioteket, Stockholm City Public Library.