Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Are Finns Ethnocentric?

Recently on a visit to India, some people who regularly deal with Finns asked me to explain why Finns are ethnocentric. 
"You live in Finland and should be able to give us some insight
This question was put to me. This is tough! Now, having lived in Finland more than 25 years, I have no desire to badmouth Finland and still need to find an intelligent insight.

Historically small nations tend to be ethnocentric. But is ethnocentrism still valid in a modern context? The term ethnocentrism is often based on the premise of racial superiority over other races/ethnicities.
Are Finns Ethnocentric and Isolated?
In the old days, Finns mostly kept to themselves as you can expect from a people living on the edge of Europe in a mostly harsh climate. But today, Finland has become a rapidly evolving society embracing many diverse cultures and on the way to becoming global.

Photo source:

The facts are a bit problematic in describing ethnic diversity. In 2010: 

  • 2.7% of Finland's residents were foreign citizens (EU average 6.4%). 
  • In Iceland, 7.6% of the population were born abroad. 
  • The majority of foreign-born people come to Finland from neighbouring Estonia (18.6%), Russia (16.2%) and Sweden (4.6%). The Estonians are working in Finland and going back home while Russians settle in and get citizenship five times more often.
'Finnish ethnocentrism' is actually a misnomer and ethnocentrism is highly misleading in the context of Finns in these days. The choice of deciding to remain strictly on their own as a socio-economic-political policy has become a minority opinion in Finland. 

The majority of Finns have actually the opposite sentiment as they feel that they are tucked away in a tiny sparsely populated country far away from the centre stage of the world. There is a fervent desire to catch up and not be seen as a peripherial culture. Many a Finn would quip 
We don’t have much culture, we just came out of the woods recently”.

Now this is not meant to be taken literally, but should be understood as self-irony, which characterises Finnish humour

A Finn and a Norwegian would joke that in spite of very different languages and cultures, they have at least one thing in common; a challenging neighbour to the east. 

You can actually discover people of Finnish origin almost anywhere on the globe. Whether they learn Hindi and Marathi and blend in downtown Mumbai or live in Patagonia, Argentina as sheep farmers, you can recognize them, if not from anything else, from their names at least. Typically Finns are also rather self-effacing and try to be modest yet friendly, but there are some exceptions. 

Photo source:

One does run into an arrogant and high-nosed Finn occasionally, of both gender and among all age groups. 

In Finland, there is even a right-wing political party called Perussuomalaiset. This party is anti-immigration, anti-EU though they are not as extreme as the neo-Nazis. This party is probably going to get stronger over the years and become a decisive factor in politics one day.

Finns are unique people because of their geography, history and challenging climate and especially how all these have shaped their character.
Challenges Foreigners Experience with Finns

Photo source: 

People having interactions with Finns report that the following are the challenges plaguing foreigners’ attempts to have smooth dealings or settle down to a “lived happily ever after” life in Finland.
  • Scant communication, where silence is no embarrassment but a virtue
  • Finns prefer to communicate by e-mail or sms messaging. People divorce and are even fired in Finland by sms messages
  • Difficulty in making friends with Finns – it might take years as Finns are slow to warm up to new people and show emotions
  • Seemingly linear way of thinking. Almost always you have agendas at meetings, start at the beginning with no chit chat at all and finish at the end
  • Management by ‘Perkele’ – a very distinct and dogged no-nonsense result oriented management style which ruffles feathers easily
  • Challenging climate for most of the year – excepting the short summer, either too wet or too cold and damp or getting a lot of what the British railways called “the wrong kind of snow” in 1991, to explain the occasional slight delays
  • There is almost no communal ritual moaning at the workplace so vital and essentially British and also found in most other cultures. The ritual of going out with colleagues and engaging in boss-bashing tongue wagging with a beer is hardly practised in Finland. Finns make up for this at the once yearly Pikkujoulut or Christmas party where scandals to last the whole year might take place.
  • Things tend to run quiet and smooth so restless foreigners either get bored or depressed feeling “Nothing ever happens here”. 

So, the answer is 'it depends!' - the Finns are ethnocentric in some contexts while being very global and eager to mix in other contexts.


Pekka Virtanen said...

Very good picture of the Finns. Good post.

Damien said...

Finns are in my experience rather ethnocentric. Nations with relatively small population and living away from crossroads tend to be homogenous and Finland is no exception. Interesting post.

Rana Sinha said...

Thanks Pekka and Damien for your comments. Damien, I must add that Finns being ethnocentric depends much on the Finn you get to know.