The Finns Observed

By Litell, Richard J. | Scandinavian Review, Autumn 2017 | Go to article overview

The Finns Observed


Litell, Richard J., Scandinavian Review


FINNS ARE WARM-HEARTED PEOPLE, BUT THEY HAVE A DESIRE for solitude. They are hardworking and intelligent but often seem slow to react. They love freedom but they curtail their own liberty by closing their shops early, limiting their access to alcohol, prohibiting late baths in apartment buildings and taxing themselves to death. They worship athletics and fitness but until recently their diet gave them the highest incidence of heart disease in Western Europe. They admire coolness and calm judgment but drink a bit too much. They are eager to internationalize but pretend they can't learn languages. They want to communicate but wallow in introversion. They make fine companions but love to brood alone by a lake. They are tolerant but secretly despise people who are melodramatic or appear to be overly emotional. They are essentially independent but often hesitate to speak their mind in the international arena. . . . They are fiercely individualistic but are at the same time afraid of 'what the neighbors might say.' They are Western in outlook but, like the Asians, cannot abide 'losing face.' They are resourceful but often portray themselves as hapless. They are capable of acting alone but frequently take refuge in group collusion. They desire to be liked but make to no attempt to charm. They love their country but seldom speak well of it."

As the discerning reader will recognize these are not the words of the writer of this article. They are those of a man who has spent more than a half-century gaining an intimate knowledge of the Finnish people and who has the credentials to be so insightful and frank about a people he greatly admires. He is Richard D. Lewis, founder and president of Richard D. Lewis Communications Ltd., an international institute for cross-cultural and language training, and considered one of Britain's foremost linguists and cross-cultural theorists. One of his books, When Cultures Collide, has sold more than a million copies and won the prestigious U.S. Executive Club Book Award in 1997.

Lewis's first encounter with Finland was when he attended the Summer Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952. He remained for a year, working on a farm and learning Finnish and Swedish and was soon contributing to the Finnish newspaper Uusi Suomi. In 1955 he founded the Finnish Berlitz School of Languages in Helsinki, Tampere, Turku, Lahti and Kotka. In 1997 he was knighted by then president of Finland Martti Ahtisaari· for his services to the country spanning 50 years. In 2009 he was promoted to the rank of Knight Commander, Order of the Lion of Finland.

Lewis published the book quoted liberally in this article-Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf-in 2005, but since it is based on the author's knowledge of Finland for well over half of the country's existence as an independent nation, its evaluations are still amazingly valid. The book includes many informative chapters summarizing Finland's origins, geography, history and language, but its contents devoted to character traits, how to approach Finns, what Finns think of other nationalities, what they think of Finns that stand out.

"Finnish values are strong," writes Lewis, "inasmuch as they are shared by the nation, are rarely compromised or diluted, and are seen as a code of ethical behavior." He lists 10 outstanding traits characteristic of Finnish men, the first of which is a sense of separateness resulting from their unique language and culture, their isolated geography, their struggle to survive, particularly during their first century of independence and a high degree of self-consciousness.

The second trait is one that has persistently defied exact translation, namely sisu. Lewis feels the nearest English equivalent is "guts." The word sisu implies courage, toughness, stamina, stubbornness, singlemindedness and tenacity-and its embrace has sustained Finns through two wars and two periods of economic depression. The third trait is honesty, and Finnish honesty, Lewis points out, is of the blue-eyed, uncompromising, law-abiding variety. …

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