Interior architecture at Martinlaakson lukio / Vantaa / 13 Jan 2016

Interior architecture at Martinlaakson lukio / Vantaa / 13 Jan 2016





Drips and bars / Helsinki / 24 Jan 2016

Drips and bars / Helsinki / 24 Jan 2016


In her foundational work on social psychology, Marilynn Brewer (2001) noted the relationship between various social identities and the self. “Whereas person-based social identities reflect the extent to which a group or category membership is represented as an integral part of an individual's self-concept,” she wrote, “group-based social identities refer to the perception of self as an integral or interchangeable part of a larger group or social unit” (118). Her analysis revealed the way that a single social identity can act in two different ways upon an individual’s self-definition. This interpretation also helps tease out some of the complexities of Finnish identity. 

This section didn’t exist in my initial studies. Instead, I planned to break down Finnish national identity into social and political spheres of behavior. But as I spoke with Finns across the country, it became clear that there was an non-political or extra-national (or perhaps non-national) constituent community of Finns who identify as such because of behavioral codes and a sense of belonging rather than a national bond.

To call Finnish identity merely a political or national identity is reductive. Moreover, it’s incomplete on its face. There were, as I have said before, Finns before there was Finland. Therefore, Finnish identity is larger than the narrow subset of national identity. Finnish culture and social identity – what we’ll call “Finnishness” – operates both within and beyond of civil society. It’s much more open to its composition, accretions made throughout history from Swedish, Russian, German, American, and global influences. It is the sum of these and more. 

Cafe Regatta, Toivo Kuulan Puisto / Helsinki / 12 Jan 2016

Cafe Regatta, Toivo Kuulan Puisto / Helsinki / 12 Jan 2016


“Snellman [Finnish statesman and philosopher] provided a Hegelian ideological framework for nation building. In his essay ‘On the Theory of the State’ (1861), he invoked [political journalist during the Grand Duchy] Adolf Ivar Arwidsson’s familiar syllogism: ‘Swedes we are no more, Russians we can never be, so let us be Finns.’ But the synthesis was ambiguous. It could be taken as a moral imperative: ‘we must be Finns’” (Rinehart, 427).

For both Snellman and Arwidsson, the idea of a Finnish state, of a Finnish national identity was a response to the need for a geographical space to enact cultural practices. That is, Finns were socially unlike both Russia and Sweden, which did have some influence, they were something more, and needed a space.

The relationship modern Finns have with Finnish social and political identity is not hard and clearly demarcated. There is overlap and interference and contradiction – like all good multiple identities. For many of them, Finnish social identity has to do with a collective sense of ambition and character. These are not national values – nations have no values – but social values Finns take to the political process. Finnish social identity is the lens through which their public discourse and debate appear.

“The traditional national symbolism has not only solid roots in the Finnish historical experience, but it also appears curiously narrow, if we take in earnest some analysts' view of the Finnish culture.” Alapuro (1992), 706

It’s like that’s typical Finnish, people don’t want things to change. The thing has been this like always, why do you change it? They don’t like to change things, but they need to change. – Mikko, 15, Joensuu

“After making an initial survey of available published folk poetry about the hero Väinämöinen, [Elias] Lönnrot began a systematic collection of the poetry in the field. During 1831 to 1833, Lönnrot made five field trips to collect poetry in Kalevalaic metrics. On the basis of his field materials he decided to create the literary work The Kalevala, which then became known as the national epics of Finland. The first edition was published in 1835 and the second, and expanded version, in 1849. Thus Lönnrot’s activities replicated all the elements of the Homerian question: He collected folk poetry, canonized it in a single literary work, and thus created a politically significant symbol of national culture.” Siikala (2006), 161

“Third World nations seeking their cultural identity are especially interested in the Kalevala, for this work was one of the creators and keystones of Finnish cultural identity.” Laitinen and Binham (1983), 395

“An external account of peoplehood is apt to rely on identity (cultural similarity) and/or interest (and, implicitly or explicitly, a social contract). Identity and/or interest can then be invoked to explain why people accept shared institutions and, indeed, accept each other. The dominant discourses about membership in a European polity work on these bases. Either people are Europeans because they are culturally similar to one another, or they are Europeans because to be so is in their interest (usually described in economic terms). In either case, the emphasis is on passive preconditions, not projects; on adaptation to external necessity, not creative pursuit of an attractive solidarity. The implication is that the persons in question are already formed as either similar or different in cultural terms.” Calhoun (2002), 154

Loyalty and the ability to speak truth. They speak a lot of what they really thing, not what would be better for them to say at that point. Maybe that's the reason why there is not so much small talk in here, people just don't want to talk, they're just not interested and they tell it to you. Like going to the bus and sitting there in a corner, even though you could sit and have small talk. – Timofei, 18, Helsinki

“Most cultural communities are not voluntary association in any strong sense. Membership is usually determined by birth rather than by deliberate choice, and in many cases there is no option of entry for those born outside – even though, as we have seen, groups will seek to redefine the boundaries of membership (and of group identity) when circumstances are propitious. Cultural communities may be regarded as voluntary associations to the extent that members recognize as legitimate the terms of association and the authority that upholds them. All that is necessary as evidence of such recognition is the fact that members choose not to leave. Recognition in these austere terms would, of course, be meaningless without the individual having one important right against the community: the right to be free to leave.” Kukathas (1992), 116

When you start to fit here, then you just become a Finn. It doesn't matter if you are from Africa, or Europe or anywhere. For example now, there's a very big thing about two immigrants, the next generation of immigrants, one from Africa and one from I'm not sure where, but they're both very successful celebrities here now, and they tend to be telling that, "We're Finns," and telling other Finns that we're part of your country, part of your society. I think they have accomplished that because they're speaking the language perfectly. They respect government and for authorities, unlike what we can see now with many people who come from Syria. They don't have it. That's of course the media concentrating on the bad things. That's also what I have been seeing in the younger population that comes from different countries. It's very different, Finns and other people, they are different. In that respect, I don't know what it is about it. When you start fitting into society, you become Finn. I don't think it even matters that much to language, but it is of course important, the language reflects the culture and the history. – Timofei, 18, Helsinki

“Theories of person-based social identity generally assume that the traits, attitudes, and values that an individual inherits from membership in different primary groups and social categories are integrated into a global self-concept. Consciousness of a particular group membership may affect the relative salience of these different aspects of the self-concept, but ultimately they are all part of a single representation of the individual self. Role identities, on the other hand, are usually conceptualized as structured sets of interrelated behaviors, obligations, and orientations toward others that are specific to that social role and hence differentiated from other role identities that the same individual may hold. Theories of role-based or relational identities thus view the self as multifaceted, composed by a set of discrete identities.” Brewer (2001), 121

Nobody is left alone in Finland. We have enough potential to develop every citizen. Understand that we are between east and west and that we are, in a way, egalitarian. Nobody is better than the other. Everybody should be able to use the justice system and political system. – Sinikka, History Teacher, Vantaa

“Identities are narrative constructs, and a rhetorical, persuasive element forms part of them. Some key elements also seem to emerge constantly in the narration of the Finnish nation. Cultural historians stress the meanings of national symbols and identity (the Kalevala and the Finnish language), while political historians stress periods of crisis and how the nation has been able to overcome them. It is typical to argue how the Winter War (1939-1940) still influences the Finnish historical consciousness more than any other episode in the country's history into recall of the divide between red and white Finland disappeared in the process.” Passi (1997), 47

“Individuals invariably find themselves members of groups or associations which not only influence their conduct but also shape their loyalties and there is a sense of identity.” Kukathas (1992), 110

“One might object that civic identities do correspond to a single social practice that settles the question of who ‘we’ are: the state establishes civic identity by determining who has citizenship. But why should we expect the category of citizenship to exhaust the concept of civic identity? In particular contexts (for example, a border crossing), citizenship may indeed settle the question, Who is an American? But just as biological sex does not exhaust the meaning of gender, citizenship does not exhaust the meaning of civic identity; these may be powerful markers, but they are unable to end the debate about the meaning of identity. The question of who is an American arises every day in contexts in which citizenship is well established. There is no way to institutionally settle the question of civic identities once and for all. Civic identities are produced through multiple, overlapping practices…. We should reconceptualize civic identity as arising through the richness of overlapping, contradictory, and perhaps only occasionally convergent practices that give the identity meaning and relevance to those who would claim it.” Ferguson, M. (2007), 41.

I think it's mostly to not, how would I say it, to make everyone, do not discriminate anyone for their anything, basically. For anything, because, why should you? That's the main reason, that if someone is different, then we should keep them like normal, no discrimination. – Samuel, 16, Helsinki

T: It's staying out of trouble, first of all, and it's good if you have a work, you don't have a family or own home or a car or paying taxes, making your own way.

M: I think that, as a student, we are expected to be successful in our studies and education because Finland is very much respected in other countries, so we are expected to be good and to study hard, and live up to the reputation.

T: Quite a bit of pressure in that. – Tuomas, 18 and Miska, 17, Joensuu

“Social class is not, relative to many other Western European countries, a significant dimension to identity in Finland.” Dutton (2010), 94.

Finnish people don’t plan to be anything special like I know, I accept that someone has to be special, but you really don’t want to do anything. You want to be special but you end up just living a normal life, because you like it more than trying to do something new. That’s not like the American Dream that being rich, that’s not like a Finnish thing. In Finnish, you just want that your family they are doing well and you have your cottage and an old house and maybe a dog, a couple of gigs and you’re just fine with that. A cat and a dog. – Ville, 15, Joensuu

“Human social environments encompass the immediate physical surroundings, social relationships, and cultural milieus within which defined groups of people function and interact. Components of the social environment include built infrastructure; industrial and occupational structure; labor markets; social and economic processes; wealth; social, human, and health services; power relations; government; race relations; social inequality; cultural practices; the arts; religious institutions and practices; and beliefs about place and community. The social environment subsumes many aspects of the physical environment, given that contemporary landscapes, water resources, and other natural resources have been at least partially configured by human social processes. Embedded within contemporary social environments are historical social and power relations that have become institutionalized over time. Social environments can be experienced at multiple scales, often simultaneously, including households, kin networks, neighborhoods, towns and cities, and regions. Social environments are dynamic and change over time as the result of both internal and external forces. There are relationships of dependency among the social environments of different local areas, because these areas are connected through larger regional, national, and international social and economic processes and power relations.” Barnett and Casper (2001), 465

I've always said that the student has to vote, read papers, and not take to gloat, and pay their bills. Those things make it a little more cozy as I joke about it lightly, but it's not always a joke. I mean it also. To be a good member of this society you have to work, you have to do your best, not to work too hard though. You have to have some free time also. – Petter, History Teacher, Helsinki

Have work. Don't go jobless, and just rely on government support. Yeah, contribute. I think it's mostly the same, but just a thing that you make yourself visible in Finland, that you're not just this guy who doesn't have any work, and just takes the money from the government. Yeah, you make yourself visible and give something to the country. – Andre, 15, Helsinki

M: It's a sensitive question for me. I don't know, I want to be successful and be great in my life, but ... I find happiness in, that there are professions where you work really hard, but I've always questioned, would that make me happy or not? University for me, maybe.

Q: What does successful mean to you?

M: When you have money, you have time, you have a house, a car, and everything is in their own place. That's a big dream. For me, the best case scenario would probably be studying history here, University of Joensuu. Yeah, that's what ... maybe becoming a history teacher or a professor, something. – Miska, 17, Joensuu

“[P]eople generally maintain a fairly constant repertoire of identities, each more or less to the fore in a particular set of social contexts. The individual has but one self but this is expressed through different identities. These identities are expressed in relationship to others: they are constructed in social contexts and indeed would be meaningless if they were divorced from social settings.” Ross (2007), 288


  1. What seems to be the fundamental aspects of shared Finnish social identity?
  2. American audiences: What different factors feed into shared - or regional - American social identity?
  3. Finnish audiences: Does the above commentary capture the totality of Finnish social identity or is there something missing?
  4. Explain how Finnish society identity is different from - or complementary to - Finnish national (and international) identity.
  5. What kind of gaps can you find in either the academic research or the interviews?
  6. What comments from the Finnish students do you agree with, disagree with, or find interesting? 
  7. In what way do the selected images in this section complement or relate to the text?
Subterranean spaces along the Aura / Turku / 5 Apr 2016

Subterranean spaces along the Aura / Turku / 5 Apr 2016


Language is among the central pieces of the Finnish social identity. Finnish is a Uralic language has some close cousins – Hungarian, Estonian, the Sámi languages – but is not mutually intelligible. It is, essentially, a language apart, spoken by 5.4 million people worldwide. More people speak Belarussian, Hatian Creole, or Mossi in Burkina Faso than speak Finnish. For comparison, nearly twice as many speak Quechua, the language of the indigenous peoples in the Andes (and many of the recently-immigrated students at my school). 

Instead of abandoning the language, Finland doubles down on Finnish instruction. Not only is the language taught widely, but it is taught deeply and well. First language literacy across Finland is very high. Finland reads almost more books and newspapers per capita than any other country, most in Finnish. But they also recognize that if they are going to compete in the global marketplace, they can’t do so in Finnish. And so second language acquisition is incredibly high. Swedish is compulsory across all schools in Finland. Although Swedish-speaking Finns account for only 5.5% of the population, Swedish as a language is an integral piece of Finnish national and cultural history. The entire country is effectively bilingual. (Although there is some resentment about the continuation of Swedish as an official and required language.) I read anecdotal studies that report English language proficiency at those under the age of 40 at close to 95%. Even those over 40 almost always spoke fluent English, and did so with a level of clarity and fluidity that many second-language learners in the United States lack. Beyond English, Spanish, German, French, and Russian are traditionally the most popular language, though Chinese, Arabic, and other global languages are becoming increasingly popular.

Part of what makes someone Finnish is the relationship with language. Finns are fiercely proud of their language, which is reportedly among the hardest 3 or 4 to learn, and protective of what it represents to them. Yet they willingly and gladly learn multiple languages, concede that the responsibility to communicate lies on them. Language reflects ideology, and this holds true for Finnish. Although I don’t speak Finnish, though I tried to learn, I recognize the daunting edifice of vocabulary and conjugations – there are 15 cases – but also understand that behind that wall lies a language made of objectively simple constructs. American expats described learning the language to me as being terribly hard until it wasn’t, and then it became incredibly intuitive and easy. 

“Although the first Finnish-language books were published as early as the mid-sixteenth century, and although a university was founded in Turku back in 1640, literature proper- in the sense of belles lettres - did not begin to flourish until the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth.” Laitinen and Binham (1983), 394

Swedish. It's a compulsory subject, they're compulsory courses, but if you think about high school, no one likes it, I think that's the trend. That has been going, when I was in high school we didn't like Swedish either, and that was a number of years ago. I think nowadays, in our final exams it used to be compulsory that you had to take the Swedish test as well, but now it isn't, and that shows in the number of students who keep studying the voluntary courses. We've only got a small number of people who actually go through all the courses in Swedish. The others, we've got five which are compulsory, they take those, struggle, half of them, and then they're happy to be rid of it. They don't realize the fact that once they get to university ... ... yeah, exactly, and university level, in order for you to graduate you have to take a certain number of Swedish courses. They don't realize, if they were to carry on here it would be easier for them at university, but they're just happy to get ... I think it does show, and it's the attitude. A lot of students have a very negative attitude toward Swedish, which is strange since they are then taking Spanish for instance, and some of them are taking German or French, and no attitude problems there. Exactly, exactly. In the same way as they rebel against having a compulsory course of philosophy, as if to say this is useless, we shouldn't ... but it's just a number, they've got five courses of Swedish, so it seems like a lot. – Annukka, English Teacher, Vantaa

“The vast geographic areas where the historically related languages and cultures could be found crossed several political borders. The Finno-Ugric languages were found in Sweden, Finland, and in numerous governments in Russia, Estonia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The place of Finno-Ugric cultures thus could not be bounded by political borders, nor was is possible to collapse political units and cultural ones.” Siikala (2006), 160

I think anyone in any country, I think their own language, that's important to you because that's a part of your identity, but I think Finnish people throughout history, also we've had the influence of other languages. We've had Swedish, which is now still a part of the Finnish society since we have it as an official language, but then we've had Russia as well as a neighbor, as a ruler, which means we've got the Russian influence. If you were to go to eastern Finland, you would see that more clearly, because they are in schools, they're saying that we shouldn't have to be forced, shouldn't have to study Swedish because we don't need it anywhere, but we need Russian because it's right there, we've got people from Russian coming. They have the workplaces, they've got companies where people travel between the two countries. I think that's one of the reasons, that we've got a small country with a small number of people talking our language and we know that we need other languages as well.

We've got Swedish, we've got Russian, but then the last 20 years the main focus has been English because people travel a lot, people work in different countries, and I think Finnish people from a very young age, they realize that they need other languages. I think it's something that young children, they start realizing it very early on through computer games, through traveling. It can be different reasons, but they realize the fact that hey, we need to learn other languages ... ... yeah exactly. In order to just cope with other people, which I think is completely different if you think about the US ... ... you don't have that pressure. Perhaps in some areas with Spanish, but other than that, you know that you can live by just knowing English. – Annukka, English Teacher, Vantaa

“Language is one of the major constituents of cultural identity. A major dividing line in the 19th century Finland was created by the fact that Swedish, the language of the elite dominated the ‘linguistic markets.’ While political domination was ultimately centered in St. Petersburg, economic and cultural life remained predominately in the hands of the Swedish-speaking upper class, which began to transform the social and political space into a national cultural space. The Finnish language has its origins in the Ural area and this puts an eastern flavor to Finnish culture and understanding of Finnishness. The linguistic division emerged very clearly in the contested ideas of nation during the 19th century.” Passi (1997), 46

Media, I think. Social media is one of them. Also, our generation knows more about the other world, that there is not just Finland, speaks languages and I think that's quite a big difference. For example, my grandparents don't really speak English or Swedish, just Finnish now. – Tia, 17, Joensuu

“The Finnish language and the central role of reading in daily life are factors which have been often brought up when looking for explanations for Finnish students’ fine performance in comparative studies on reading literacy or comprehension (PISA, IEA). The phonetic character of Finnish language makes decoding easy, and beyond the lower grades, dictation is common only in foreign language classes. As it is, after children learn to decode the language which ‘is spelled as it is pronounced’, they soon learn to be ever more fluent readers due to the subtitling of all foreign language TV-programs and films. Combined with the long-standing tradition of news- papers and magazines subscribed for home delivery, a well-functioning network of free libraries, and zero illiteracy among native adults, Finnish children are truly embedded in written language from birth on.” Kupainen (2009), 53-54

I can only speak for myself, but every time I see a person from a foreign country who wants to speak English, I'm like, "Okay", I jump at the chance. I'm like, "Yes, I can speak English, this is so great". I don't know, I think it's so interesting to talk to people from other places in the world. – Tuomas, 18, Joensuu

Of course it changes the schools as well because, there are a lot of people who don't ... a lot of students that don't necessarily speak Finnish, so that is a big problem for the teacher. At the moment the sort of default situation is that everyone in the classroom, all the pupils, all students speak the same language, so that makes it easier for the teacher to actually teach the language of English, but now we're getting so many immigrants that it's changing and we need to react to the changes that is going to make, in schools as well. It isn't always easy. It's kind of like we're only now kind of waking up to it, I think. – Paulina, Student Teacher, Joensuu

“Finns do not really exist outside of Finland. This drives people to take education more seriously. For example, nobody speaks this funny language that we do. Finland is bilingual, and every student learns both Finnish and Swedish. And every Finn who wants to be successful has to master at least one other language, often English, but she also typically learns German, French, Russian and many others. Even the smallest children understand that nobody else speaks Finnish, and if they want to do anything else in life, they need to learn languages.” Sahlberg, quoted in Choi (2014)

Well, language is important. Also, you can be an American living in Finland, but also be a Finn, though you don't speak Finnish. – Reeta, 18, Helsinki

Also, there should be more foreign languages thought here. English should be more bigger thing in Finland. Now, many adults don't even know how to speak English. It's really bad because it's harder to come here if no one speaks English. – Olivia, 13, Helsinki

Nowadays, in this society, in Finland in 2016- or it has been for years now, you need English. You can't get anywhere with Finnish. Finnish is not limited. English is the obvious first language. I know we do have Swedish as the second official language as well. But students don't normally really like Swedish. They don't understand why they have to study it and so on. But English, because it's so in your face all the time, everywhere you- you can't get rid of it. Even if you hate English at school, when you leave the school building, English will be there somewhere around the corner. Even if you just watch TV at home, it's always there.

I think it's very important for us in school to teach them the best kind of English language skills that they can have, in order to get by in the real world. And I say to them all the time that even, when you're done with the English here, when you go off to a university, anywhere, you're going to be studying perhaps even in English, some of the time. Many degrees in Finland could be bilingual now, or you could do a full degree in English as well. It's just a language like you said, I mean while Americans don't learn any other languages, you can get by with English so easily, so I think that's why. However, it does have the other side as well, because over the years many other languages, the number of students that want to learn other languages, that number has dropped down. People don't take French or German as much as they used to. Which his sad, because obviously the more languages you learn, the better it is. They don't take anything away from you, they just give something. But students can be a bit lazy because they know that English is the one that you need. – Katariina, English Teacher, Helsinki


  1. What is the place of language in the development of communities, affiliations, and shared identities?
  2. American audiences: In what way is the case of Finnish language different from the place of English in America?
  3. Finnish audiences: What role does Finnish actually play in the construction of national or social identity? Is language as important in Finland as it once was?
  4. What connection can we make between the rise of Finnish as a formal national language and the construction of a sense of Finland as a nation-state?
  5. What kind of gaps can you find in either the academic research or the interviews?
  6. What comments from the Finnish students do you agree with, disagree with, or find interesting? 
  7. In what way do the selected images in this section complement or relate to the text?
White out at the Suomenlinna docks / Helsinki / 24 Jan 2016

White out at the Suomenlinna docks / Helsinki / 24 Jan 2016


In addition to Finnish national and social identity, there’s something undeniably Finnish about people in Finland. Nearly all Finns can sense it. (Swedes, Danes, Russians, and Estonians had opinions as well.) This sense of “Finnishness” seems partially a result of Finland’s unique history and geography. The long shared history with Sweden and Russia, its longtime position as a country on the edge of Europe had significant impact on forming a psychological archetype. These conditions encouraged personal independence and the recognition that individual space has a politics. But it also fostered a fierce sense of loyalty when neighbors – especially those inside Finland – need help. The most important lesson that Finland’s history and geography lends is sisu. Sisu roughly translates to perseverance, particularly in relation to lost causes or difficult situations, but the word has no equivalent in English. Yet in Finland, most of the people I asked had their own, particular, and person definition. If there is a central Finnish psychological characteristic, it is the manifold iterations of sisu. 

Partially, however, it is also a set of behaviors that seem socially conditioned in Finland. Students pointed to an almost neurotic stubbornness that is generally praised as a virtue. They also spoke about a quietness that’s confused for shyness, dissatisfaction with completed projects, and a fanatical dedication to honesty. They did also mention excessive reliance on alcohol as a social lubricant, obsession with what the world thinks of Finland, and a need for perpetual competition with Sweden.

There’s also a religious element to this sense of “Finnishness.” Most of Finland are nominally members of the Lutheran church, but many Finns report religious belief as fairly unimportant in their daily life, and others explain their membership in the church as a merely tradition. Belief or not, the church holds a key educational and socializing function. Of course, honesty and the virtue of hard work are reinforced in the church, but the structural, aesthetic, and institutional minimalism might be the most prominent legacy.

All of these categories are obviously incomplete. Not only is a true image of “Finnishness” not possible, but it is – like explaining what it means to be an American – always evolving.  

When I interviewed Ritva, a 77 year old resident of Imatra who was forcibly relocated three times during the war, she tried to remember a poem that perfectly described Finnishness. “A Finn is someone who answers when she’s not asked,” she said, “A Finn is someone who asks when no one answers.” She stopped and spoke in Finnish. Her daughter, Tarja, translated: "She doesn’t remember."

The poem was written by Jorma Etto, a Finnish journalist, writer, and translator. It’s called, simply, “Finnish”:

A Finn is someone who answers when he is not asked,

asks when he is not answered, does not answer when he is not asked,

someone who strays off the road, shouts on the shore

and on the opposite shore someone else like him shouts:

the forest rings, resounds, the pine trees sigh.

From there a Finn comes and groans, he is here and groans,

that way he goes and groans, he is like someone in the sauna and groans

when someone else throws water on the stones.

Such a Finn always has a chum,

he is never alone and the chum is a Finn.

Nothing can part a Finn from a Finn,

nothing except death and the police. (1964, trans. Keith Bosley)

“Without corresponding to live, ongoing practices, claims to identity cease to be meaningful. Put in another way, identity is not voluntaristic: I cannot simply claim an identity for myself. Or, I could, but doing so would not guarantee that such a claim would have meaning for others….The practices that sustain an identity and give it meaning must be recognizable by at least some others to have meaning.” Ferguson, M. (2007), 39

Nothing is absolutely ever finished, like in your summer house, you just finished making a shed or something, but then you say that your sauna is getting old and you must touch immediately. When you’re done touching must move on to the next project and like that. – Venny, 15, Joensuu

I don’t know, many people think that it’s like if you’re quiet and rude and go to sauna and drink coffee and eat salmiakki then you’re Finnish by just thinking you have the nationality of Finland and that’s it and you identify yourself as a Finnish person. – Anna, 15, Joensuu

Yeah, yeah. There's a stereotypical quietness. The Finns are known for their honesty, too. I mean, I think a stereotype is a thing with all Scandinavian countries, but especially Finland, they're hard to warm up to as a friend, but when you've befriended them you've got a friend for life. Yeah, honesty and I think hard work. Taking others into consideration. Honesty. My father pointed this out when we went to see a movie. We had VIP seats. Of course you would think that when we enter and the movie started, that people would go sit there, even though they didn't have the tickets. But nobody went there. That's an outstanding example. I think a quality between men and women. In old Finnish hunter-gatherer societies type, women and men they all had to do the same exact kind of work. Everybody did hard work back then. I think workplace equality is kind of easier because of that. Long history of men and women working together. – Mikko, 15, Helsinki

Because the Finnish people are so shy and quiet, the community is kind of hidden to an outsider. It looks like everybody is in their own bubble and walking around not talking to each other, living in their own apartment and don't socialize. It's definitely weird in a way that the things that you do, just being quiet, shows the person that you are one of them. Like on the bus when you sit next to them and the entire bus is empty they're like, "Oh you're definitely not from here." Also the community does come through and come out, I feel like this is a lot on the internet too. A Finnish person will be quiet until you give them beer or take them to a sauna. Finnish people definitely when they sit at a bar and have a few beers will open up suddenly, they'll talk about everything, even very private in their lives and definitely sauna. Maybe not the public sauna, but when you're with a new person, you just met a person, you take a sauna together you have a bond. The sauna bond. – Emma, 18, Helsinki

Still nobody knows Finland. Finland likes to be good at things but it always says that we're really bad at things. If you think about some other country and you would ask someone there, "How's your day? How are you?" They would be telling how good their day is and how everything is perfect. I got a new car and I painted my house and everything. Then if you ask the same thing from a Finnish person she will go on how bad the day is. "My car broke and I should paint my house but I don't have the money for the paint. Everything is just terrible." It's like ... – Isa, 16, Vantaa

“To be a citizen is first and foremost to be French, to share a common inheritance and patrimony, to feel rooted in a familial and spatial context. Civic pride and a strong sense of social solidarity follow from this, but do so combined with a fear of internal division and a growing unease about a loss of national identity. The latter concern frequently focuses upon immigrants and the anxiety that they are not sufficiently integrated into the values and duties of French citizenship.” Jennings (2000), 581

My friend from University contacted me, she's in Russia and asked or said that she's starting ethnopsychology. Exactly how culture affects the way people think. The survey was very short, there was just basically some- Just how does this characteristic, how is this seen in your culture? Independence? People were like 4, 3, 2, 1 and grading it like that. Then there was five questions. What do you think of Finns? What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about your nationality? Most of the Finns were answering pretty stereotypical things, like "Yeah we're silent," and "We're not really outgoing," stuff like that. Yeah I was because I was still thinking people would be saying "No, we're actually not that stereotypical as people think," but I guess people still think like that. Yeah younger Finns, no. No. I think not. Especially here in Helsinki. It could be different in more North, but here. Probably because of all the people that moved in to here. There's a lot of Russians, from different all around Europe, from Syria now people are coming in, from Africa there are a lot of people in the area I live in. I used to go there to school. There was 55% of the class was not Finnish. Diversity is very big. – Timofei, Helsinki

“[C]onsensus is not actual consent: it does not require that each and all give active approval to something. Thus much of what is called consensus may simply be acceptance, that is, diffuse and basically passive concurrence. Even so, consensus is a sharing that somehow binds. It is in the context of such a loosely conceived consensus that the ‘pluralistic play’ of liberal democracies finds its most congenial soil. Understanding consensus is equally crucial for the understanding of community and, in this connection, of the currently burning issues of ethnic vindication, xenophobia, and, conversely, ‘xeno-acceptance.’” Sartori (1997), 64

We have some common history that should be important for everyone, but I think nowadays we have a lot of people from different backgrounds. It shouldn't be like that because it's weird that if we are singing some songs from 40 years, it can't be that important for immigrants. I don't know. I think we are proud of Finnish things. That's probably the most important thing that we are proud of this whole system here, schools and universities, healthcare, and then we have the cultural background. – Mona, 23, Student Teacher, Helsinki

“[C]ulture can help us to understand the isolation a Finnish identity. Geographical education in schools, for instance, has always provided clear codes of Finnishness: whom the Finns are and how they behave. Similarly the other has been defined in many ways, in most cases and very exclusive terms, emphasizing the specific features of the Finnish culture (and the natural environment).” Passi (1997), 49

Because the Finnish people are so shy and quiet, the community is kind of hidden to an outsider. It looks like everybody is in their own bubble and walking around not talking to each other, living in their own apartment and don't socialize. It's definitely weird in a way that the things that you do, just being quiet, shows the person that you are one of them. Like on the bus when you sit next to them and the entire bus is empty they're like, "Oh you're definitely not from here." Also the community does come through and come out, I feel like this is a lot on the internet too. A Finnish person will be quiet until you give them beer or take them to a sauna. Finnish people definitely when they sit at a bar and have a few beers will open up suddenly, they'll talk about everything, even very private in their lives and definitely sauna. Maybe not the public sauna, but when you're with a new person, you just met a person, you take a sauna together you have a bond. The sauna bond. – Emma, 18, Helsinki

Finnish people like to keep up their stereotypes. I have this friend who got exchange students from German to come to their school. One of the Germans asked that if the Moomins are real. All the Finnish people were like, "Yes they are real. We're going to go tomorrow to hunt some Moomins." Then the next day they gave all of the Germans a stick and then they all went around the woods with a stick hunting for Moomin. It's like sometimes ... My friend's dad went to another country and someone asked from him if we have polar bears in Finland. Of course he told them, "Yes. We have polar bears and that's why we have these metals on our windows and everything. So that ..." It's like we like to be sarcastic and tease other people from other countries. – Jade, 17, Vantaa

“J.L. Runeberg and Z. Topelius created the idea of a Finnish landscape dominated by lakes. Nature has been important in determining how Finland and its landscapes have been represented, being present both as a factor explaining the ‘national character’ and as an element in the representations of national identity.” Passi (1997), 45

One of those things, but when I go we are ... My family has a summer cabin we go to every year in Northern Karelia on the side of a lake and all that. When the sun is setting and I'm standing on the pier. I've got the sun hitting on the beach, I think then I feel Finnish. Looking at that lake view and just, I think that's what makes me feel Finnish. I feel Finnish when I look outside and see snow. – Mikko, 15, Helsinki

When you do something like you walk in the snow without shoes. You go to the sauna, and then you jump into a frozen lake. That makes me feel really Finnish. – Juhani, 14, Helsinki

“Identity is produced through doing, through practices that give the identity meaning to the participants. Since identity is produced through practices, these practices must be sustained in order for the identity to continue to have meaning.” Ferguson, M. (2007), 38

One could actually say Finland is like extra-ordinary normal, normal but still in a special way. I really don’t know any country where that people are just like the Fins, because we can’t … at the moment … right now we’re all very quiet because we can’t … we really don’t want to embarrass ourselves, but still we have so much to say to you, as in really now here. – Ville, 15, Joensuu

“The power of national identity does not come from national symbols as such, but from the fusion of social action and symbols in national practices and discourses.” Passi (1997), 49

Yeah. It's been said the Finns don't speak, they have nothing to say. We don't do small talk or anything. – Vertt, 16, Vantaa

Sisu , It's like not giving up on anything. You just push through everything you do. If you face some obstacles, then you have to just rush through everything and keep on going. – Olli, 16, Vantaa

“In conducting this research, I became very conscious of the way that many Finns prize, to a far greater extent than in my own culture for example, ‘modesty’ and it is, accordingly, far easier to be accused of being ‘materialistic’ or ‘arrogant,’ an accusation often leveled against porvarit. An act of very obvious ‘conspicuous consumption’ when you are an ‘ordinary Finn’ (such as wearing designer clothes or driving a car which is a clear status-symbol such as a new Jaguar or Mercedes) may lead to the ‘porvari’ accusation.” Dutton (2010), 101

Well, I think that we're really quiet. We're not too loud. In meetings we wait for our turn. – Lauri, 15, Helsinki

Trust. Simplicity. Finnish people, things are simple. They like to be simple with each other. If you go to work somewhere, the employer has to be like if he or she wants to be a good one, he or she has to be a simple and good worker. That's her or his job. Everything wants to be kept simple. – Olli, 16, Vantaa

“The Finnish cultural tradition is so narrow, or so recent, that it does not provide a flexible and multiform basis for new interpretations in new conditions as compared to those in the old nation-states in which the heritage is richer and the cultural continuity much longer than in Finland. The situation implies a receptiveness to external influences, an ‘other-directedness’ that in part stems from a lack of cultural self-confidence.” Alapuro (1992), 707

In my opinion, Finnishness consists of multiple different identities: for example mutual history, language, place of residence, to name a few. – Hilkka, Finnish Teacher, Helsinki

“Culture is not simply a matter of colorful dances and rituals, nor is it even a framework or context for individual choice. Rather, it is the product of the association of individuals over time, which in turn shapes individual commitment and gives meaning to individual lives.” Kukathas (1992), 122.

And even a bit more outgoing than before. Like my mom's cousins or things like that used to tell me stories about them living on the farm and milking the cows and like staying there. Yeah. We're still very closed and private but I mean, still more outgoing than before. – Kira, 15, Helsinki

“To overcome one’s diminished identities, one needs to narrate one’s stories, feel comfortable with who and what one is, and begin to act in the world. The ability to do all this, however, is not dependent upon individuals acting alone, but involves enriched minority cultures and institutions that are capable of securing equal treatment and avoiding prejudice. One need not embrace identity politics to understand this; however, scorning all forms of identity and community as intrinsically negative phenomena impedes this work. Repairing a ‘damaged self’ involves valorizing cultural attributes and disclosing one’s distinctive history. This requires the repetition, partial stabilization and valorization of attributes of one’s group identity that have been demeaned. One need not identity with the attributes of the excluded people, or even recognize these attributes as legitimate characteristics of theirs, but one must support their projects of change, and this is necessarily an identificatory and political process.” Stavro (2007), 445

We're a little stubborn. We are all really truthful. We speak the ... We try to speak the truth. – Lauri, 15, Helsinki

We have the things we want to say in our head, but we don’t say it and it’s just the way that stresses us. – Mikko, 15, Joensuu

When you asked about Finnish people, I don’t know if someone said it, but the most important thing about Finnish people is we are very proud, very proud people, like we don’t take hate from anyone. – Ville, 15, Joensuu

S: I think that one of the things Finnish people fear is debt. Even in our private lives, we have to owe money to the bank in order to pay for our house, or apartment or whatever but even the song says that when you know you're supposed to pay what you owe. I think that is one of the reasons ... because we have this idea now that we have been borrowing money, and we have been borrowing money for the past 2 years and now we ... it was in the news that now we're borrowing as much, and we're like ... and we're willing to sacrifice a lot for that, because that's one of our values. To be independent, and not owe money to other countries, and to us it's like ... you guys owe so much to the Chinese, what if they come and say "pay up!" And you'll be like, oh there goes your independence. I think that is one of the reasons a lot of people in this country are OK with the cuts, because we feel like "okay, we have to choose between debt and budget cuts."

P: If you think about Greece, how you try to deal with Greece and how Finns are like "okay, you have to pay your debt." This is the Finnish idea. You have to pay what you have ... – Saara and Paulina, Student Teachers, Joensuu

That comes down to religion, we're...not all of us are Lutheran, but we have this Lutheran idea of duty, of working hard, respecting the government and your superiors. It comes from this ... we were all like how can you do this in Greece? You give out money to people who are supposedly blind, or supposedly this or that, and we're like we're not doing that. It's just really ... We all have the right sense of guilt. It gets worse, we're an older generation. The Finnish values, like working hard and do they still ... of course they are more open, probably more liberal in many social issues but if we're thinking about this Lutheran context of ... I think my generation, some individuals that I've met don't really care for working hard or pay your dues. I don't know about the younger generation. I think they might see it a bit different. But that's because they're young, and they haven't like ... I think that with age, comes the reality. Then you see what our values are, of course when you're young and you're thinking more about your boyfriend or girlfriend, or what to wear. I'm just talking in general, but then when it comes down to, "okay, I need to find a summer a job and I need to ... " I don't think ... if we think of our female students, like how many of them actually dream of being a home-maker, very few I think. It's not like one of those ... if we think culturally, every woman in this country tends to think that they will have to ... No I think that they think that they need to be financially independent.

– Saara, Student Teacher, Joensuu

It's courage, but it's also standing up and not giving up in something even though you don't like. It's something that you hate but you still do it to the end. I think of courage and dexterity in the face of a great struggle. I think it's the spirit of all of these things. – Atte, 15, Helsinki

“The most unique Finnish quality is, in my mind, a widespread bewilderment or perplexity in the face of European reorganization. It stems from a loss of earlier coordinates, combined with the intensified call of the West. Above all, it stems from the absence of a Russian or Soviet power that for so long imposed constraints on Finnish choices but also gave them a secure and predictable context.” Alapuro (1992), 703

“Finns tend to trust other people more commonly than is average in the EU. According to European Values Study 1999-2000, almost 60 percent of Finns stated that they mostly trust other people. The figure was one of the highest in Europe (1999-2000). However, explicit trust in Parliament or political parties is rather weak in Finland. In a recent Eurobarometer (2004), the results revealed that about 60 percent of the respondents have trust in Parliament and only one fifth in political parties. The most trusted institutions were the defense forces and the police.” Gissler and Vuori (2005), 72

“Finnish culture values intrinsic motivation and the pursuit of personal interest.” Choi (2014)

It probably is, I don't know, I feel like the odd one out because I was raised by a single parent, and I do have sort of ... I was never Lutheran, I was Orthodox. Now I don't belong to any church, anymore. My mom always taught me the basic values, you have to be hard working, if you want something you work for it. I am financially very independent, I've never gotten a loan because I could always support myself by working. I think that lots of people in my generation work hard, but then there are some who just don't. They kind of expect everything to just come their way, and when they find that they're in debt, they don't have any money, which kind of a very foreign idea to me. What do you mean you don't have money? If I have less than a thousand euros, I'm like "I have no money." Differences. Then I have friends who have like one euro left on their account and they're still 2 weeks ago, and I'm like "how do you survive? Where is this money? Where did it go?" – Paulina, Student Teacher, Joensuu

“A civic national identity involves a strong sense of collective belonging characterized by a sense of relatedness and mutual exclusive feelings of solidarity, sympathy, and obligation. Such sentiments stem from the belief that members of the nation belong together by virtue of characteristics that nearly all of them possess. A sense of belonging to a polity also may be associated with certain motions, including feelings of loyalty to one's country, pride in its political institutions and practices, in the sense of a shared future that can develop an individual participate together as equals and democratic practices. However, it is possible for people to have a sense of belonging to the polity without believing that they belong together as a nation or possessing any special feelings of relatedness with her sympathy for one another.” Wilcox (2004), 576

Finnish people are very, kind of like I said, they're in their own world. Yeah they're very private. When I think of Finland, I just think of winter, sauna, a little group which goes and has saunas together. I feel like we're kind of boring though. When I'm watching these ice hockey studios compared to the NFL pregame show thing and then they're jumping around compared to Finnish. Yes, to this and this. But in football they're like yes! Lets do that, and that, and that! We're just like, me and my dad go into the city and just walking within the city and then you cross people in the street and they ignore you, don't even smile. They just go in front of you like that whereas in America they're talking or something like that. – Stella, 15, Helsinki

Past all of the appreciation of that, Finnish people are a lot more quiet. The small talk rarely exists in Finnish culture. I think its come more back to life along with globalization, the whole thing. We don't talk about mundane stuff. When we talk, we talk about relationships, and school and things that matter. When in America a lot of times, that's probably the reason why I'm so quiet. They talk about such inane stuff and I feel like, okay they're definitely talking about something more and I just don't understand. It's like a quiet pride though. It's not like "My family is better than yours." It's a pride that it's belonging into the Finnish culture and the Finnish history. – Emma, 18, Helsinki


  1. Why do you think "Finnishness" is such an elusive category, and are any such definitions possible?
  2. American audiences: In what ways is there a broad and shifting category of things that are "American" and how is this a problematic or complicated conversation to have in the United States?
  3. Finnish audiences: How are the characteristics of "Finnishness" as described above different from previous articulations - and how is it currently changing?
  4. Discuss how Wilcox's claim that "civic national identity involves a strong sense of collective belonging characterized by a sense of relatedness and mutual exclusive feelings of solidarity, sympathy, and obligation" forces individuals to transcend mere similarity and look for stronger civic connections?
  5. What kind of gaps can you find in either the academic research or the interviews?
  6. What comments from the Finnish students do you agree with, disagree with, or find interesting? 
  7. In what way do the selected images in this section complement or relate to the text?
Brickwork on an angle in Arabia / Helsinki / 2 Feb 2016

Brickwork on an angle in Arabia / Helsinki / 2 Feb 2016