Silence pervades Finland’s culture. Popular activities such as mushroom picking, fishing, cross-country skiing, and orienteering are conducted with few words. The stereotypical Finn is taciturn. The German poet Berthold Brecht, a refugee in Finland for a short time during the Second World War, concluded that Finns “are silent in two languages.” Finns like to consider their culture of silence as a function of a larger culture that eschews artifice. But just as words can hurt, so can silence. Outsiders who say anything critical or unorthodox about Finland often experience toxic silence.
The silence takes many forms ranging from the cold lack of response to a comment at a meeting over coffee to no response to a social media post, a silence made deafening when a Finn makes a similar post and gets lots of likes and comments. The momentary silence can turn into permanent shunning. I often think that if I stopped talking to every Finn who said something critical about the United States, I would have nobody to talk to in Finland.
Over the last few weeks I have discussed with others of foreign background who have given interviews to the Finnish media in which we shared negative and common experiences concerning Finns’ attitudes and actions toward foreigners. We all experienced several cases in which in the printed interview, our critical comments were edited out, leaving us looking like clueless foreigners and or the uncritical “Suomi-fani” (“Finland fan”) Finns expect all foreigners to be. I once gave a three-hour interview to a Finnish journalist who was writing a book about the Nordic welfare state, a book that became a best-seller in the United States. In the interview I dared to call into question the durability of the universal welfare state in the face of the decades-long neoliberal onslaught that has weakened it. None of the interview made it into the book or even the acknowledgements. I obviously got in the way of upholding the narrative sold to foreigners of Finland as a perfect place. I always acknowledge people and institutions who have given me significant time, even if I did not find the effort behind the time helpful. In fairness some Finnish publications have interviewed me and have printed my critical takes. I have over the years found publications that have published my opinion pieces without altering their content. Nonetheless, Finns often label my writing whether opinion pieces or scholarly writing a “foreign view” or “nothing new.” A foreigner can never know more or differently about Finland than a Finn can.
Then there is the verbalized silencing that I call Finnsplaining, yes, the relative of mansplaining. Finnsplaining occurs when an outsider says something that a Finn thinks threatens the national narrative assigned to foreigners. Like mansplaining, Finnsplaining is meant to silence and reassert authority; a reminder to outsiders that they need to adhere to the narrative given by Finns to foreigners about Finland, regardless of their own experience. It is meant to assert the epistemological superiority of the Finn over the foreigner in matters related to Finland. One time several years ago I had my bicycle stolen in Finland. When I shared this incident with my Finnish coworkers a common response was to assure me how uncommon my misfortune was because Finns are so honest. I was supposed to think that Finns were incorruptibly honest because Finns told me to do so, regardless of my experience. Meanwhile, I was reading in the newspapers about the growth in bicycle thefts in the country over the previous years.
Finnsplaining often consists of blaming foreigners for any bad experiences they have in Finland. The foreigner has a bad attitude, can’t take a joke, is ungrateful, or does not understand the Finns. An offended foreigner is often asked to be forgiving because Finns are shy and or that immigration is “new” to Finland. Yet another kind of Finnsplaining is mutkuttelu or whataboutism. Finland does not have a problem because other countries have it. Once a journalist responded to my concerns about xenophobia in Finland by stating “Well, the Finnish immigrants in Stockholm get treated as poorly as Somalis in Helsinki.” Racism in Finland is relativized into harmlessness. Finns who read this blog post will likely respond that Finns themselves who do not adhere to the national orthodoxy are often silenced. True, a topic for another blog post! But do two wrongs make a right?
Every year for the last two decades millions of euros have been spent on elaborate and ineffective plans for integrating people of foreign background. In some cases, it seems that the goal is to employ Finns rather than immigrants. Here is a free plan for integration from a researcher who has been living this topic for decades: stop weaponizing silence. Now. Instead, utilize silence as a tool for listening and inclusion. It might be uncomfortable for a moment, but the person speaking likely has been in a state of discomfort for years. Take the examples of my Finnish colleagues and friends who have patiently listened and discussed my views of the country for decades without toxic silence or Finnsplaining. They have not melted or lost their sense of nationhood. They have the superpower of empathy.
For those of you Finns who think I just arrived in the country and can thus dismiss what I have written, klick the link Blog--My Finnish History below for 40 years of dealing with Finland.