In the last 14 months I’ve travelled up and down Finland in search of stories that shed truth upon the experiences of people who’ve moved to Finland from other countries. I wanted to get away from the headlines of struggle and strife and the portrayal of immigrants as either victims or champions and reflect on the ordinary experiences of the majority, to understand the nuances of Finnish life.
Last spring, Pati and I squeezed into the corner of a lively bar in Hervanta on a Friday night, sheltering from the icy winds knocking on the door, reminding us what we could expect from the next four months.
Pati described how she’d been so intrigued by Finland that she’d started studying Finnish language in her native Poland and how she’d practiced her Finnish by living with two old ladies in their home.
Pati also mentioned one thing that links Finns and foreigners together; loneliness or the difficulties of finding friends. “I wouldn’t mind having more friends here”, she told me.
Later, a Finnish family man living in Vantaa who’d read the interview wrote to me and asked that I pass a message on to Pati: if she’s ever in the capital region, he said, she could get in touch and they could go for a beer. I know that it can be difficult to find companionship in Finland, “tough even for us Finns”.
One of the most powerful themes that I’ve encountered in my journeys up and down and across Finland is that people love it here because Finns don’t interfere, by and large they don’t judge and they let you get on with things to be yourself, precisely as you want to be.
I enjoy the feeling that you can be whoever you want without interference or judgement. No one’s twitching their lace curtains as you do a snow angel in your driveway.
But it seems this respect for distance and privacy can have its downsides.
Many newcomers get confused by this respect for personal independence, perceiving that it reflects Finnish coldness and a lack of care. Plenty more who’ve been here a lot longer, like Pati, still struggle despite understanding Finnish nature. Maybe it does reflect a lack of interest, but it shouldn’t be taken personally and loneliness is something that troubles society as a whole, not just foreigners in Finland.
I was thinking about the theme of friendship as I had lunch recently, a ‘newbie’ in one of Finland’s big flagship companies with one month under my belt. My 8-4 home these days is welcoming and inspiring, but my close team is very small and I often eat lunch late compared with Finnish standards.
The result is that fairly frequently I’ve been to the canteen alone. I don’t mind eating on my own, but on some days I would have loved to join the strangers on the adjoining tables.
Maybe my fellow diners don’t want company, I think, maybe that pair nestled against the window inches from the incessantly falling snow are having a private discussion, perhaps they don’t want to be forced to switch to English. Maybe they’re eating alone because being alone and undisturbed is heaven in a world that never shuts up.
But Ystävänpäivä or ‘friend day’ – known in many other countries as Valentine’s Day – is just around the corner. What better occasion for Finnish corporations to do something to promote friendship and companionship, I thought.
Companies could actively encourage workers to get to know each other better – especially useful for new workers – by having a large dedicated table for meeting new colleagues over lunch. If you sit at this table you’re up for having conversations with whomever sits down. It would remove some of the hesitation and doubt that comes from trying to get to know new people as an outsider.
‘Social lunch table’, ‘Lunch and learn’, ‘Lunch with me’, whatever it was called I’d sit there – a new employee with a hunger to learn more about new colleagues instantly without the hassle for calendar invitations and meeting room bookings.
The way I see it an initiative like this would be beneficial for a number of reasons. First, it would signal loud and clear who was up for being ‘disturbed’ and remove any doubt that you might be interrupting someone. Second, it would probably encourage people out their comfort zones. And third, it would enable workers to know a wider variety of people within their huge organisation, not just the ones they rely on for everyday business.
Let’s see if I can make this happen in one of Finland’s most well-known companies next week.