Finnishness is taboo to the Swedes

by , under All categories, Enrique

By JusticeDemon*

Dr Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki Department of Geography, had the following letter printed in the Opinions column of Finland’s leading national daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat on Sunday 23 August 2009. The sub-editor chose to print this letter under the heading Finnishness is taboo to the Swedes. The following translation is submitted in good faith.

I used to find love-hate relationships between neighbours funny, but a two-year assignment in Stockholm has raised many quite difficult questions.

The Finnish language and Finnishness as a culture seem to be taboo to Stockholmers. I suspect that this phenomenon is particularly evident in the Stockholm region, as many people of Finnish descent live there.

The roots of the taboo are in the subordinate status of Finland, but also especially in Sweden’s rather efficient integration policy. This policy has been adopted so forcefully, however, that all newcomers to the country are nowadays lumped together in the same invandrare [immigrant] category.

One solid example of the persistence of this old way of thinking was our landlord’s question: “presumably you will be flying the Swedish flag on the flagpole?”, even though it was already clear that we would only spend a few years in Sweden.

Attitudes towards Finnish people came to a head in the 1970s when large numbers of Finnish industrial workers moved to Sweden. The broad caricature nowadays is that Stockholmers treat all Finns as second-class citizens, regardless of profession or education.

While I always got a good reception when I spoke English in shops, speaking Swedish with a Fenno-Swedish accent was mainly greeted with contempt.

In other words, the Finnish language and culture are not tolerated in Sweden. There have been numerous examples of workplaces where the employer has forbidden the speaking of Finnish. The same thing arises, for instance, at tourist attractions: the sign on the emergency exit at the city’s Junibacken children’s museum is in Swedish, English and Russian, but not in Finnish, even though a substantial proportion of visitors come from Finland.

Contempt for the Finnish character strongly pervades the whole of Swedish society. The attitudes of the mainstream population have made people of Finnish descent so ashamed of their roots that they no longer want to learn their native language. I also heard Swedes of Finnish descent come out with openly racist remarks about non-European immigrants, which I think is an indication of the socio-ethnic hierarchy in Swedish society. In other words Sweden’s subjugated Finnish population is perpetuating the cycle of abuse.

The attitude of Finns towards our Estonian cousins shares common features with attitudes towards Finnishness in Sweden: You never come across the Estonian language in Helsinki, even though there are plenty of Estonian tourists and workers in the city.

These attitudes are persistent and will not change overnight, but if they remain taboo, then there is no way for them to change.

The third paragraph from the end of this letter is perhaps the most compelling, as it describes the passive-aggressive mindset that arises in individuals and communities whose cultural identity has been crushed. This goes to the core of the difference between assimilation and integration, as the former requires immigrants to abandon their cultural identity, while the latter requires them to engage with society at large to find ways of expressing that identity in a new context.

One of the starkest descriptions of assimilation has passed into popular culture in the programme of the Borg alien collective as encountered in Star Trek: the Next Generation. The narrative runs as follows:

Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.

Resistance is futile. Your life as it has been is over. From this time forward, you will service us.

(Star Trek: The Next Generation, episode: “The Best of Both Worlds”, 1990)

There is a delightful scene in the feature film Star Trek: First Contact (1996) in which a 21st century character comments that The Borg “sounds Swedish”, but after encountering the collective then decides “definitely not Swedish”. Perhaps Dr Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen has given us cause to consider this question once again.

*Migrant Tales will begin to publish posts by contributors. If you want to submit a contribution for publication, please send your inquiries/article to etessieri@gmail.com.

  1. Susan

    The Borg story reminds me of a moment in Mankell’s Morder Uten Ansicht when Wallender is told that a suspect looks ‘usvensk’ he asks (in the Norwegian translation) – Hvordan seer en usvensk mennesker ut?

  2. Jonas

    An interesting article.

    I can’t say I share Dr Tynkkynen’s assessment. I have also lived in Sweden and found that whilst there are some people who have a negative viewpoint towards Finnish people in Stockholm, they are very, very few. They are far outnumbered by those that are simply ignorant of Finland. Unlike the Finnish media, which monitors events in Sweden quite closely, the Swedish media gives scant coverage to Finland. For a Swedish-speaking Finn, this ignorance often surprisingly extends to the fact that many Swedes don’t even realise that there are 300 000 people living in Finland with whom they share a language. I am sure many Swedes believe that Runeberg grew up and wrote his works in Svealand rather than Finland. On several occasions, a Swede has complemented me on my “good Swedish” and enquired as to how I managed to learn Swedish so well, only for me to have to explain that it’s my mother tongue just like his.

    That signage in Stockholm museums is not to be found in Finnish but in Swedish, Russian and English is because most visitors from Western Europe will understand English as the world’s current de facto lingua franca. Other Scandinavians (Norwegians and Danes) will be able to read Swedish – and frankly, most Finns should be able to understand enough Swedish to read “Emergency exit” as well, given that Swedish is taught in Finnish schools and is on signs throughout much of the country. It is Russians that disproportionally lack any knowledge of foreign tongues. Everytime I am in Stockholm lately, it seems overrun with German tourists. Yet, there is no German on the signpost either. I wonder if Dr Tynkkynen also thinkgs the Swedes have contempt for the German culture?

    Unfortunately, Dr Tynkkynen’s letter smacks more of the traditional antipathy towards Sweden that is held by many Finns, especially those of the older generation. He just seems to be trying to find an “academic argument” for bringing it out of the cupboard again. If you read his letter, none of his arguments are based on fact. They are just vague suppositions on his part, e.g., because when he spoke Swedish with a Finnish accent to a shopkeeper, he was “greeted with contempt” – could it not just be that that shopkeeper was in a bad mood anyway. Or perhaps his Swedish was lacking or hard to understand, the shopkeeper may simply not have been used to trying to understand a Finnish accent. In any case, Dr Tynkkynen need not travel all the way to Sweden to be treated with contempt for speaking Swedish with an accent of Finland. He need only go to many state agencies in Finland, in many areas where they are supposed to give service in Swedish by law. I suspect if Dr Tynkkynen tried living his life through only Swedish in Helsinki he’d soon find out what it really means to be “greeted with contempt”.

    • Enrique

      Hi Jonas, you raise some interesting questions. I was a bit surprised by reading Tynkkynen’s letter to the editor. Taking into account that Finland is a neighbor of Sweden and that there are hundreds of thousands of Finns living there, immigrants from this country are invisible with respect to the rest of the population. If a “white Finn” gets, allegedly, treated this way is it different from a black visible immigrant? Or is a figment of his imagination — or did Tynkkynen have a bad day himself?

  3. JusticeDemon

    Susan,

    My knowledge of Norwegian is almost zero and my knowledge of Swedish is hardly any better, but I think you are asking how we can tell who is Swedish just by looking. Obviously we cannot unless we adopt some prescriptive use of the adjective Swedish. If we do this, then we can tell who is Swedish in the same way that a zoologist tells the difference between a fish and an aquatic mammal.

    Of the various commentators on this blog, you will find that Tiwaz in particular is fond of using Finnish as a prescriptive adjective in this way, but of course there is no particular usefulness in this approach, other than to obfuscate the discussion and introduce racism and xenophobia by the back door.

    Jonas,

    I agree with you that the languages used on signs are chosen for their practical utility, which is not necessarily governed by the native languages of people reading the signs. These practicalities include the point that any Finn who cannot recognise nödutgång has either been severely inattentive or led a very sheltered life.

    However, there is also a tendency to try to explain away any evidence of social tendencies that conflict with our comfortable ideas of general social benevolence. We do not like to consider the possibility that official structures are anything other than benign. Dr Tynkkynen is describing a minority perception, and it must be allowed that structures that seem benign to the majority can appear malevolent or at least unreasonably obstructive from a minority point of view.

    I fastened on this letter to HS because it departs from the idea of a national culture as something fixed and monolithic that absorbs and digests individuals and seeks to remould them in its own image. Dialogue and individuality are, as the Borg put it, irrelevant to this process of assimilation. As the character Q points out in the episode Q who?, the Borg identify the victim “as something that they can consume.” This is the very antithesis of integration, which is a process of mutual growth based on dialogue and interaction between parties who retain their identity and autonomy.

    I don’t think that Dr Tynkkynen is suggesting that assimilationism is a deliberate policy of the Swedish government, and I know for a fact that the official view of the Finnish government explicitly rejects the assimilationist approach. The problem does not lie in law or public administration, but in popular consciousness.

    There is an interesting contrast here with traditional immigrant-receiving States such as Australia, the USA and Canada, where explicit public policy has often reflected assimilationist thinking, but there is (or at least was) a much more diversified popular understanding and acceptance of national-origin communities and subcultures, and of the need for constructive dialogue as a means of reaching an amicable social accommodation.

  4. Jonas

    I’ve always thought the word osvensk is an interesting one. It can often be a positive thing, such as describing a person or thing as osvensk. In other words, emphasising that because something is not Swedish, it’s suddenly more interesting/exotic (less mundane, perhaps). It’s somewhat hard to explain for me in English.

    Unfortunately, there are still some Finns who have a bit of an inferiority complex towards Sweden. Probably partly due to history and especially economic history. For a long time, Sweden was more successful economically to the extent that many Finns moved there. Sweden was often seen as some kind of benchmark for how a society should operate. And, I suppose, the Swedes themselves can come across as a bit arrogant and preachy too (for a long time in the 60s, 70s and 80s the core of their foreign policy mantra did seem to be to criticise everyone else and tell them in a somewhat self-important way that your society would be fine if you only organised it in the way we do). Of course, now, we have no reason to see ourselves as inferior (if we even ever did). Our GDP per capita has matched and even slightly exceeded Sweden’s and amongst other things, our education system is certainly better, which bodes well for the future. These days, Swedish education officials come to Finland to see how things should be done!

    It is possible that Tynkkynen is burdened more than most with an inferiority complex towards Sweden and thus perhaps expected to be treated as “an inferior Finn” by the Swedes. If you expect something, you often convince yourself that you have found it. He seems intent to spread the story of Finnish being banned in Swedish workplaces without contextualising it, thus making it appear a regular and tolerated happening. Where a boss has told off an employee for speaking Finnish (which has indeed occurred), it has caused media outrage and has quickly been overruled. The same has also happened here where Finnish employers have attempted to ban their staff from speaking Swedish to each other:
    http://www.hbl.fi/text/inrikes/2008/8/2/d16139.php

    Now, of course, my comments here probably very much reflect my own Finnishness. No one can truly escape his or her ingrained upbringing.

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