As a foreign student in the Finnish society, specifically in the city of Jyväskylä, I find interesting to discover first hand that many of the stereotypes about shy and non-expressive Finns, are far from accurate, at least in the 18-27 years university students in the city. It is true that younger generations have the tendency to socialize more easily than their older counterparts; nevertheless, stereotypes are always based on some perceived and recurring facts, so I decided to use an empirical qualitative approach based on personal observation and interviews to describe this phenomena. The results are presented as part of the assignment for the “ICSP301 Basics of Cultural Anthropology” lecture.
The method used in this small project was participant observation in social activities organized by students and other casual encounters, backed up by 6 deep conducted interviews among Finnish students, 3 students from Speech Communication and Journalism, 2 of economic areas, and 1 student from teacher education, as well as complete immersion in the actual phenomena.
In “First contact situations”, participants declare that meeting new people is “exciting and interesting” but Finns may not have enough proficiency in the social skills needed to begin new interactions. They say “I fail to find an excuse or the way to actually go and initiate interaction, I need an excuse”, this could be interpreted as lack of socializing mechanisms. When interaction is initiated by a third party or a good excuse is available, then most Finns seems to be quite eager to sustain a regular conversation with the “stranger” that can last for many hours, or even initiate a new interpersonal relationship. At this point, one is tempted to say that it is not shyness but lack of skill what restrains most new interactions.
The main ideas to explain this behavior are:
1. It is not necessary to initiate contact with strangers when the individual grows up in relatively enclosed and small community where not many true strangers are available
2. The small, yet endurable group of friends that some people declare to have since early childhood, share everything because they actually grew together, there is little need to make new friends since the bond of the network is so tight “I shared everything with my friends back there, we practically grew together, I know everything about them as they know about me”. At this point I find important to illustrate the idea with the popular saying “When a Finn makes a friend is a friend forever”
3. Participants originally from Helsinki declare that they actually needed these skills in the larger city; even so, 500,000 inhabitants are considered still a small metropolis. “There are not so many elementary schools there, so you still need to mingle basically with the same kids, but on the afternoon I went also with my other friends”
The test of this hypothesis comes when a student needs to move to another city where the University is. In those cases I witnessed a strong identity crisis in my Finnish friends because they felt completely alone. Using the “Critical Incidents” interviewing method, older participants declared that they returned to their hometowns almost each month in the first year of University, and the build up of their new group of friends consisted mainly on other freshmen classmates who shared the same major as they do and, not surprisingly, where in the same situation themselves.
This is the point when student traditions happens to be very important to build new relationships and provide “plenty of excuses” to mingle in a very informal and almost un-respectful way. From these traditions, the most important of them is the one called Fuksiaiset or freshmen party and is mainly performed as a group activity so the new students can have the feeling that they belong to a lager group with a very specific group identity, and provide activities so informal and silly, that the participants actually have something to share themselves. This group identity has many visual symbols, but one of the most important is the use of jumpsuits. As one female participant said “I like jumpsuits, they make you feel as part of something greater, and are very good excuses to have fun with my classmates”
All these exercises helps the newcomer to integrate more easily into the group dynamics and create the frame for the development of a new network of friends, but on the downside, it supplants the individual’s necessity to develop the socializing skills necessary to function without external props. The individual does not need to improve the skills that poised them in that situation in the first place; nor helps to adapt to new situations elsewhere, where this institutional help is not available.
As a conclusion, I would say that once that the first encounter problem is surpassed, then the theory of shy Finns is not longer sustainable per se, even if at that time one encounters other barriers, such as the larger time frame that is considered appropriate to develop a friendship while digging into inner layers of the personality, or the difficulties to interact in a lingua franca different than their mother tongue.