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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Finn who came in from the cold

I’ve now lived in Finland for over two years, and I have been with my Finnish man for more than fifteen. Finally, I feel as though I’m starting to understand the Finnish psyche.

I wish I could say that with understanding has come acceptance. I’ve learned a lot about when to adjust my behaviour appropriately and when to keep my mouth shut, but there are still times when a little voice inside me screams resistance even as I exude a calm and neutral outward demeanour.

Last Saturday we attended our new little God-daughter’s christening. She is two months old, and is a gorgeous, contented little poppet of a baby. Tears at christenings are not unusual, but Saturday’s event was a particularly emotional one, because this same little girl contracted pneumonia when she was a week old, and almost didn’t make it.

Her father, our long-time friend J, broke down within the first sentence of his speech ("There was a point when we weren't sure whether this would be a christening or a funeral"). He stood there, surrounded by his nearest and dearest, trying to compose himself and failing miserably. The tears ran down his face, and at one point he started sobbing uncontrollably. It was painful and moving to watch.

J’s wife was standing right beside him the whole time. She glanced in his direction, but did not make any move to embrace him, or even to hold his hand.

J’s mother was sitting a few metres away. She was clearly affected, but she sat perfectly still with her head bowed, and did not even make eye contact with J.

I knew better than to follow my instincts and rush up to J with a big, effusive hug. I knew that my urgent need to offer support and comfort must be quelled. I was supposed to stay right where I was, and leave him alone to be (and to be seen as) a Finnish man – a lone wolf – coping with his inner turmoil alone, in his own space.

After the ceremony, J came over to where my husband and I were standing, and to my surprise he held out his arms for a hug. I guess he realised that I was the only person in the room who would willingly show that kind of outward affection in front of elderly (and deeply Finnish) grannies and grandpas, and the one person who, courtesy of Foreigner’s Privilege, would get away with it.

Saturday’s events have been nagging at me. The whole situation felt so cold and wrong. Did no one else feel J’s pain? Surely they did, and yet no one reached out to him. They left him alone, and for all my understanding of why they did, I cannot comprehend how anyone felt better for it. In a room full of his family and closest relatives, J had to turn to a non-Finnish friend for the small gesture of warmth that he clearly needed.

Don't get me wrong - I really do like Finnish people. They have been nothing but welcoming, friendly, tolerant of my Aussie quirks, and generous with language-related praise and support. Ultimately, though, in some ways we’re fundamentally different.

Mostly, this is just fine. Sometimes, though, I feel like I’m the only person aboard a solitary little boat anchored in a big foreign ocean. At those times, I feel lonely and isolated, but stubbornly I still refuse to abandon ship. My odd little boat has something unique about it, something worth hanging onto.
  

20 comments:

  1. I think we often feel like a fish out of water away from our own culture. And then add in the differences between families and our upbringings and life can become quite strange. I'll take the hug though :)

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    1. :)

      You're right, it really is a "fish out of water" feeling sometimes. You're also right that sometimes it isn't just about broad cultural differences, but also quirks that are unique to particular individuals or families. All makes for a very colourful and fascinating world, however awkward individual moments might feel...

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  2. I totally saw that whole event playing out as I read your post. I think I even understand the Finnish side of what they did (or rather didn't do), but I too would have felt a bit uncomfortable at no one offering comfort and support to the dad.
    I love my Finns and Finns in general, but they are different and difficult sometimes in their stoic bravery/silence. Not sure I'll ever fully understand them, but I sure do try.

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    1. Me too, Heather. I find, too, that while moments like these can feel very awkward and even hard to live through, unpacking and working through my thoughts about them and trying to understand the Finnish perspective is a pretty helpful exercise. I'm hoping that one day I will learn to feel more neutral and less fired-up about these kinds of situations!

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  3. I guess it's normal to feel that way in a foreign country (unfortunately). The first time I came to Finland, I knew what I wanted from R2, but didn't know how "warm" I should be towards the others (his family members). I only started learning to hug MIL every time we met after I read her post in an online support group for people taking care of Alzheimer's patients at home that she needed it then more than ever ('coz her own hubby couldn't provide it anymore). And that's become a habit now, but in the beginning it felt awkward for me to do it, because I don't do it in general with my own parents.

    After I moved to Finland, whenever I come back home, Mom would hug me tightly, but Dad and I don't do that kind of thing and I don't do it with my brother, either. Just a pat in the back or a handshake sufficed. I don't know...if you haven't been doing that kind of thing your entire life in public places (except during your childhood), it becomes as strange as (perhaps) wearing one red sock and one black sock in public. It feels strange and awkward to do it. I know that once you've started doing it, it'll become easier to do, but dunno...

    I don't think we're big on hugs (my family, I mean). And I know in many other families of my friends, they're also not big on hugs. That's not how they show affection. However, fundamentally speaking, I had always been craving to hug someone and to be hugged by someone. That's why R2 and I do hug a lot during the day (that's because I've decided early on our "customs" and I do demand it from him if I need more).

    But now, for example, I don't even hug my BIL and SIL 'coz it's not a custom for us. So unless they ask for a hug, I don't ask them to hug me. It just feels weird to do so 'coz I haven't done it since the beginning - it's a different case with MIL, though, 'coz I really put my mind to it after reading that post (but to be honest, in the beginning it felt SO SO weird to be the one who initiated the hug).

    Culture or custom is really hard to explain, eh? But I'm glad you were there for J to give him a hug when he needed it. Perhaps at home his family members could give more hugs to him - but not in a public place.

    P.S. Pardon the many repetitions of "weird" and "strange". Just can't explain it any better he he...

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    1. You make such an important point, Amel - that how much physical contact and how many hugs a person wants/needs can be very individual, and totally unrelated to his or her culture. I'm very glad that you have found the hugs you always wanted! Your comment ties in well with what Sara wrote below, about how different cultures can teach us different ways of thinking and being, and how individuals can look outside their own cultures and choose to "embrace" other ways of doing things. So very true...

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  4. I cant imagine it! Sounds terrible and I would feel (as you did) just wrong and cruel sitting there and not offering some empathy...still custom is custom, but I think its pretty great he came to you for that hug!

    There could be worse things in the world than being known as the girl that will offer kindness and compassion where it seems so barren. Who knows? Maybe you'll be the woman who single-handedly pioneers empathy in the Finnish culture! :)

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    1. You used the word "cruel", and actually from my own cultural perspective I did feel I was being cruel by withholding some outward sign of empathy when J was so upset. I am 100% sure, however, that no Finn in the room had any ideas about being cruel. Finns I have talked to about the christening have used words like "respect" and "personal space" and "not wanting to do anything that could make things worse for the person" when they try to explain J's relatives' perspective. I really understand all that, but I also think I'll never quite be able to re-program myself to stop feeling bad about withholding help/affection at such times!

      However, I will willingly play the role of Hug-Giver Extraordinaire, and would love to think that Finns other than J might seek me out when they need a more effusive reaction than they would get from an average Finn.

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  5. While I can imagine some of the Finnish people I know acting similarly with their loved ones, there are others that I think would share your instincts. My husband's family, for instance, never fails to show affection to me or to each other. I'm told that it's because they're Karelians, but, like I said, not everyone I know here is quite so open. Whatever cultural or personal differences there are in dealing with emotion, it sounds like you fulfilled a unique need in this case. Good for you. :)

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    1. Thanks, Elena. It's really interesting to hear that your husband's family is different from the "average" profile, but you're very right that even among non-Karelian Finns you can also find more demonstrative types. I hope that these people manage to be who they are, day to day, without feeling overly constrained by social norms (which I do think lean towards holding back on outward displays of emotion/affection). Maybe, like me, they just have to save their hugs and effusiveness for the appropriate time, place and person!

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  6. I guess the difference is some people genuinely see themselves as islands while people like you see yourself as continents with room for everybody. Humans are meant to be tactile. It's why the sense of touch is so strong.

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    1. You managed to pick up on what was bothering me so much - I really do feel as though human beings need (or are at least greatly comforted by) the touch of others.

      I love the idea of a being a continent! Your island/continent metaphor is so apt here.

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  7. This is a really interesting situation that underlines completely how cultural differences can be very difficult to comprehend if we happen to be on the opposite side of the cultural dimension. Your reaction of wanting to physically and demonstratively reach out is your natural instinct and is right and normal for you and probably many other Australians who share a similar culture (although note that individuals within a certain culture can differ drastically on any tendency given the myriad of different factors that go into culture - it is not just race.) However, remember that the reaction of the Finnish family was also right and normal to them based on what they have been accustomed to. It is advisable to try and avoid judging and using words like "wrong", because their reaction is not wrong within their own cultural context. Nor is yours within yours. Basically when two cultures come together it is an opportunity for both sides to adapt on certain points and embrace (not literally!) parts of the other culture that they find to be better for them than their own. It seems like J has done just that, but it doesn't mean that he didn't find solace and comfort in other ways from the rest of his family. Culture is a wonderfully complex thing, and what we see is just the tip of the iceberg.

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    1. Aspire Coaching, you are absolutely right that it's not helpful to use words like "wrong" (although in my defence, what I really meant was that the situation felt wrong "to me", i.e. from my own individual and cultural perspective). I couldn't agree more that we should respect the way other cultures view and do things, and I hope that in time I'll learn to feel less judgmental about particular situations that feel unnatural to me. You also made the excellent point that J probably found solace and comfort in other ways from his family - in fact, his family seems to me to be very close, so I don't doubt this at all. Culture really is fascinating, and in this international world we're so lucky to have so many opportunities of learning first-hand about other ways of seeing the world.

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  8. Oh, Katriin, reading this made me a little sad. Us Finns, just like any other culture (I can speak for Irish anyways) can go to extremes with our ways. Just like the socializing here sometimes ends up rather shallow and complements end up insincere, Finnish people can sometimes isolate themselves too much in their silence. Like I already commented, the silence and being alone is something we often need to handle and go through our emotions, but there will come the stage too when (at least I) need the others to come.And like I suspect J needed a hug at that point, it is sometimes hard for our Finns to admit that being alone in silence is not doing the trick and that we need that hug and someone to share our sorrow. But in the same way I find the Irish friendliness can sometimes end up being all surface with no substance and an honest, sincere hug is sometimes really hard to find.

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    1. Katri, I am so happy that you commented on this post, because I was very curious to hear a Finn's perspective. I completely agree that any culture's extremes can be a bit unpleasant. It sounds as if the Irish are quite similar to Australians, in that sometimes all the talk and hugs and kisses can be a bit insincere. I must admit that this used to get me down sometimes in Australia - that I could spend a long time talking to someone without feeling that I'd truly connected with that person.

      I think the trick must be to have people in our immediate circle who (regardless of their home culture) are people with whom we identify, and whose company brings us happiness and comfort. Having those people around us can make it easier to deal with less intimate social situations where cultural differences often feel more pronounced. Fortunately, among my friends here in Finland are people who are as "huggy" as I am, and who love to talk as much as I do :)

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  9. This is such an affecting post.

    And yet I have witnessed the same here - in fact, was unaware that things could be different until my daughters generation (21yrs) started to hug and kiss one another when they met simply as a matter of course!

    The Scottish way has been just to endure. Be stoical. Do not flinch in the path of personal pain and emotional torture. It is related to the English "stiff upper lip" - but (to my Scottish psyche) made of earthier, sterner stuff because it springs from the need to never be weak as life was so harsh - and the weak do not make it through...

    As a nation (let me generalise!) we are a garrulous, social lot though. We talk to everyone and anyone. Even on trains. Or queues. Maybe especially queues. But our humour is self-deprecation - developed to almost art-form level. We forge bonds made of stories which bind others to us through "how daft/mad/unfortunate/hopeless" we are at ... (fill dots with anything and everything we could be doing at the time).

    J could have expected the same reception in Scotland. For at least 5 mins. Which would have had people looking away with embarrassment. By the end of which time someone would have stepped up and removed him if he were still upset. A granny might have hugged him. Or he would be removed to another room.

    Maybe it is the Northern sensibility?

    What a fortunate man he is to have a friend like you.

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    1. my dear, thanks for this long and fascinating comment. I think you are spot on with your observation that traditionally, Scots (and Finns, too) are made of sterner, more stoic stuff than those in countries where life was perhaps less of a desperate struggle for survival. At earlier times, being weak probably did equate quite literally with being defeated by life. Yikes.

      I was thinking about what would have happened if the Christening Incident had happened in Australia. For a start, J would probably have removed himself from the room in embarrassment the minute he realised he couldn't stop the tears, and would likely have been pursued by his wife and his mum and maybe a good friend or two, for hugs (by the women) and bear-hugs by the men (accompanied by hefty thumps on the back and inquiries of "all right, mate?")

      I'm totally generalizing, of course. I do think, though, that I'm not the only Aussie who would have been dying to give J a big hug in that situation.

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  10. Hmmmm.... Here is my suspicion and I too am married to a Finnish man. Have been with him for like a decade now. Spent a lot of time in Finland too...

    He will do the Finnish lone wolf thing in public because that is just how the culture is. But what will happen next, will happen behind closed sauna doors. There is a lot that happens in Finland in the sauna. A lot is discussed and people are not at all alone and they know it. Because they spend time in the sauna so regularly. That is where and how these matters seem to be handled.....I don't really know why, but I know I would kill for a sauna. It would really make my marriage more healthy. Because Finnish men do not talk anywhere else they do not want intimacy of a non sexual kind anywhere else it seems..... Only there.... I too wonder about it and no one can give me an answer but that is how the culture works.

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