What do Finns look like?


About stereotypes of Germans and Finns: conversation with the ethnologist Helena Ruotsala

What does life in Germany look like through the eyes of a Finnish woman? Especially if she is an ethnologist and has specialized in European cultures ... We got in touch with Prof. Dr. Helena Ruotsala from the University of Turku, who is currently a DAAD guest lecturer at the University of Hamburg. She records her observations in Germany in an entertaining blog - in Finnish.
At the University of Hamburg you offered a seminar "How Finns Are". How are the Finns?

A common cliché is that Finns are generally silent. But I think that's just a myth. A myth that the Finns themselves maintain and nourish today - as a Finnish exotic and a distinguishing feature from other Europeans. After all, we invented cell phones and SMS ...

But in my course I want to show a versatile picture of the Finns, look behind stereotypes and clichés, relativize one-sided views.

For example, we are practical and do what we have promised. We are also used to getting by without outside help.

And how do others see the Finns?

According to some books, written by German sons-in-law, we Finns are crazy, have strange games and sports - such as eukonkanto, "carrying women" and suopotkupallo, "mud football" -, live in the wild with mosquitoes and moose, have "sisu" (for example: Intransigence or fighting spirit, editor's note), dance tango and drink a lot of alcohol.

In addition - at least according to my students - the Finns have good heavy metal and ethnic music bands, fast drivers and good ice hockey players. Mostly positive stereotypes, but they are also a bit exotic.

And how are the Germans in the eyes of the Finns?

Stereotypes about Germans are, for example, that they are know-it-alls, direct, arrogant, orderly, hardworking, pedantic, effective, formal, economical or even stingy. Authority is very important to them, but they too can enjoy life. And they are good soccer players.

And how do such external images come about?

When we have little, no or not enough knowledge about strangers, when cultures are alien to us. Stereotypes help us to find our way in different social contexts. They organize and systematize our knowledge. Stereotypes simplify and generalize, but they also offer the opportunity to rethink and reshape the image of a particular social group or culture.

We also build such pictures of ourselves; just the picture of the silent Finns, see e.g. the films by Aki Kaurismäki.

Personally, I'm a big fan of Aki Kaurismäki, who actually made a decisive contribution to my image of Finland. Which German director determines the Finns' image of Germany?

For Finns, the picture of Germany is mostly based on German crime novels; e.g. "The old man", "A case for two", "Bella Block". Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders are also known. The German crime novels and "Tatort" are very popular in Finland. But for me, number 1 is Edgar Reitz's “home”.

And who is the most decisive German cultural bearer or the most famous German in Finland?

Rammstein. Absolutely Rammstein.

So much for the gap between self and external images. Let's move on to another part of your research. One focus of your work is the Mari, the so-called Volga Finns, who still live largely traditionally today. What exactly are you investigating?

In my studies on the Mari I examine the effects of modernization processes on the everyday life of Mari women. I visited a Mari village and examined where women have their areas and their space. How have the position and role of Mari women changed? That is the question that I followed.

Do you observe something like a loss of culture, for example through globalization?

In the digital, global and mobile world, distances lose their meaning. Time and space are compressed. Cultures come into exchange with one another. That’s always been there. Cultures have always received impulses from other cultures; that is a condition for cultures to live and survive.

But the small cultures or peoples like the Saami and Mari are less armed against external influences, they do not have the same opportunities to assert their culture and identity. The small languages ​​- including the Saami language in Finland - are in danger, they are under pressure from the majority languages. But what happens to a people when they lose their language? The language is a basis for their culture. I also pursue this question in my research.

In your blog, write down what you notice in everyday life. You have been here for a few months now. What still amazes you most about everyday life in Germany?

For example, I am amazed at some impractical things in everyday life, such as doors that have to be locked twice. In Finland we just let the door slam shut and it is closed.

The practice of the dozen and the seventh is also unusual for me. Even old work colleagues are simmering. Or that all foreign films are dubbed: Why is that? I have often heard the sentence, “I am not responsible”.

I think it's great that you get good service almost everywhere - we have a lot more self-service in cafes.

A very topical and exciting difference is the role and importance of football: it is very important for Germans. Football fans practically form their own "tribe". Football connects different people, classes and groups. I watched football fever with great enthusiasm (and astonishment). But why do the Germans have to analyze everything to death, they (at least some journalists) are never satisfied ...

Biographical information:

Prof. Dr. Helena Ruotsala, born in 1957 in Kittilä, in Finland's part of Lapland, did her PhD at the University of Turku in the subject of folklore on the subject: “Reindeer herding in Finland's part of Lapland and on the Kola Peninsula”. Since 2012 she has been Professor of European Ethnology at the University of Turku. Her research is currently focused on everyday cross-border life and multilocality in the twin town of Tornio-Haaparanta on the Finnish-Swedish border. Since April 2012 she has been a DAAD guest lecturer at the Institute for Finno-Ugric / Ural Studies at the University of Hamburg.
The interview was conducted by Giselind Werner.