Swallow, Deborah, Culture Shock! Finland: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette

Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at diversophy.com   Amazon Review

Finland Made Easy

One of the more attractive features of the Culture Shock series is generally the personal perspective of the authors. One often has the sense of being taken by the hand and shown around a new and unfamiliar environment with the sense of well-being and safety that one enjoys in the presence of a seasoned tour guide. In fact the subtitle of the books in the series, A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette, seems overly cautionary. This volume on Finland by Deborah Swallow is no exception. Swallow seems at home with and always on good terms with her Finnish hosts and with the guests she brings to visit them via her writing.

For most of us the image of Finland is that of a peaceful, forested, often snowy, out of the way countryside, a good place in which to plan a hike, some cross-country skiing or a fishing trip. In fact some of these, minus the mosquitos, are among the nicer features offered by a leisure visit to the country. The opening chapter on first impressions, written from the point of view of things that happened to the author and are likely to happen to you in discovering Finland and its people, is at once reassuring and eye opening.

Finland, unlike many places in the world, besides the generally quiet demeanor of its people and the impossibility of its language, has few truly negative stereotypes to live down. So, it is likely to come as a shock to some readers to discover that it is a relatively new country with a still recent memory of warfare, political insecurity, civil strife, and a polluted environment. Without being negative, Swallow is careful to give us a full picture of the ethnic, social, and military complexity of Finland's recent and far past in her next chapter on the "Land, History, Economy and Government." Sandwiched between, and too often overrun by their Swedish and Russian neighbors, and a pawn in the political and military maneuvering of greater powers has left the Finns, on one hand, with a sense of minding their own business, a need for hard work and, on the other hand, taking advantage of natural resources, industry and technology to become sector leaders in today's commercial world.

The next two chapters tell us about the Finns themselves the nature and makeup of the population the educational system and what one needs to observe and do in socializing with Finnish people, whether visiting or settling in. From shopping to sauna and schooling, from communicating to partying, Swallow gives us a concrete picture of what to expect. Like other places in Europe, an aging population has both been benefited by and disturbed by the large number of immigrant workers and asylum seekers becoming more and more visible in daily life. Growing insecurity, ethnocentrism and xenophobia do show up, even in this well-regulated and well-intended society.

Next we look at food and then culture. While some cultures are renowned for their cuisine, Finland is not among them. It takes a bit of exploration to discover what is tasty, enjoyable and unique to the Finnish table and pleasing to the palate. From Lapland to the cosmopolitan good addresses of Helsinki, the effort can be rewarding. Not surprisingly, Santa Claus hangs out in this country at several addresses and in several incarnations--there are enjoyable activities for young and old in abundance.

Finns have contributed substantially to European and world culture, however the barrier of language has restricted our familiarity with their literary tradition. Swallow does spend a chapter talking about the language and literature, and she gives a brief introduction into the structure of what is a very melodious and expressive tongue.

There is a chapter on working in Finland that includes advice about communication, negotiation and the etiquette required to interact productively in this environment. The book closes with a summary of "fast facts," and a culture quiz that helps the reader fix in mind the influence of Finnish values and how they lead to behavior both on the part of the Finns and on the part of those of us who will be interacting with them. Finally, there is a handy glossary and a resource guide with lots of helpful online references, well in keeping with the high-tech, well-wired nature of the country.

This book came at the right time for me, as I am preparing for a working trip to Finland in a little over a month. It helped me interpret and coalesce experiences of several previous short visits and gave me clues and tips not only to "survive," as the subtitle of the volume suggests, but to relax and search for some of the more delightful features that I had missed in the past, as well as to avoid a few of the unwitting mistakes I had made.

Swallow, who is currently the President of the European Society for Intercultural Education Training and Research (SIETAR Europa), writes with the savvy of an experienced interculturalist, while not abandoning her own British perspective. I found this usually delightful, though I had to google for the occasional Pommy word or phrase that was not part of my Yankee vocabulary.


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