Nudity, Shame, and The Donald: A Comparison of Finnish and American Culture & Politics

 

A loaded title like that deserves a bit of an introduction. I moved to Finland in August of 2016 from the United States where I was previously working as a public school teacher in the state of Ohio. I’ve been enrolled in Helsinki University since August and I began working in Finland this January as a barista. During my undergraduate studies in the United States, I also did an exchange in Finland in 2012 for one semester; that 2012 experience, plus a wonderful Finnish man, brought me back to Finland for a longer stay in 2016.

So, what does nudity and shame have to do with Donald Trump and Finnish politics? Well, I originally set out to embark on the journey of answering the perpetually perturbing question that I receive steadily from Finns at the cafe: “Why, why, why did Americans vote Donald Trump into power?” Being from Ohio, a swing state in which I knew a lot of Trump supporters, I went to Facebook to pose this question myself, because I was just as stumped as the Finns who asked me.

The interesting thing about the Facebook post was that it wasn’t very interesting. The people who answered my question gave the answers that most of us have already heard: Hillary Clinton was a classic, corrupt politician with little interest in national security and cracking down on immigration, while Donald Trump was a successful businessman who offered security, prosperity, and success. Thus, the vicious cycle continued and my feeble attempt at research failed.

My failures brought me to the public swimming hall on Yrjönkatu. At this particular place, swimwear is optional, and if you choose to use the hall’s sauna after your swim, swimwear is actually banned. Yes, my fellow Americans, I have attended the sauna nude, with strangers, many, many times now. So, as I sweated my way through my Wednesday sauna session I inadvertently stumbled upon the things I wanted to talk about: nudity, shame, and politics.

I couldn’t think of anything to say about Donald Trump’s election that hasn’t already been said  before by much wiser, more qualified writers and critics. What I do know about is how my own politics have changed and grown since moving to Finland and how those changes are directly correlated to how both cultures handle nudity and shame.

For example: Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall. I mentioned earlier that swimwear is optional. If you ever go there you will see women of all shapes, ages, and sizes swimming nude. Your definition of breast stroke will probably change, and back stroke will certainly never be the same. On an important side note for my American readers, there are men and women’s days; nudity is almost always separated by gender. Although there are male lifeguards, which I admit is a bit odd.

However, the first couple times I went to Yrjönkatu I wore my bathing suit. Then the Wednesday came that I forgot it and so I did the whole thing nude: swimming, sauna, walking around. It was great. But it didn’t feel that way at first. My eyes were peeled wide open as I walked around in my birthday suit. I kept thinking someone was going to notice me, despite the fact that the whole  place was basically nude. I, self-centeredly, thought everyone would somehow sense my Americanness and point and stare and probably laugh.

Instead, what happened, and what continues to happen there, is that I run into the sweetest old ladies who are always willing to speak English with me, or help me with me Finnish. They tell me about their adventures and why they love that swimming hall after all these years. Even though I’m naked, they talk to me for me; I genuinely feel welcome at that hall.

The way that Finns handle nudity is reflected in the welfare state style of government. It doesn’t matter how old and wrinkly you are, or how diseased and troubled—you will be taken care of. Is the system perfect? Of course not. But what I find admirable about the Nordic welfare state is that people are always, always people. And I believe consistent nude interaction with your fellow countrymen and women wakes you up to this concept. When it is normal and natural to see a person naked, flaws exposed, acceptance more easily enters the mind.

In contrast, nudity is completely taboo in the United States. Well, sort of. It’s completely acceptable for a young, attractive woman to wear a string biking which basically covers her nipples and butt crack, but if anyone else would wear such a bathing suit, it is immediately revolting and disgusting. Americans specifically struggle with the female nipple and I’d wager that just reading the phrase “female nipple” makes Americans uncomfortable.

This attitude plays out in our governments. Where the  Finns see a person as person, flaws and all, Americans tend to see the flaws first and make a judgement based on those flaws. “Are you on drugs?” You don’t deserve welfare. “Do you work?” Because if you don’t you don’t deserve welfare. “How many jobs have you looked for?” “How much have you sacrificed?” The questions we ask to determine a person’s worthiness go on and on.

This constant search for fault that is something I rarely see in Finland. When I talk to Finns about the welfare state, every single one I’ve ever met has admitted that there are those who take advantage of the system. This knowledge has never led any of  them to say to me: “We need to cut welfare” or “those people don’t deserve help.” The talk usually revolves around incentive and job creation. “How can we get more jobs in Finland?” and “How can we encourage people to work and avoid getting comfortable living off of welfare?” The questions are totally different.

This is where shame comes into play. From what I’ve noticed in my short time here, Finns feel a huge sense of shame when they aren’t working. If they’re studying, that’s a different story, but many Finns I know at the university have part time jobs and attend university as well. I would argue that this sense of shame also exists in America. I have not met a single welfare recipient in the US who is proud to take welfare. The difference in shame between cultures lies in the type of job.

For example, I was a teacher in the US, and now I work as a barista in Finland. The only time I ever feel a sense of shame about being a barista is when I tell other Americans. There’s usually a slight frown. “A barista? Why couldn’t you find a teaching job?” I make a livable wage as a barista here in Finland. I turned down a teaching offer because I didn’t feel comfortable in that particular school. My Finnish friends couldn’t have been happier for me when I told them I got a cafe job. I’m not quite sure why Americans job shame so much, but it’s a real problem in the US.

This attitude of job shaming even seeps into American schools. As a high school teacher, I noticed every year that students would stray from technical school or trade jobs, thinking those jobs were somehow lesser. I would argue that the vast majority of my students felt a massive pressure to go straight to college from high school and to know exactly what they wanted to major in as soon as they entered university. Remember, Americans pay thousands and thousands of dollars for university so there isn’t much time to think about what you really want to do.

Conversely, it is completely normal for Finnish high school students to wait a year or two before entering university, which is free of charge. However, once students graduate, they are expected to enter the workforce immediately so that they can contribute back to the system that just afforded them so many opportunities.

So, we covered two major cultural differences: nudity, and job shaming, which leads to the mother of all cultural differences: small talk.  The stereotype is that Finns don’t “do” small talk, which is a favorite American past time. Finns are known for being notoriously straight faced, shy, and quiet, whereas the Americans are known for being loud, talkative, and hyperbolic. I think both nations could learn valuable lessons from each other here.

Take for instance, the simple, but important question “How are you?”. To Americans, this is just a greeting. We don’t actually want to know about your day at the check-out line in the grocery store. For Finns however, this is not the case; they will sincerely answer your question.

For example, sometimes I slip into this American habit at work and ask Finns “how are you?” while I’m moving around, making their coffee, or giving them change. I’m sometimes greeted with startled expressions and “umm, ohh, I’m okay.” One guy in particular actually informed me he really didn’t like small talk and didn’t know how to answer my question. We ended up having a great conversation about cultural differences in greetings. So it wasn’t that he wasn’t friendly or talkative, he just didn’t see the point in the kind of useless banter that arises from the American “how are you?”

Like nudity and shame, this is yet another quality I see reflected in our cultures and governments. Donald’s rhetoric and the way he perpetually talks around issues and not about them, just seems like another version of small talk. Instead of getting straight to the issue, he creates small phrases that are catchy, but don’t really mean anything, and the greater meaning of the issue is lost, just like in the case of “how are you?”

However, the midwesterner in me misses talking to neighbors and petting any dog that walks by on the street. Here in Helsinki I have smiled at people on trams, and said hello to dogs on the street and I receive looks that say “Are you crazy or a murderer or both?”

What it boils down to, in my eyes, is that the Finns see Donald naked, just as the person and conman that he is. His drive to acquire and acquire and acquire-money, votes, fame-this is what Finns find shameful about Donald Trump. When Finns set out to establish free and equal school systems, they created a government in which free and equal school systems actually happened. When you step into school systems across the entire country of Finland, you will find the same basic supplies and buildings. Their government did not use small talk to make empty promises.

The final point I want to make is about this notion that Finland, and all of Scandinavia, is able to have a welfare state government because they are small and homogenous countries. Finland has had a bloody and difficult history. They gained independence from Russia only in 1917, and maintained their independence even after battles in WWII. Finland left the wars extremely poor, but autonomous. They made a conscious decision as a nation to invest in education and welfare for all; none of that discussion was small talk among Finns. Each Finnish citizen sacrificed and continues to sacrifice a large portion of their salary to contribute to this welfare system. Paying taxes is not the epitome of evil in Finland.

That is a concept and decision that hasn’t been considered in America. As long as Americans believe a country is a business, money will continue to be placed above people. And as long as welfare states continue to see people for people, then humans will be more important than money.

My hopes for the future are romantic. I wish that America would stop shouting from the rooftops “We are the greatest country in the world!” and learn from other countries that have things figured out a little better than we do at home. And I wish Finns would be more vocal about their culture, and the things that work so well for them.

Is Finland perfect? Absolutely not. Battles are fought everyday in the wintertime in Helsinki about who will walk on the part of the sidewalk that has been shoveled and who will walk in the snowy sludge. I have lost every one of these battles. So, how do I combine the best qualities from both my beloved homes? I can’t be sure, but sauna usually solves all my problems. Maybe President Donald Trump and President Sauli Niinistö can sweat it out traditional Finnish style, in the nude, with some birch branches in case a certain someone needs an extra wack when they get carried away with nonsensical small talk.

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