Today, as part of The Hieno! “What is Finnish-ness” series celebrating Suomi 100 in 2017, we feature Peter Seenan, a foreigner who moved to Finland from UK!
Peter Seenan is a content manager at Leedfeeder and a language specialist, editor and proofreader. Peter is also the first person in this series who is nominated by a friend who found him inspiring and charismatic. He is also fondly mentioned as a great example of an individual who has put in effort to understand and appreciate the Finnish culture and way of life.
Enjoy the interview! ♡
TH: Hi Peter! Can you tell us more about yourself? Why did you move to Finland from UK?
Peter: Hi, my name’s Peter Seenan and I’m a 30ish-year-old Scotsman from St. Andrews now living in Helsinki. I first came here on Erasmus exchange – to study, weirdly some say, Finnish politics and culture – back in 2004 and I was hooked by Finland.
I work for a Finnish tech startup called Leadfeeder as head copywriter and proofreader and when I’m not doing that I help out Finnish companies with all kinds of English language-related and business growth tasks like ghostwriting, proofreading and promotion.
Many Finnish companies have international customers or they’re trying to grow globally and they want to speak in a manner that doesn’t sound weird to a native speaker’s ear. Plus of course with so much business strategy revolving around content marketing in today’s digital era there’s a huge demand for original writing that attracts prospects and educates existing customers.
In my spare time I also edit for students and academics at Finnish universities and I’ve been doing that for many years now – it’s lots of fun and very rewarding and I get to read many marvelous theses and publications and help very talented people get into the likes of Harvard and LSE.
One of the most common questions Finns ask me is “why are you actually here?” and I like to imagine that question isn’t so much a personal attack as a throbbing curiosity about what makes someone move to Finland – I admit that many would consider it a strange choice. One of my initial reasons for coming to Helsinki was simply because no one else from the University of Edinburgh was coming here in autumn 2004 and I liked the idea of being something of a lone wolf. That and the fact that my then GP mentioned something about Finnish women being completely wonderful.
Since the end of Erasmus I’ve lived all over the world – including far less bleak and dark climes – but I loved Finland even after my initial study-year infatuation had passed and I was always looking for ways to come back because it suited my values and outlook (I’m only occasionally bleak).
One thing that I love about Finland is the nationwide belief in the life part of a work-life balance (seen, for example through generous paternity provisions) and despite my multiple jobs I still have time for lots of hobbies. I think the ones that would have surprised 21-year-old me in September 2004 would be my love for ice-swimming, sauna, an archipelago-inspired sport called swimrun and cross-country skiing.
TH: What is the most important/ meaningful event or experience that happened in Finland?
Peter: There have been a number of times when I’ve really felt this is completely extraordinary – many of which were simple experiences but deeply life-affirming, like the snowfall in my first year here when Finland turned into a Christmas postcard and I would stare at it mesmerized for hours.
I still remember my first sauna with a ton of Finns and foreigners a month or so into my Erasmus experience. It was incredibly surreal and quite special at once: at the start of autumn we travelled to someone’s old country house – the whole experience felt modest despite being quite a grand house – and we caught fish and cooked it on an open fire, jumped into the lake, sang naked in the sauna and crawled around on a forest floor looking for mushrooms. I remember thinking to myself that I’d never have imagined collecting mushrooms to be such a communal ‘thing’ and it was then that I started to realise what Finland was all about: taking pleasure in the simple things, slowing down, enjoying nature’s jewels and being grateful for your surroundings.
Things are a lot like this in Scotland but here it’s taken even more seriously – country cottages play a big role in this – and sadly sauna isn’t yet a part of culture in Scotland (I’d like to change that).
Last time I was home for holiday I built a sauna out of a tent on a Scottish beach on the Atlantic-thrashed west coast among the dunes and wild sheep and everyone had a marvelous time, with mint instead of eucalyptus. Sauna has a profoundly important role in life and death in Finland and the film Steam of life captures the sauna as the oil that help turns the cogs of this society during some of the harsh conditions we face every year.
TH: Can you tell us what are the top 3 challenges you have faced in Finland as a Scott who moved to Finland from UK?
Peter: Honestly, I’m one of the lucky ones. I haven’t had major struggles but I’m not convinced there isn’t a glass ceiling for foreigners, as my friend Gareth Rice has discussed at length.
The weather is hard to adapt to – despite the fact that my homeland is not known for its tropical heat – and it’s dark for a very long time here. It’s probably worth it when balanced against the midnight sun, but I do wonder if life would be a tad more palatable were it not a country of such extremes. I don’t particularly mind the cold, but when it’s dark too it does sometimes feel unbearable and I’m quite sure that it affects the national psyche for about 6 months of the year or more every year. When the day’s first challenge is stepping into a howling gale and 3 feet of snow and you haven’t even encountered your boss or faced office Juhla Mokka then life can seem difficult.
Sometimes I feel the weather is mirrored in social interactions; they can often feel skeletal and infrequent. Many foreign friends have told me they find it strange that on a Monday morning it’s perfectly normal not to bother enquiring how your colleague’s weekend was and the same sort of detachment seems to apply when a colleague is off sick. Few people react with “get well soon” and after a holiday people just ignore you like you’ve never been anywhere.
I know we all lead busy lives (or at least we think we do) but sometimes I think that some of these so-called soft skills – the ability to actually speak and enquire – will need to be drilled into Finland if it is to internationalise effectively and seem less weird and insular.
I’ve lost count of the number of times in the startup world I’ve heard the phrase “we’ve got to be more American” by which it’s taken to mean be less Finnish about our achievements and talk them up more. But this all starts at home; if you can’t find the energy or time for everyday social graces then you’re not going to be able to talk about yourself very well on the global stage.
The Finnish language is obviously the third challenge, but at least it has very regular pronunciation so that’s one positive. Clearly the difficulty of the language creates other challenges, such as employment and the ease with which one can penetrate Finnish life, but language classes are very affordable here. I’ve been lucky insofar as I’ve always had employment that didn’t hinge on my grasp of Finnish skills, but there was one time when I was overlooked in favour of another candidate who was a Finn, despite Finnish language skills not being an advertised requirement.
TH: Do you think there are solutions or better alternatives as to how we think about these three challenges?
Peter: There’s not much one can do about the weather but getting out there and being active is pretty important for one’s mental health and I like the Finnish attitude to getting stuff done whatever the weather – actually, I admire it. It’s hugely refreshing having come from little Britain with terrible delays to transport services caused by moderate weather conditions to see society functioning perfectly in mid-winter and people going about their daily business despite the weather. It’s with good reason that “snow-how” is a term associated with Finland.
I don’t really see the fact that Finnish is such a difficult language to be a big problem. Finns are generally very good at English and very understanding when you throw around a few Finnish words and get mixed up between pikku and munkki – as I used to. Those who learn Finnish stand out in the crowd and for that reason Finnish language is a challenge to be embraced.
I think Finnish work culture will change more rapidly when organisations understand that a company culture of empathy is an economic imperative. Many wide-reaching academic studies already demonstrate the economic importance of fostering an environment in which people feel they are valued and listened to but it will take a long time before Finnish companies understand what practices they should adopt to foster these values. The more that companies like Google publish research showing the link between psychological safety (empathy and conversational turn-taking) and success the greater the likelihood of jurassic work culture changing – in Finland, as elsewhere.
TH: How do you reconcile being “Scottish” and “Finnish” at the same time?
Peter: Scotland and Finland have a lot in common and for that reason I think it’s easy to be a Scot in Finland. But I don’t consider myself to be Finnish despite living here 5 years. Perhaps in part because I find it hard to get properly worked up about the President’s independence day ball.
Being from a small country means having a strong national identity that’s hard to shake off and in Finland, like everywhere else in the world, it feels like an asset to be Scottish.
Three encounters this week illustrate how enjoyable it is to be a Scot here and how often I’m reminded of my nationality.
On Thursday in the sauna at Yrjönkatu uimahalli a Finnish man – upon hearing I was from Scotland – started exclaiming how much he wanted to visit Scotland and how happy he was that I was someone who enjoyed a nice hot sauna, earlier in the week I got talking with a Swedish-speaking Finn in the leaves of Hesperianpuisto who told me he was a descendant of a Scot, and on Monday during a phone conversation with a customer of Leadfeeder he mentioned his brother was doing academic research in my hometown at St. Andrews University.
TH: What are the three things you appreciate most about Finland?
Peter: I love the drama of the changing seasons and the cultural events that trace them. The first of May roughly marks the beginning of spring proper where we collectively picnic in driving snow, midsummer represents the land of the midnight sun and in autumn I look forward to crayfish parties on jetties in the archipelago. Because the changes of season are so dramatic one feels at the mercy of nature here and so it seems natural to mark the passing seasons with such unswerving commitment to alcohol.
I love too the centrality of sauna in everyday life. It’s not quite a substitute for the pub as one BBC journalist suggested recently, but it’s just such a wonderful and enjoyable tradition and it, like the weather it protects you from, changes with the seasons. The experience of a mid-winter sauna and a perishing swim and a sauna under the midnight sun are starkly and beautifully different. One of my favourite saunas in Finland is a free public sauna that can be found tucked away at a beachhead in Kustavi. I stumbled across it this summer after a tough day of cycling. As I heard someone say the other day: everyone is equal in the sauna.
It’s difficult to capture in three what I appreciate most about Finland, but every day when I walk to work I think how fortunate I am to live in a city as green and uncrowded as Helsinki. It takes me 15 minutes to get there and I live 10 minutes walk from the beach. Not having to commute is one of the best gifts one can have and it makes a tremendous difference to your quality of life (I used to live in Delhi so I know what it’s like jostling for space as a cow cuts you up on the inside lane).
TH: What do you think are some of the popular misconceptions of Finland and Finns?
- That silence is rude and Finns aren’t warm-hearted.
I actually think Finnish silence is a great virtue and that many other countries would do well to practice not spouting shite the whole time. Finns just patently don’t care for following global social norms and I think that’s completely admirable. Knowing how to be silent is as much a skill as knowing how to be an entertainer and perhaps Finns’ abilities to shut up and listen is what makes them highly successful peace builders and educators.
- Finland… just another Nordic country.
Nope, it’s really not.
For all kinds of reasons that become apparent when you start exploring the North. Culturally, Finland has more in common with Japan than Sweden and knowing Finnish will do you no good if you’re trying to order a coffee in Copenhagen.
- That Finns are all depressed.
Weirdly, no. They might be good at looking menacing on public transport but Finland actually came 5th in the 2016 world happiness report. Perhaps it’s the widespread belief that everybody else is miserable and you feel okay that makes people happy.
TH: What are the three things that are definitely “Finnish”?
Peter: The drying cupboard above your sink where you can put wet dishes and forget about them is certainly one. I’d never seen this before I came to Finland and I don’t think I’ve seen it anywhere else to this day. It’s as clever as the chopping board that sits flush over the sink with a small hole for bio waste.
Another thing that’s as Finnish as a silent elevator ride and took a bit of getting used to is beating the crap out of a fellow human in a sauna with a birch branch. My first encounter with this instrument of pleasure came only months into my life in Finland in 2004 and featured a rather robust and fierce grunting man. I can’t remember the sauna now but this naked gent turned to me from the bench in front and handed me a birch branch. He pointed vaguely to his backside and turned round to face forward and await my treatment. Unsure how to proceed and not wanting to hurt him I began to prod him gently from behind in a sort of playful tickling motion. Very quickly he turned back round with a look of thunder and grunted angrily at me. I thought I might be beaten to death then and there with a sauna bucket and stick. But instead he gestured that I should whack him, so I duly set to work.
There are many facets of life here that give rise to the feeling “only in finland” (such as the way people don’t f*ck up public amenities just because they’re bored) and one particular favourite of mine is how okay everyone is – from all walks of life – about visiting a composting toilet in the countryside. Like free public saunas they’re wonderfully maintained and often beautifully decorated. Someone should author a book on how Finns tend not to destroy public goods for fun like people do in other countries and it should feature sympathetically decorated composting toilets in the middle of nowhere with hanging wall art and vases of flowers.
TH: With regards to integration, do you have some tips for immigrants who want to stay in Finland permanently, because they love this country? Please give tips that are not too impossible! 😛
Peter: Don’t dismiss Finland just because it doesn’t fit your worldview. In most cases there’s probably a perfectly good explanation for why something’s the way it is – I mean, it makes sense that one wouldn’t have time for idle chit chat if one risks death from frostbite. Try to understand the culture – you’ll learn a lot that will ultimately have a profound effect on your life here. I know other foreigners who came here for Erasmus in 2004 and stayed for good.
Try to adopt some cultural habits and life will become easier. Don’t ask people how they are unless you’re ready to hear how they actually are. Learn how to pronounce Finnish place names even if you don’t understand the language, or use Swedish to help you out at first. Learn a few Finnish expressions straight away, like Suojakänni (it means protection drunkenness). If you’re in Helsinki, leave Helsinki occasionally, even if it means you have to learn how to poo in the forest between two parallel tree trunks. Understand that you can integrate in Swedish as well as Finnish. Swedish was the first language I learnt here for any concerted period of time and you can get citizenship by passing a Swedish language examination.
Don’t hang around at home sending CVs, get out there and meet people. I don’t think Finns are particularly good at marketing themselves and it’s only now that people are talking about exporting their education system or dreaming up terms like “snow-how”. So I’d recommend that now’s a good time to be confident in your abilities and make your mark in person. In the startup world, young Finns are cottoning on to the fact that if you walk the walk people will believe you and you’ll go far. It’s still unusual to find Finns who are flush with confidence and for that reason it’s typically thought that he must have a reason to be confident.
TH: What are your dreams and visions for the future?
Peter: I enjoy living in Finland and I feel constantly challenged, in part because it often feels like I’m living on a frontier, which in some respects I am.
I can work anywhere in the world I please because Leadfeeder doesn’t require my physical presence and nor do any of my other clients, so it has crossed my mind to spend some of the tougher weather months elsewhere. India is only 6 hours or so from here and I know I’d also enjoy living in other Nordic countries, like Sweden or Denmark.
I plan to start my own journalistic endeavor as part of the Finland 100 programme and that way I’ll get to meet lots of other people around Finland during this momentous year. I’d like to contribute to the narratives that emerge from this country in the next 12 months and if I keep long-term roots in Finland I’d like to be more active in grassroots projects and initiatives for the common good.
TH: We’d be looking forward to your activities in the next 12 months!~Finland would be celebrating its 100 years of independence next year. What are your dreams and visions for Finland’s future?
Peter: I would like Finland to continue on the same path and remember what it has stood for during the past century, namely judging itself by the way it looks out for the most vulnerable members of society.
One of my favourite sentiments, attributed to the mayor of Bogota, which captures perfectly what Finland stands for is “the mark of a developed country is not that everyone drives around in fancy cars, but in how many people take public transport.” It reminds me of something I read in my welcome pack at Helsinki University: even the president takes the tram in Finland.
TH: On a parting note, do you have anything else to add?
Peter: I’ve already talked for far too long and I’m hugely excited about living in Finland in 2017.
The Hieno! is the official partner of the Finland 100 independence programme: What is “Finnish-ness”? endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Office. Photos courtesy of Peter Seenan. We hope you have enjoyed reading this interview as much as we did! 🙂