May 25, 2014
Love need not be blind, certainly not the love that develops between ourselves and the peoples and places we adopt in the course of a lifetime. Nothing more telling could be said of Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf, Richard Lewis' recent book. His some fifty years of involvement in linguistic and cultural education in Finland make him uniquely qualified among English-speaking writers to bring this cold, often dark and watery country "out of hiding" both accurately and sympathetically for the rest of us.
Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf, though suffused with admiration for the singularity and virtues of the Finnish people. It is expressed with a matter-of-factness and acknowledgement of their limitations that Finns themselves will appreciate. Lewis’ writing, though perhaps a bit high for ESL readers might be compared with a quiet, birchen and snowy Finnish landscape, thawed occasionally into laughing rivulets by Lewis' native and sometimes wry British wit.
Using Finnish Olympic prowess as a metaphor, the book’s opening pages tell us of a country that deserves gold medals for its industry, economy, enlightened politics and diplomacy. Since the outsider's knowledge of Finland is often so scant, a generous thirty-five pages are dedicated to the origins, history and geographical influences on the formation of this people and their land. This is followed by a linguist's dip into the Finnish language, just deep enough for the reader to appreciate its extraordinary features as well as the truly chilling challenge of learning it.
A summary of ten key Finnish values opens the way to the heart of the discussion: how do Finns behave and how others can successfully interact with them? Those already familiar with Lewis’ methodology will be right at home with his uniquely graphic approach to presenting cultural comparisons about communication, leadership in understandable diagrams. They will also recognize his classification system for cultural differences. Using the physical human body as a model, for example, he traces cultural comportment of each bodily member in non-verbal communication. In NLP terms, Lewis is a gift to those of us who are visually oriented and struggle to put text into our imagination.
Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf, spends its middle pages reflecting the Finnish personality so that it becomes more comprehensible to outsiders. There is a consistent Finnish image, the Suomi-kuva which re-expresses itself over the years despite changes in quality of life and technology. The reader comes away sensing what the French describe as plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose. Finnish friends have confided in me that Finland's world leadership in cell phone and internet saturation is not only “connecting people” as the Nokia slogan proclaims, but also allows the reticent Finn to talk to others without the uncomfortable closeness of face-to-face contact. The cell phone plays this role even in primary school playground games. Cultures, certainly this one, tend to reinforce themselves even when it seems that “times are a changin’.
A treatment of Finns’ collaboration with close-to-home Nordic neighbors, particularly the Swedes, and then with other peoples illustrates the "lone wolf" theme. After a look at Nordic similarities and close neighbor irritations, the author takes us on a world tour of how everybody else sees Finns. In some cases, this seems to implicitly judge other cultures according to a Finnish standard of excellence. Though the treatment it may reflect what Finns feel or sense about other cultures, it would be interesting to hear more of what they have to say about the world as they see it—if only they could be coaxed into telling more stories. The section on how Finns relate to US Americans is more revealing in this respect.
Discussions of gender, along with a treatment of the Finns’ use of space, time, and humor round out the picture. Finnish women deserve perhaps even more attention than Lewis’ overview allows, both because of the roles they have come to play and the contrast they provide to Finnish men in expressiveness and personality. There is another book in the waiting here.
A full chapter including a chronology presents the story of Nokia, perhaps the only connecting point that those of us (who realize that it is not a Japanese firm!) commonly have with Finnish business. The success story deserves to be told, despite the instability of Nokia shares in the current market.
Lewis has also developed and restates in this book a rather peculiar concept of the Cultural Black Hole (CBH) to describe certain absolute values and belief structures that tend to absorb everything else when activated in a given culture. Admittedly there is such a dynamic and it is somewhat cathartic to say so, but the CBH metaphor strikes me as not very constructive for the crises where intercultural interventions need to be most effective. I would prefer thinking in less fatalistic approaches to these situations—taking advantage of our understanding of cultural stress and tools of stress management, for example.
How does one talk about people who don’t talk much about themselves? Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf is a very good start. It demystifies the mysteries we tend to create about those we don’t know well, and in this sense encourages us to go further and more comfortably into the future with them despite the bleakness of the landscape. Whether “the future is Finnish” or Chinese, or…, only time will tell, but Lewis, in bringing Finland, its facts and its virtues to the forefront of our consciousness has made possible a more informed discussion of that future.