Lära för livet eller lära av livet?


It’s easier than ever to manage without Finnish in Helsinki

23 okt , 2018, 21.25 Peter Seenan


It’s Friday morning. I use Google Maps in English to check which number seventy bus I’ll take from Töölö to Viikki to get me there by eight. I board the bus and present a ticket I’ve bought on Whim, a Finnish travel app which is available in English.

At Prisma in Viikki I visit a self-service checkout with at least four languages to choose from – and I acknowledge the staff member who hangs near the scanners a bit aimlessly with what is probably quite an underwhelming “kiitos”.

A short while later I unlock my phone and choose Google and Whim to frictionlessly get me back to the centre from where I will flag down the Finnair bus. The bus pulls up, but I don’t need to say anything to the driver; I just scan the electronic ticket I’ve bought on the web pages of Pohjolan Liikenne and that’s it.

25 minutes later I’m at the Finnair offices next to the airport. The coffee machine gives me a choice of languages and I decide I am up to the challenge of selecting a Finnish flag. While I’m waiting, its little screen serves up a film shot during Finnish summer time in the city, which features a lot of rain – but that’s another story.

A short while after that I go for lunch with an Estonian, Chinese and Swedish-speaking Finn.

I present my credit card at a contactless payment terminal and a second later I’m greeted with “have a nice day to you” by the kind, warm-faced Finnish lady who’s always in the canteen and who always wishes me on my way with those well-meaning words.

At lunch, the four of us speak English, then I go back to my desk to write stories in English for Finnair and speak to my colleagues in English, which is Finnair’s workplace language.

As the late afternoon sun sets red over the trees I book a Matkahuolto bus ticket on their website in English and set out for Porvoo. There I visit a K-Market and speak to no one, except for a lady who is handing out free chocolates. I weigh and barcode my own veg, visit a self-service checkout and leave.

From Porvoo we drive beyond Loviisa chatting away in English with my girlfriend, past a petrol station where on other Fridays we’ll be pumping our own fuel, then finally after speaking almost no Finnish all day a cottage neighbour pops round and cheerily starts a conversation about the water temperature, her dog and a hundred other things.

In the middle of nowhere, closer to the Russian border than Helsinki, I finally get the feeling of getting inside the skin of Finland.

Friday was a day like any other, but what came starkly into focus when I was reflecting later was the fact there wasn’t one moment where I needed to know Finnish to accomplish what I’d set out to do, despite all the things I’d done and places I’d been that day.

I breezed through the day uttering fewer than a handful of words in Finnish, until I arrived in the middle of nowhere. The previous seven years in Finland might as well have not happened, I thought, because I had needed as much Finnish as I spoke the day I arrived.

I work in an international company, yes, but this privilege is only a small part of the reason I didn’t need Finnish last Friday and won’t need it for many of the other mundanities of ordinary life to come.  

A Dane I was talking to the other night is a cleaner at St. George’s Hotel in Helsinki and she faces the same experience. She speaks English with her colleagues and she has the same access to automated checkouts, Whim, and self-operated ticket machines as me. Automation and service in English is widespread in the capital region and as technology replaces what were previously jobs for humans, it will become even less necessary to know Finnish to navigate regular life comfortably in Helsinki. 

During the weekend I was preparing to publish the story of a Tanzanian woman called Emma who has lived in Finland for twenty years and she had expressed a similar point when she spoke to me at the start of this year. One of the things that exercises Emma most is when she hears other immigrants bitterly complaining that “everything is in Finnish.” “I just feel like saying that they should have come 15 years earlier,” she says.

Of course there are many other more complicated things that one has to manage in Finnish – and it has profoundly benefitted me to have Finnish friends to help – but because of the creep of automation and the widespread rise of so-called “shadow work” (what I’d been doing on Friday, like scanning my own goods) there is the possibility to make life easier for newly arrived immigrants and visitors.

Shadow work is driven by technological advancements and clearly there are benefits; not least the speed and the autonomy it provides. But removing human interactions certainly has its downsides – and I don’t just mean the way shadow work turns us into our own checkout operators, our own travel agents, our own accountants, our own secretaries and our own waiters, paradoxically making us feel both busier and freer at the same time.

For some people the chance to do all this themselves will be a relief, while for others – particularly older people – all this automation might remove valuable social interaction. For opponents of shadow work it represents a socially-isolating erosion of daily interactions; interactions that glue us together and create bonds, however small, incidental, fleeting or insignificant they might feel at the time.

One of the most interesting stories relating to this discussion that I’ve come across in Finland features Matthew, an English tech developer who was once invited onto Yle radio to talk about some badges he made.

Matthew was both the beneficiary and victim of the polite willingness of Finnish shop staff to switch to English if they thought it could help. But he saw a social interaction at a checkout as an opportunity to use his Finnish, not as unnecessary friction that technology should help eradicate.

“I found that many times I would be talking to someone, for example, at work or in a shop. I would try to use the level of Finnish I knew and it would only take me to hesitate or pause, or even just be speaking Finnish with a slightly British accent, and that was enough for them to switch to English. I understand why they thought that was polite from their side. But what people maybe were not able to see in that moment was that I was trying to speak Finnish because I wanted to practice, not because I thought I had to.”

To try to stop well-intentioned shop staff switching to English and increasing conversations in Finnish as he went about his daily business, Matthew made badges that read “Opettelen suomea”. He wore his badges on different items of clothing and his idea caught on with Finnish teachers who bought his spares to give to their students.

I’m in Matthew’s camp on this one. As much as I’m sure the self-help checkout speeds up my shop, I wonder what I’m in such a hurry for. So I can have a silent, soulless interaction with the next machine?

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