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The Finnish Character: Sisu

Updated on February 5, 2011

Europe is a cornucopia of languages, customs, and cultures. That being said, regions of Europe are often grouped together into cultural groups - Latin Culture, Germanic Culture, Scandinavian Culture, etc. But Finnish culture, while bordered by Swedes and Norwegians to the north and west and the Baltic countries to the south, isn't exactly Scandinavian - it isn't Baltic either. And to the east, there is Russia. But Finland definitely isn't a Slavic country though for a period of time it was ruled by Russia.

Finland is a cultural and linguistic island unto itself. It's language is not a member of the Indo-European language family - the predominant linguistic family in Europe of which English, Russian, French, Italian, Spanish, etc., are all members. Its closest relative is in fact Estonian which is spoken on the other side of the Baltic in Estonia. Its next closest living relative is Hungarian though the similarities are arguably those only a trained linguist could discern.

So we have a country of a little over 5 million people who are linguistically isolated, their language being an alphabet soup of letters such as sairaanhoitaja (nurse,) and isanmaanystava (patriot.) Well, you can see where the some of the difficulty lies - at least in communication.

The Finnish national character is probably best summed up by the word Sisu. Sisu, for being a short word and very uncharacteristic at that as far as Finnish words go, carries a lot of meaning. Sisu expresses the guts of a nation, the fortitude it takes to persevere in the face of endless bad fortune,and the stubbornness to stay the course even though you know the odds are stacked against you. It is stubbornness, national pride, pigheadedness - it is the ability to survive months of cold and almost total darkness without offing yourself or your neighbor. It is the ability to drink yourself silly on a Saturday night and attend Lutheran Church services the following Sunday morning. It is the ability to lose your job, and your wife, and your dog on a Monday and keep a stoic face at work through Friday. It is uniquely Finnish and it is sisu.


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