Finland’s national disease of low self-esteem

Kirjoittaja on New Yorkissa varttunut ja Helsingissä naisistunut copywriter.

Dear Mom,

So, I was in a meeting presenting concepts for an ad campaign, and I got this: “It sounds very good. Actually, we’re afraid it sounds too good. We don’t want to give the impression that we’re better than we really are.” Um, ok, so basically you like it, but you’d like me to change it so that your brand sounds… um… less good? “Yes, that’s right.”

Well, that makes perfect sense if you don’t think about it. Isn’t the whole point of advertising to find the best things about a brand and make them even more desirable? I mean, come on. Show me someone who prefers mediocre to amazing and I’ll show you… well.. a Finn.

As I mentioned in my last letter, the Finns suffer from the national disease of low self-esteem. It’s a nasty illness with many complications.

There’s the delusion that another person’s success is a direct reflection of your own failures. A friend wins an award for her work. You’re first thought: “So she’s officially better than me now? I could win an award like that too, if only I wasn’t a pile of shit.”

And then there’s the: “What?!?! Someone from my hometown won the lottery? Ok, whew, it was only 50,000€. Because I swear to God, if one of my stupid neighbors had won millions I would have personally burned their house down.”

And speaking of money, you really don’t talk about it here, because God forbid someone should know how much you earn – ESPECIALLY if you earn a lot. Why? I already told you – because everything you have is something someone else doesn’t have.

Coming from New York, this has been one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn over the 20+ years I’ve been living here. But I have. These days I feel uncomfortable if someone compliments me in public. And although I often think about how beautiful someone looks, those words rarely come out of my mouth.

Now that I have children, I’ve been giving this disease more thought. Thanks to their diverse genes from New York and Kurikka, my kids have escaped lactose intolerance and allergies. But what are their chances of making it to adulthood with healthy self-esteem if they grow up in Helsinki?

I wouldn’t be worried if we lived in New York (or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter). There, every kid believes he or she can be president some day. Change the world, do something amazing. How do they know? Because we tell them. Constantly. At home, in school, on TV, everywhere.

I remember having a long conversation many years ago with Pekka Himanen, a (then) young philosopher who was visiting Helsinki from Berkley, where he was working at the time. We debated whether it’s healthier to grow up in Finland, where really the entire society is founded on the common belief that no one is inherently “better” than anyone else, or in the U.S., where all 300+ million of us are going to grow up to be president.

The problem with being taught that you’re going to grow up to do something totally amazing and awesomely life-changing is that most people don’t. There’s only one Oprah. And Barack Obama’s job is already filled. So when you end up living in the suburbs and making a nice living as an accountant, you feel like a failure.

Here, on the other hand, you could grow up to be the marketing director of a large successful company that pays copywriters to make sure no one thinks your brand “is trying to sound better than it actually is”.

I honestly can’t remember which option Pekka Himanen thought was better, or if he had some brilliant philosophical solution to suggest. And even if he did, who cares. I bet he thinks he’s smarter than me just because he got his Ph.D. at 20. Asshole. Just kidding.

I think the best option lies somewhere over Greenland – about half way between Helsinki and New York. I bet kids in Greenland grow up knowing that celebrating other people’s successes makes it easier to feel good about your own.

I’ll send you a postcard when we get there.

Love, Lissu