“Sometimes it feels like people think I’m Britain’s Brexit spokesman”

  • Introduced to Finland by Finnish girlfriend and realised it suited his personality

  • Hadn’t realised then that it was possible to survive in Finland without knowing any Finnish

  • Finnish startup employer allowed him to study Finnish during work hours even if working startup’s language was English

  • Made badges which read “I’m learning Finnish” to encourage strangers to talk to him in Finnish 

Matthew, England

“I’m Matthew, I’m from England and I’ve lived in Finland nearly two years now. I primarily moved because I got offered an interesting job here. I applied for a job in Finland because I’d visited here a couple of times because my girlfriend is Finnish. We met when she went to study in the UK and we happened to be in the same area. That was, I guess, what gave me the awareness of what Finland is like and why Finland would suit me, and that made me apply for the job in the first place.

The first time I visited Finland was in 2013. I remember being really surprised by how places and things were organised and how people were – how well structured and logical it seemed and how I felt it really suited me. So a lot of things being very predictable, quite reserved, quite quiet. There was no expectation of small talk and things like that and despite being British that actually really seems to suit my own kind of manners and how I am. I don’t have anything strongly against small talk, but there are times when nothing needs to be said I think. I was ready to move somewhere and the idea of somewhere that was more suitable for my personality was quite appealing.

I’m always very happy when there isn’t small talk and a few months ago when my family visited from England they were kind of not used to that. I guess I’ve had a lot of time to get used to this and seeing them on their first visit to Finland kind of struggle with this was interesting. It is a bit of a generalisation to say that Finns don’t like small talk; the majority probably do fit that stereotype, but there are obviously those who don’t. Because I speak English with a British accent, people are expecting me to be more engaging and things like that. The accent always gets some interest and the accent is a starting point for discussions.

It has happened a few times since I came here that people have wanted to start a conversation. Like “how long have you been in Finland?” and “what are you doing here?” – things like that. Maybe they think I’m a tourist or something. One of my favourite examples is that – it would have been quite soon after I moved here – I got on the bus and touched my travel card on the reader and said good morning and thank you to the driver. It might have been even before I was able to do that in Finnish. That immediately got some attention from people on the bus. First of all you are obviously not Finnish when you do that, are you.

I think the opportunity to meet someone different is probably something that appeals to people. But I think that on average, overall, women here are slightly more outgoing than men. Traditionally men have this stereotype of being less engaging in all societies, in all cultures.

Sometimes it feels like people think I’m Britain’s Brexit spokesman. I guess people have tried to be polite and have a conversation, but when it’s someone I’m meeting for the first time and it’s you know, “What’s you name, where are you from, how’s Brexit going?” it feels like it’s something I’m actually qualified to speak about.

I think if you have not had a reason to come here, then Finland is a small, slightly obscure European country. It has a lot in common with the other Nordic countries which are better known. 5 years ago if you would have asked me about Finland, I would have known it’s a country, I would have known it’s in Europe and I would have known that it’s in the Nordics. But I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you exactly which one it was. It’s kind of easy to miss it I guess. The things that Finland does well – or did well – like Nokia and even more recent things, it’s easy to know about, but it’s easy not to make the connection that they are Finnish. You know, I could tell you a long time ago the impact that Angry birds started to have and obviously it’s easy to see in the world the impact Nokia has had.

Just before I moved here I had a day in London at the Finnish Church Guild where I learned some of the basics of Finnish language. I came from there being able to count to 10 and I maybe knew some colours. I hadn’t even realised then that it was possible to survive here without knowing any Finnish. I had somehow imagined that it was essential to learn Finnish but after I arrived I very quickly learned that there are British people here who have no interest in speaking Finnish and don’t bother.

Engaging in certain activities or whatever, it’s easier with the language that everyone else speaks so that’s why Finnish is important to me. But equally on a kind of more general societal level, in my head at least, learning Finnish is about respecting people’s culture and not expecting them to know yours. Even in a society like this where nearly everyone seems to have good English skills and the willingness to speak, it still seems more polite, more respectable, to at least try the language of the country you are living in.

My employer has been quite flexible with the learning and I have been able to do a language course as long as the hours are made up some other time. But actually at the same time it’s about the practice… some of my teachers might disagree, but I’m not bad at the technical grammar stuff. One thing I tried to do when I was new here was to use more everyday Finnish at the office. At work we do everything in English, especially the more technical things. I’m not sure if people would know how to talk about those things in Finnish, because all the work around it is in English. It’s easy in that context to never need Finnish. So I tried to ask things like “would you like tea?” in Finnish.

Opettelen suomea rintamerkki Matthew Higginsin paidassa.
Image: Kalevi Rytkölä / Yle

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 were maybe 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 overcome this problem I made a badge, which had the words in Finnish “I’m learning Finnish”. I was surprised with how much attention that got initially. It did get some nice attention, positive attention. I did a survey about using simple Finnish and I mentioned about the badge in the free text section. A couple of weeks later I got an email from a journalist inviting me for an interview on YLE radio about using simple Finnish. After the interview someone contacted me to know where I got the badge and I had ordered a quite a few – because the place I ordered from had a minimum order policy – so I ended up re-selling my leftover badges to several people who teach Finnish classes.”

More like this: 

Kim, Korea: “I googled if there were bears in the Central Park”

Joffrey, France: “A third of my life has been spent in Finland”

Kamal, Lebanon: “I moved straight, all the way from Dubai to Riihimäki”

This interview was recorded in 2017 in Helsinki by Peter Seenan. If you wish to support our work in projecting the voices and achievements of immigrants in Finland please like our Facebook page and share Matthew’s story. 

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