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News, 6/3/2016 | Embassy of Finland, Washington

How Do American and Nordic Societies Differ? – An Interview with Anu Partanen

Anu Partanen is a Finnish journalist based in New York City. In her native Finland she has held many positions ranging from managing editor to columnist, features writer to news reporter, lecturer to on-air commentator. She has been living in the United States since 2008, and is a citizen of the country.

Partanen’s book "The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life" will be published in June 2016. In the book she examines the differences between American and Nordic societies. Partanen recently wrote about the same topic in the Atlantic, and will be discussing her book at the famous Washington D.C. bookshop Politics & Prose on July 9.

We asked Anu Partanen a few questions about her upcoming book and her experiences living in the U.S.

What in particular made you want to write about the differences between American and Nordic societies?

Photo: Kristiina Wilson
Anu Partanen
Anu Partanen

In many ways people are the same everywhere—parents love their children, everyone enjoys a good meal and a laugh with friends—but at the same time, America and Nordic countries have chosen very different ways of arranging society and everyday life. When I moved to the U.S. in 2008 I became acutely aware of these differences, and since I was a professional journalist I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up drawing on my experiences and my interest in social issues to try writing about them.

The timing also seemed opportune: the world has been going through such turmoil in the wake of the financial crisis, and almost all societies, including the United States and Finland, have been questioning the ways they have done things in the past, and looking for new solutions going forward. I figured I could contribute something to this ongoing conversation.

From your perspective, what is the most striking difference between the two cultures?

People sometimes assume that since I’ve written a book that focuses on what the U.S. could learn from Nordic countries, then I must be saying that Nordic culture is somehow superior or better than American culture. I’m not saying that all. There are bad and good sides to both cultures—whatever “culture” means—and there are cultural variations within the Nordic region as well. In my book, I make some observations about cultural differences, but what I’m really focusing on are social policies and the ideas behind them.

That said, when it comes to what I think of as culture generally speaking, I must say I have come to admire the way Americans take responsibility for their own lives and for fixing their problems, whether it’s arranging their health care, or securing their children’s education, or starting a charitable organization. I love the way Americans are always springing into action, and how they never assume that anyone else should be doing anything for them. It’s energizing and contagious.

At the same time, I also worry that this attitude has a flip side. Americans are quick to blame themselves for failures that, from a Nordic perspective, aren’t actually the result of individual inadequacy, but rather of having the deck unfairly stacked against you. Americans can be wary of public policy solutions, especially when it comes to government services, even though in some cases a public service might be the most efficient and sensible solution to a problem, instead of leaving everyone to struggle to work it out for themselves, individually.

Nordic people can be the opposite. Nordics value their autonomy and independence just as much as Americans—actually, I think Nordics value them even more, which is one of the counter-intuitive points that I make in my book. But Nordics strongly believe that in many cases the best way to expand individual freedom, improve everyone’s quality of life, and support equality of opportunity is smart government services that serve everyone, instead of leaving it up to each individual or family to figure it out on their own. Again, though, I would argue that this isn’t so much a question of “culture” as it is simply of rational problem-solving. And I think the success of Nordic societies has shown that this approach can truly improve everyone’s quality of life without taking away anyone’s freedom.

What could America learn from Finland and vice versa?

The Nordic Theory of Everything
Partanen’s book "The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life" will be published in June 2016

Americans could learn from Finland and all Nordic countries how to better use sensible and universal public services as a tool to expand everyone’s freedom, quality of life, and equality of opportunity. Everyone acknowledges that the state of the American middle class is dismal today and that American upward social mobility has almost completely stalled. In my book I detail how Nordic-style policies could work in key areas of life, including parental leaves, day care, education, health care, innovation, and so on.

Finns, meanwhile, I think could learn a lot from Americans, starting with appreciating and understanding cultural diversity, learning to savor their own accomplishments, and becoming more relaxed about social interactions. I really enjoy how polite, friendly, and helpful Americans are even to strangers. Finns can be much more introverted. They don’t necessarily mean to be rude, but they just don’t have the custom of chatting with strangers or constantly using polite expressions or offering their seat on the subway to others, as many Americans do.

Now that I’m used to the American way of interacting, I much prefer it, since it makes moving through your average day so much more pleasant, and you feel like you’ve had nice interactions with other people even though it’s only been a few words exchanged on the subway. That said, at times I have to admit I miss the quiet of Finland, where it’s perfectly okay to disappear into your own thoughts and not engage in constant small talk.

What kind of responses have people had after reading your work in the U.S., for example your widely shared article in The Atlantic?

So far the comments have been overwhelmingly positive. I think most readers have understood that I’m not here to try to criticize America or claim that Nordic countries are paradises. I’m an American citizen myself now, as well as a Finn, and I’m simply interested in examining the best ways to improve the quality of life for everyone in our current and future societies. I think readers have recognized that, and I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from readers all over the world, not just from the U.S. or the Nordic countries.

Everywhere people are searching for ways of making life better, and trying to see how their own country might compare. When it comes to Americans specifically, I find that Americans are always interested in sharing their own stories and learning from the stories of others—another reason for a journalist and a Finn to love the United States.

Here are links to Anu Partanen's book and social media pages:

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Updated 6/3/2016

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