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Is the sauna a good integrator?

August 31, 2008

If a person asked me what is one of the most important cultural institutions enjoyed by a great number of Finns, I’d respond: the sauna.

The sauna is more than a room where people bathe and sweat naked in 80-100 Celsius (176-212 Fahrenheit) temperatures. It’s a way of life for some Finns – so much so, that when we die some hope there will be a sauna nearby in their next life.

It’s interesting to note that the sauna is the only Finnish word that has spread and been adopted by so many languages. Well… in almost all languages except for Swedish, where it is called bastu.

Writer Maila Talvio (1871-1951) once said that Finns have been unanimous for centuries about one matter – the sauna. For as long as children are born in this far-flung land, she said such unanimity will characterize the Finns.

The sauna is a good yardstick – like the automobile in the United States – to measure how living standards have risen. Compared to about 2 million today, there were some 1.5 million saunas in 1990 versus half a million in the 1930s.

That’s a lot of saunas, considering that we’re a nation of only 5.2 million people. If a typical Finnish family has 3-4 members, it means that everyone in this country has access to a sauna.

If the sauna is a sacred place for Finns where they bathe and resolve problems and differences, could it be used to integrate foreigners? Could the future “integration association of Finland” have as its logo a sauna with people of different cultures bathing in the heat?

Finnish baseball was another uniter in the early decades of Finland’s independence. Could it serve to promote greater understanding between the Finns and different national groups?

What other elements of our culture could help foreigners understand the inhabitants of this land we call Finland and undermine suspicion?

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. DeTant Blomhat permalink
    August 31, 2008 1:06 pm

    I guess the sauna is the one place people are truly equal as the clothes and titles are “left at the door”. And I guess we have to say it does have some health benefits but also as you said its got more spiritual benefits. Now I can only think of a few drawbacks. People with different kind of upbringing and sense of modesty can find the whole nudity business unsettling at first. And then of course taking someone into a hot steamy room – whipping them with birch twigs and then throwing them into a hole in the ice is supposed to be fun. I guess thats up to each owns taste. Though as it is such an institution and tradition its also been claimed that the managers making “sauna deals” excluded the women from the decision making and thus it was harder for women to get into management. Though I guess thats a thing of the past as the culture at the workplace has changed from shady cabinet deals to a more open and transparent environment. BTW the Russians also have a quite similar sauna tradition – and they call theirs a banja…

    Pesäpallo is a tradition that seems to have lost its popularity in the cities, but its definitely a sport that you can join in regardless of age or how sporty you are. I guess though currently in the cities the immigrants seem to be enjoying the universal language of football – at least the tournaments are getting popular. Only drawback in Finland is the season is so short – but what I think that beats both pesäpallo and football is the popularity of sähly.

  2. Jonas permalink
    August 31, 2008 1:08 pm

    It’s certainly an excellent way of scaring/surprising foreigners who are visiting you on business when you suggest that we retire to it. Although, as yet, no one has not enjoyed it. I always think international diplomacy would benefit from being conducted in the sauna. I’m sure the world would be a more peaceful place, it’s hard to be confrontational at 90°.

  3. Enrique permalink
    August 31, 2008 9:51 pm

    Interesting point you make about the exclusion of women in business deals. Most cultures that I know like the sauna or have learned to like it. In Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay they drink a tea called yerba mate. Syrians who migrated to Argentina learned to drink the tea. Some of these migrants returned to Syria and they introduced it to the market, where it is I guess consumed widely. Imagine all the business deals that some companies such as Harvia can make by migrants sending back to their cultures pieces of their new home, like the sauna.
    Sähly, or floor hockey (?), is really popular in Finland. But you made a good suggestion: any sports could enhance understanding and integration.

  4. Enrique permalink
    August 31, 2008 9:57 pm

    I am a “saunaphile.” If I could, I’d have at least three saunas: wood-burning, smoke and electric. You suggestion about using the sauna in diplomatic policy is an excellent one and, yes, who would want to be in a “heated” argument inside a sauna.
    Jonas and Detant, what do you think are some of the golden rules you consider important when enjoying a sauna bath with a person? Are all topics ok? Can we speak loudly? Who is the one that throws the water in the sauna stones?

  5. Hank W. permalink
    September 1, 2008 10:30 pm

    The one who throws tha water is the “sauna major” who takes the corner and the bucket – usually a position of giving the eldest man or most revered position – he who “decides” what is hot or not. And I am always ready to take the lower steps (which do not exist in estonia as they have rungs) as you can take the “childrens position” and still be disagreeing with the “men upstairs”…

    Golden rules… any excrement is not proper… I have had someone spit on the stove we ran out and blocked the door…

  6. September 2, 2008 7:41 am

    Yes, a great place to talk about how to send them back, as I read today about Spain:
    The cheap labor has provided an economic boom in Spain over the years.
    But the bubble has burst and now Spain’s government are offering a lump sum if migrants will go back to their place of origin.

    Do you get the picture man?
    Slave labor makes the rich richer and when the slaves have no more pyramids to build they send them back home.

    That’s all government needs foreign workers for; they’re not interested in integration, and enriching (by mixing) their culture ……………… that’s all bull shit.

  7. Enrique permalink
    September 2, 2008 8:13 am

    HI Paddy, long time no read. I hope you are well. You bring a good point. We’ve been talking about matters like integration, should Finland receive more immigrants etc… However, I did point something to the respect on illegal immigrants and the huge market for them. They are the little guys and it appears that governments are not too keen on going after the big guys (big business, criminal gangs etc.). Integration and respect for other cultures is not bullshit. You have exploitation when people just come to work and then they try to send them back to their country when a recession sets in. The government in Spain has tried to get more immigrants to return home. However, they are not taking the bait. I believe that those are recommending the “100% integration model,” integrate or there is the door, would do just that. Their integration models are not achievable so that is why it is important to look at multiculturalism as a policy. People integrate better that way because: 1) they can keep their identity and grow in a country where there is respect for cultures and diversity; 2) it would lead to less exploitation because the majority culture would be conscious about the rights of other to practice their culture and be patriotic, if you wish. Patriotism may mean a sense of community where we all work together. Nationalism, is the opposite: it is only an attitude whereby we show that we are better than others. Some clump both patriotism and nationalism as the same thing.

  8. Jonas permalink
    September 2, 2008 1:17 pm

    Strangely, last night my (electric) sauna broke. Thank goodness for the proper wood one.

    The funny thing is Enrique, I find it nearly as hard to put some golden sauna rules down in writing as I would if you asked me to write the golden rules of how to walk or breath. It just “is”.

    On conversation topics, anything is really permitted – with the usual considerations of who your company is (which applies outside the sauna just as much). The difference is, that I can’t even really see a confrontational, argument style type of discourse even coming up – so there is really no need to prescribe against it. The very nature of the place is too calm and too hot for such a thing to happen. (Hence is being a good place for diplomacy, any such talks would have to be carried out in a calm way as no other way is realistically possible).

    Still, maybe it is a good integrator. It is at least a place, largely, of equality. There are no signs of rank or status or anything else when you are naked.

    Yes, the host takes charge of the water or the most senior person, not necessarily by age. But, with international guests, it’s important to make them aware of otherwise seemingly obvious (to us anyway) facts – such as that sitting on the top bench might not be a good plan for the new and that it would be a good idea (manors and comfort) to sit on the small towel and to make it wet first. And that it’s quite ok to come out and in. And, I always let foreign guests have a go at it anyhow. Otherwise, certainly in the family situation, I suppose you could liken it to the control of the tv-remote control. No matter who has it, Mrs Jonas ends up deciding which buttons are pressed (/how much water is thrown on). 😉

  9. DeTant Blomhat permalink
    September 13, 2008 3:52 pm

    – 1) they can keep their identity and grow in a country where there is respect for cultures and diversity; 2) it would lead to less exploitation because the majority culture would be conscious about the rights of other to practice their culture and be patriotic, if you wish.

    1, they are a separate entity that “does not belong” and can be kicked back home (re. gastarbeiter Turks in Germany)
    2. it leads exactly to exploitation as the people are “uneducated and illiterate” – of the country they are in laws and language.

  10. Enrique permalink
    September 13, 2008 4:08 pm

    1, they are a separate entity that “does not belong” and can be kicked back home (re. gastarbeiter Turks in Germany)
    2. it leads exactly to exploitation as the people are “uneducated and illiterate” – of the country they are in laws and language.

    1. So who is the exploiter? As long as immigrants have jobs that’s ok, but when things get worse you suggest kicking them out of the country?

    2. I think the crux of the matter is that you fear competition. The main idea of the EU is the free movement of labor, as one of the principles. If there were more foreigners in the Finnish labor market, some economists claim that wages would be kept in check — hence less relocation where labor is cheaper. If you disagree, you could try to get Finland to get out of the EU and isolate itself from the world.

  11. January 20, 2009 7:45 am

    There are all kinds of established health benefits from saunas .We have reviewed the literature and listed some of most significant Sauna Benefits personal saunas

  12. April 23, 2010 7:37 am

    As globalizations brings people closer to each other and makes the world smaller I think it’s important to support local culture and traditions. I like to travel and one of the high lights in travelling is to get familiar with the local culture. Always new and exciting. In Finland the sauna is surely one of the most important elements in the local culture and to be able to understand the Finns a visit to the sauna is required. Personally i think that the sauna is perfect for relaxation and socialisation with friends or family. So why could foreigners no like sauna bathing? A typical night with boys includes sauna bathing and a beer or two is consumed. What could be a better way of integrating foreigners to the Finnish way of living that sauna bathing?  I at least think that, like the blogger suggested, Finland could try promote the country more with the famous Finnish sauna – a way to make friends and learn about the Finnish culture.

    • Enrique permalink
      April 23, 2010 11:00 am

      Hi Finnish sauna, despite globalization, I think the sauna will, like a good book that withstands the test of time, be always important in our society. Thank you for dropping by.

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