Student - January 26, 2017

'A bit awkward, going to the sauna with a colleague'

Who? Eva van Schijndel, Master’s student of Strategic Communication
What? Six month internship at the Arctic Centre
Where? Rovaniemi, Finland

‘I have a passion for the Arctic region and I want to do something related to it after graduating. My internship was very useful for getting some insight into what is at stake, and who’s who in that research field. There was some confusion to begin with about what I was going to do there. I didn’t want to do nothing but corporate communication. So I arranged to be allowed to do research as well.

I helped on a study of the strategic use of culture by the Sami, the reindeer herders of Lapland. A Sami elite has grown up in Finland who decide who is and who isn’t Sami. For the study we used documentation collected by my colleague, who is not recognized as Sami. He documented the process of ending up with that status. It was very interesting and exciting, because it is a very personal experience and after all, you are a foreigner there.

Although Finland is part of Europe, there were a lot of cultural differences. The Finns are very reserved. They all work in their own little offices and communication takes place by email. They are extremely shy, but once you have got through to a Finn, they are very open and welcoming, and you immediately get asked to babysit the children. I noticed that the Finns become more open in the sauna. I assumed you took it in turns to go into the sauna, and it was a little bit awkward to sit there with a colleague, especially when you start hitting each other with birch twigs to stimulate the circulation. At that point your personal space is gone completely. But when you see how much people appreciate your joining in, it’s easier to step across the cultural barriers.

Practical dress code
What I like about Scandinavia is that the elements are so strong that they dominate life. I had to learn not go wear makeup when I went out because your eyelashes freeze and then the heat in the buildings makes your makeup run all over your face. Also, you had to change into different clothes at work because you can’t walk around in a thin skirt at minus 32 degrees. Most people just wear their Norwegian jumpers and boots at work. Eventually I adopted this informal, and above all practical, dress code myself too.

Sometimes you have to take a few knocks to learn something. I ran up against a few personal issues such as the need for assertiveness and setting boundaries. Because there wasn’t a clear assignment and there was some confusion about my subject, I constantly had to ask what I could do, and after six months of that you get really tired. It takes a lot of energy to adapt to another culture and that affects my performance. In that sense an adventurous personality is both an asset and a weakness. For me adventure means not preparing or planning anything, but now I have grasped the value of setting expectations, making preparations, taking time to adjust, and organizing things in advance. Don’t try and do it all at once.’