January 1999  

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Reflections from an irony-free country

by Tapani Lausti

A British journalist recently described the Finns as a people without a sense of irony. This need not be taken as more than an attempt to spice up a routine piece of journalism – after all the article was about a new wonder margarine. Yet, I was intrigued. It reminded me of an incident a long time ago when a Finnish broadcaster was banned for a while after having described the Italians as a nation of pickpockets. (I leave aside the question of whether this was a necessary punishment.)

When treated with care, national stereotypes can be a source of great fun. They should, however, come with a health warning. Silly notions are never far off. Blatant prejudices or dubious generalisations are most often based on chance encounters and experiences.

When I make new acquaintances, I often get a feeling that the person in question – having heard that I am a Finn – quickly searches his or her gallery of assumed national characteristics. Recently someone said to me that the Finns are supposed to be calm during daytime and become wild during the night. On calm contemplation one might conclude that late-night drinking makes anybody wilder, whatever one’s nationality.

Often national stereotypes depict negative characteristics. Seeing others as faintly ridiculous seems to serve some important psychological need. In describing others we are simultaneously defining our own identity. The difficulty of giving one’s own nation generalised characteristics is partly overcome by suggesting that other nations are different. The Finns think of themselves as unlike the Russians or the Swedes. The British experience their identity as opposite to the French. The Irish describe themselves as different from the English. And so it goes on.

However dubious, stereotyping other peoples helps to bolster one’s own national pride. It is easier to remain sane in a confusing world by identifying with reassuring suppositions of one’s own worth.

This was brought home to me when I once gave a coin to a man who was begging on a London underground train. Immediately afterwards he started abusing some foreigners on the train. I confronted him by asking what he thought his country had done for him. He looked at me with a startled face. For a moment I thought he would burst into tears. Then he said: "My country is all I have left." The rest of the journey he stood at the door looking suspiciously at me.

The incident reminded me of the Hungarian thinker Danilo Kis who once said that nationalism gives an identity to a person who has been deprived of his or her individuality, someone who has been made into a non-entity. Identifying with a nation makes this person a social being. It is tempting to strengthen one’s own sense of dignity by harbouring prejudices and hostility against aliens.

So what about irony – or the lack of it? In all countries there are sub-cultures where one may detect a larger than average number of people who don’t have a sense of irony. Most often this is true about people with a lot of power. They have too much to explain away to be able to entertain ironic thoughts about what they are up to. In addition to areas of political life this applies to parts of the business community where the strong sense of hierarchy often stultifies free spirits who might otherwise enjoy amusing perceptions of their professional life.

I like to argue about such matters after a few late-night drinks.

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