How many mainland Americans, as children, hear that Eskimos have more words for snow than we, mere mortals, can even imagine? There is morelegend than fact in the old cliche it’s complicated), but it’s rooted in a truth we all learn at some point in our development: how language can evolve to help us navigate the particular worlds to which we are born. Or how words can define our worlds.
As a boy growing up in the sixties in New York, I was exposed to many words for venting, complaining, and otherwise toughing out life’s many indignities. The language was New York street Yiddish, from which I learned to kvetch when I am wont, schlep when I must, and turn on the chutzpah, when appropriate. Like the famous ad from that era said, you don’t need to be Jewish to love rye bread. And you don’t need to be a member of the tribe – I am Puerto Rican, with some uncertain Jewish ancestry — to benefit from its basic cultural strengths.
Recently, I was reminded of my crypto-Jewish New York youth when hearing about Emilia Lahti, a social scientist who’s helping to introduce another cultural construct: sisu (pronounced – si-su). No, it’s not Yiddish – Ms. Lahti hails from Helsinki – but if she has her way, you’ll soon be hearing people say it — and even try to practice it – all around the world.
The construct – which many say is untranslatable (more about that, later)– is as much a part of Finnish identity as chutzpah is to New York identity. If you had to translate it crudely, it would be “guts.” Or if you had to translate for professional audiences (psychologists, sociologists, and management consultants — the folks that Lahti speaks with regularly), it would be more like, “determination and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity.” Lahti — a recent graduate of University of Pennsylvania’s masters program in applied positive psychology, and now a PhD student at Finland’s Aalto University – is emerging as one the world’s foremost authorities on sisu, helping to articulate it, to measure it, and, most important, to teach it.
The social construction of sisu
For several reasons, Lahti’s timing for this cultural adventure feels right. As many of you know, I work in the field of social engagement, which asks organizations to look at not just the technology that’s shaping communication today, but the social forces behind the technology. Sisu, which historians trace back to Finnish lore over five hundred years back, has been defined and shaped by people with the means to create stories and narrative. It has been used, for example, by popular media to help explain how the Finns were able to fight back the Soviets during the Winter War. It’s been used by journalists to explain the fortitude of Finnish athletes – e.g., the famous Finnish runners, Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren – in international competition. It’s even been used by Finnish brands, including Leaf International, whose Sisu licorice pastilles may in fact require – depending on your palette – determination in the face of extreme adversity.
Which is not to say that the Finnish people themselves have not owned the term – they have – but the democratizing forces that are shaping communication today are helping to personalize sisu in many more ways. I recently heard the story of another Finn on the Positive Psychology Facebook Group (30K+ members). About 20 years ago, Kati van der Hoeven, a former Finnish supermodel, lost her ability to move and speak. Since that time, she’s become a leading advocate for people with Locked-In Syndrome and other conditions using an eye-to-computer system to manage her writing. For this story, I communicated with Kati via Facebook Messenger, marveling the speed with which she is able to correspond. Is it the Finn in Kati, or something else? Not sure, but I think I got a better understanding – and appreciation – of sisu.