Viewpoint -- Helsinki: The Civil City

Dec. 21, 2004
Cell phone conversations are discreet, and senior executives actually read and discuss fiction.

Seeking some civility? Try Helsinki. The contrast to such places as London, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Washington is clear even as you step off the plane at the Finnish capital's airport. First, the Finns don't rush to whip out their cell phones and inform a less-than-anxiously awaiting world that they're "At the airport." The Finns leave that distinction to the Americans and Brits, who, in addition to letting someone elsewhere know that they've just arrived, are insistent on shouting into their phones, as if that were necessary to carry their voices all the way back to the States or to Britain. Remarkable, too, is that all over Helsinki, which has to be one of the most wired cities in the world, Finns are sensitive to the fact that mobile phone ringing is a major irritation to those who are reading, writing, or otherwise quietly concentrating on something. Their phones softly ring, and they answer in a quiet voice, their conversations short and to the point. The phones are able to roam, but the Finns don't ramble. Helsinki is a city that works. You get an introduction to that, too, at the airport. Signs are prominent and clear. The taxi queue is quick. The cab drivers know their city, and in several languages, understand where it is you want to go. You'll not get an uncomprehending look -- as if you had just asked them to drive you to Sydney for a look at the Olympic venues now that the crowds and games are gone. Architecturally, Helsinki is wonderful blend of the old and the new. Many of the buildings in the central city have the look of the Austro-Hungarian empire: yellow sandstone structures with foot-and-a-half-thick walls. But as you move away from the train station, the National Museum of Finland, and the shopping area surrounding Stockman's department store and venture west or east, you appreciate the inspired genius of Eero Saarinen and Pekka Helin. Indeed, Nokia House, in the western Helsinki city of Espoo, on the Gulf of Finland, is eight stunning stories of 26,000 plates of glass framed by steel. Architect Helin and interior designer Iiris Ulin are said to have two words in mind when they created the place: connecting people. They succeeded. Nokia people from different disciplines such as engineering, marketing, mobile phones, telecommunications networks, sales, and customer service work there together. The old and the new Helsinki and surrounding areas work so wonderfully together probably because so many of the materials are natural. Examples are the stone buildings downtown and the cherry floors laid out like the deck of a sailboat in the north wing cafeteria at Nokia House; and the pine and brich trees and the sea are never far away from wherever you are in Helsinki. The Finns have a reputation for being a dour group, as if that were a necessary characteristic of a place where, during the winter months, the weak sun doesn't rise until about 10 o'clock in the morning and sets by 4:00 in the afternoon. True, you won't find a lot of backslappers or small talkers in Helsinki. But you will find people who will tell you some surprisingly personal things about themselves; for example, about how husbands pack their wives and children off to Spain for some sun in mid-winter and then themselves escape to cabins in the country for hunting. They also will tell you about how it takes them three years and about US$7,400 to save for a trip to the Canadian Rockies. Helsinki works, and its residents put in seriously long hours to make it work. People display a work ethic and personal and group pride in projects well done. But the Finns have a constructive balance to their lives. They do spend time with their families. Even senior executives tend to jealously guard their weekends. They read, and they discuss with each other what they're reading -- not just the management books, though they do read them -- but literature, fiction and non-fiction alike, and politics. There's both a curiosity about the larger world and a real desire to keep current without being obsessive about it. Seeking civility? Try Helsinki.

John S. McClenahen is an IW senior editor based in Washington, D.C.

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