Are you socially awkward, or just “spiritually Finnish?”

A day at the beach in Dalian, Liaoning province, China.
A day at the beach in Dalian, Liaoning province, China.
Image: Reuters
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If you find it awkward to make small talk, you may be “jingfen” (精芬) or “spiritually Finnish.” That’s the newly coined Chinese buzzword for a burgeoning identity taking hold among millennials.

The term “jingfen” is inspired by a comic from Finland called “Finnish Nightmares,” starring a cartoon figure named Matti who prefers minimal contact and avoids social situations. His creator Karoliina Korhonen describes Matti as “a stereotypical Finn who appreciates peace, quiet and personal space. Matti tries his best to do unto others as he wishes to be done unto him: to give space, be polite and not bother with unnecessary chit chat.”

That type of person is apparently quite appealing in crowded Chinese cities where privacy and space are limited. This is particularly true for young adults who grew up as only children under China’s one-child policy, posits Chen Si, a 26-year-old resident of eastern China’s Anhui province, who spent three years studying in Finland. She identifies as jingfen, and tells the publication Sixth Tone, “I believe that there are many more cases of jingfen in our generation compared to our parents’ generation…they find they can live alone happily.”

Matti expresses the social awkwardness that Si and so many others feel. He’s the kind of perpetually uncomfortable character who hides in his apartment when a neighbor is out in the hall. If someone takes a vacant seat next to Matti, he wants to disappear. He hates being singled out, even for praise, avoids talking to salespeople, and can’t stand working in pairs.

The entire country of Finland, as well as the cartoon, are super-popular on Chinese social media right now. On June 1, a user on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo posted a photograph of a cobblestone park in Finland with individual seating rather than benches. Each seat faces in a different direction, making conversation unnecessary and easily avoidable. This image quickly garnered more than 23,000 likes. An oft-upvoted comment calls Finland, “The most desirable migration destination for people with social phobia.”

Grit and bear it

In Finland, even the extroverts are introverts, or so claim the Finns. They have a saying, “An introverted Finn looks at his shoes when talking to you; an extroverted Finn looks at your shoes.”

But Matti’s introverted even by Finnish standards, it seems. His aversion to social situations and perpetual discomfort is refreshing for shy and anxious types around the world, not just in China. Bored Panda, for example, noted that anyone who feels socially awkward—which is probably everyone at least some of the time—can relate to Matti’s many predicaments. The comic’s author, Korhonen, writes in a post on her blog, “some traits that are present with introverts are also present in Finnish culture and code of conduct, such as giving a lot of personal space both physically and mentally, and Matti is a stereotypical Finn who respects these codes of conduct and tries to live by them the best he can.” 

The cartoon’s appeal in China may be unusually strong, however, because the personal space that Matti covets isn’t available to many Chinese people living in a densely populated land of more than 1.4 billion. Finland is practically empty by comparison, with its population of 5.5 million. And the Finnish culture prides itself on social and emotional restraint.

The Finns are what some might call dull, but in a good way. They prize “sisu,” stoic perseverance and grit above all else. Though they ranked first in the 2018 UN World Happiness Report, they aren’t exciting people by their own account. “Happiness is having your own red summer cottage and a potato field,” according to a common Finnish saying. The Economist explains the ranking by suggesting, “The secret to Finland’s happiness might just be how boring it is.”

Indeed, the top ranking made Finns a bit unhappy. They refuted the unseemly claim, and not just because of their famous modesty. Frank Martela, a Finnish expert on well-being research, protested the ranking’s methodology in Scientific American, saying the happiness of the Finns was “greatly exaggerated.” Yes, they live in a stable country with strong social programs and minimal corruption, where police are trusted. Still, they don’t find life meaningful—like people in Senegal do according to the UN ranking—and they don’t experience lots of positive emotions, as people in Latin American countries report, according to Martela.

Finns aren’t so much happy as they are mutedly satisfied, he explains. “They tend to downplay positive emotions, which could paradoxically increase their satisfaction with life,” Martela writes of his compatriots.

Most notably, they have space. Physically, there’s room in Finland and people expect not to be crowded. In 2015, Kioski, a video service by the national Finnish broadcaster YLE, secretly captured how the Finnish react when their space is invaded in public, showing how they constantly but subtly step or inch away when someone comes too close. 

The people’s property

In urban China, people can only dream of such luxuries—inching away from one stranger means landing atop another. The nation has experienced the greatest human migration in history, with hundreds of millions of people moving from the Chinese countryside into cities. This hasn’t made people happy, according to the UN happiness report. “Even seven-and-a-half years after migrating to urban areas, migrants from rural areas are on average less happy than they might have been had they stayed at home,” John Knight of the Oxford Chinese Economy Program at the University of Oxford, a contributor to the report, tells the Guardian.

There’s not much room for privacy in China, where jostling for space on the streets and trains is commonplace. Meanwhile, philosophically and politically, the concept is also frowned upon, as the Guardian notes. Private property was distributed to landless peasants in the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong, and the constitution prohibited private ownership of property. Everything was owned by the people.

Now it seems the people—at least those that identify as spiritually Finnish—long for some breathing room. Matti, who considers a bus “full” when half of the seats are unoccupied, is the fictional hero from abroad who gives voice to this need for more privacy at home.