National superiority and inferiority complexes


Having lived in England and Japan for many years has made me, a native to Finland, realize that maybe some nationalities have unrealistically high expectations on foreigners’ knowledge of their nation.

It seems that some nationalities assume that their country is so influential and/or important that even though they themselves don’t necessarily excel in cross-cultural knowledge, or even in global geography, they expect non-natives to know intricate details about their country/people/culture.

For example, I asked my students the other day what they thought a typical French person knows about Japan, and in addition to a long list of specific cultural references like umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums), shabu shabu (a type of Japanese soup), Kyudo (Japanese archery) and an inventory of Japanese comedians and fashion designers my female students confidently stated that the French know that Japanese women are the most beautiful women in the world.

The above are all Japanese references but I would say that they are all rather unfamiliar to a typical European with no specific interest in Japan. And yes, Japanese women are beautiful, but I doubt the French have a similar association with the Japanese women as Japanese (women) do.

It’s not only the Japanese who have somewhat unrealistic expectations of non-natives’ knowledge of their country/people. I’ve noticed the same with many British people. For instance, I remember one New Year’s Eve when my 10 British friends and I crammed into a small cottage in Wales for 24 hours. The ‘entertainment’ for the entire 24 hours was board games and music quizzes relevant to England. I have nothing against board games and quizzes, in fact I’m a big fan, but since I am also quite competitive, I don’t really like playing a game when I have an obvious handicap.

You see, the Trivial Pursuit that we were playing was the UK edition and thus the questions heavily focused on general knowledge that British people have, which of course is different from, say, a Finnish or a Japanese person’s general knowledge or what it can be expected to be. If you want to feel intellectually comparable to Chris Griffin from Family Guy try playing Trivial Pursuit in a country where you didn’t do your compulsory education. After all, the miners’ strike in the 1980s was big news in England, but it had very little effect on a primary school child’s life in Finland. And Fanny Craddock may have been a pioneer in abolishing Britain’s traditional deep-fat-fryer-heavy cuisine, but many Finns would struggle to know what a deep-fat-fryer is let alone be familiar with Fanny. And by the same token, when a Trivial Pursuit question is, ‘What was the name of Captain Cook’s vessel?’. A Finn is like: ‘Huh? Do they mean Captain Hook from Peter Pan?’

In addition to Trivial Pursuit, that New Year’s Eve the host had created his own music quiz, which consisted of old British songs that were popular in the UK before I moved there, and whose popularity was largely restricted to the UK (or at least those songs or artists never made it all the way to Finland). When I handed my empty music quiz answer sheet to the next person for scoring, they looked at me confused and said: ‘You were supposed to write the answers here.’ And when I said: ‘I know’ they looked even more confused.

The point with the above New Year’s Eve story and actually many other similar stories is that my British friends assume that I would have comparable general and popular culture knowledge of England as they themselves do, regardless of the fact that I am not English.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that some countries have been at the centre of important historical/scientific/political events and innovations which people should know about, but these events being part of general knowledge surely shouldn’t create an expectation that non-natives know everything about that country.

In contrast to natives of some big and important countries, some nationalities have little expectations of foreigners’ knowledge about their countries. For instance, Finland’s remote location, political insignificance and a petty five million inhabitants seem to have created such an inferiority complex that us Finns are over the moon if a foreigner can name anything about Finland – even if it is their son’s miserable rodent called Kimi Räikkönen. But generally speaking us Finns assume that most foreign people don’t know Kimi Räikkönen and aren’t aware that the heart rate monitor, Abloy locks, the Sauna, Ice Skates, Nokia phones, the Linux operating system, Angry Birds and a Molotov cocktail (a bottle bomb) are Finnish inventions.

But recently I’ve noticed that people do know something about Finland. They do!

Maybe it’s thanks to a recent BBC news story and the subsequent huge social media coverage about baby boxes that the Finnish government gives to all newborns in Finland. Consequently, many English people now associate Finland with amazing social welfare and cardboard boxes functioning as Moses baskets (in a positive way).

And us having lived in Japan for two years has made me realize that Finland is not a country that nobody knows anything about. You see, many Japanese people seem to love Finland and they know an awful lot about it. When I tell some random Japanese people whom I meet in sake bars, kids’ playgrounds or doctors’ consulting rooms that I am from Finland many of they exclaim: Moomins, Marimekko, Iittala, northern lights, and/or Santa Claus (typical Finnish references). And some of them who’ve seen/heard my name before I have had a chance to talk to them (e.g. doctors or colleagues at work) say that they immediately knew I was Finnish because of my surname. And pretty much all of them ask me detailed questions about the renowned education system of Finland.

So, maybe Finnish people need to stop having an inferiority complex and follow British and Japanese people’s example. Finland is known for its nature, design, education and social welfare – qualities that, in my opinion, are worth having a superiority complex about.

6 thoughts on “National superiority and inferiority complexes

  1. This is so spot on! I have too been in situations where people play board games or quizzes and expect me to name characters in Rainbow, then look at me surprised when I tell them that we had our own children’s programmes in Finland! But hey, as an expat I guess it’s my job to educate people about my country as well as learn about the country I live in!

    • Yes, we had our own children’s programs in Finland – programs, which we would not automatically assume foreigners are familiar with (not even foreigners who have lived in Finland for many years). It’s funny how different nationalities have such different expectations on non-natives’ cultural and general knowledge.

  2. Hehhee, I was hugely amused by the Captain Cook reference, I know who he is and solely because I prepared a presentation in the 6th grade about Hawaii – and this is forever etched in my memory (this particular presentation) cause of the magnificent gigantic PC’s we were able to use in school and the awesome Clipart-archive we were able to use – I obviously had palm trees on the front page of my laminated presentation folder 😉 oh the memories – otherwise I’d suck at English Trivial Pursuit 😀

    • Regardless of me telling him otherwise, my husband (he’s British) can’t get his head around the fact that some extremely important historical references for him (like Captain Cook, or his vessel) are, in the context of world history overall, relatively insignificant to non-British people.

      PS. Good to know that some Finns (I assume you are Finnish 🙂 ) are familiar with Captain Cook. Can I be in your team when playing the UK version of Trivial Pursuit? 😀

  3. I remember meeting some Japanese backpackers years ago who had been eagerly waiting to meet a Finn. Only to tell me that the name of famous ski-jumping hero Ahonen means ‘idiot’ in Japanese. And the giggles after that… Priceless.

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