Love, work and study. These are the three most popular reasons that foreigners move to Finland. For Joel Willans, surprisingly, the weather also played a significant role in him staying here. Having arrived in his girlfriend’s homeland during what was one of the warmest summers on record, he decided he wouldn’t return to his native London and instead set himself up in Finland’s capital.
Over 15 years later, Willans is the co-founder of a very successful digital marketing agency, Ink Tank Media, an award-winning author and copywriter. Perhaps his greatest success has come with Very Finnish Problems, an often-hilarious collection of memes that gently pokes fun at Finnish culture (whilst simultaneously embracing it) that first appeared on Facebook and has since inspired two books.
Read on to discover what makes Finns laugh, what to do in a sauna and the biggest differences that exist between Brits and Finns.
What was your dream profession when you were a child?
I never really had a dream profession as such. However, I’ve always loved books and history and ideally wanted to do something that involved them both. This meant that at various times, I considered being a librarian, a bookshop owner, a historian, a museum curator, a foreign correspondent and an author. So, sometimes dreams do come true.
What’s the story with Very Finnish Problems? Where do you get the ideas from?
Very Finnish Problems started as a bet with a friend who worked in marketing. I wanted to prove I could create a Facebook page with 10 000 followers in a month without spending any money. It hit 15K within three weeks. Now it has nearly 500 000 fans – on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – and reaches an average of 10 million people a month, making it Finland’s most popular viral brand. It’s also a pair of best-selling books. As for ideas, I get them simply living life here on top of the world.
Do you have a favourite Finnish word? Why?
I’ve always had a soft spot for lämpimämpi päivä. I know it’s two words, but I’m a sucker for a good rhyme and a warm day is always welcome.
What are the biggest differences between Brits and Finns?
If I had to generalise, I’d say Brits speak a lot more, but their words have less value. People often comment on the lack of Finnish small talk, but I think it has more to do with honesty. Brits are less likely to tell you how they really feel and instead share fluffy pleasantries. Finns, on the other hand, simply don’t see the point of that. They’re comfortable with silence and, if things are crap, they’ll tell you. Brits are also far more patronising to foreigners. Thanks to history and language, many have this innate sense of superiority, despite the fact that the UK is no longer an imperial behemoth, but rather just a small island off the coast of Europe.
Then you have their still very present obsession with class. Brits instinctively “doff their caps” to anyone they believe to be of a higher social status. They’re also more into individualism, uber capitalism and money and less into helping each other and collectivism. On the plus side, Brits to do have a marvellous sense of humour and are very quick to smile. I’d also argue, that as a rule, they’re more worldly in outlook and less prone to melancholy, despite the regular rain.
What makes Finns laugh?
Good question. Based upon Very Finnish Problems, I’d say, Finns appear to enjoy observational comedy, especially when it deals with the weather and Finnish stereotypes. They also, of course, love a good laugh at Sweden’s expense and memes which showcase the joys of summer cottage and winter life. You can also guarantee a giggle when you showcase the wonderful weirdness of many aspects of Finnish life that seem normal to Finns themselves. Take a bow, ice swimming and mämmi.
If you could invite three Finns (living or dead) to dinner who would they be and why?
Well, resurrecting the dead is a lot more magical and I still love learning about the past, so I’d go for three historical Finnish icons. Firstly, Mannerheim just because he looms so large over modern Finnish history and it would be great to separate the man from the myth. The same goes for my second guest, Kekkonen. He seems like a fascinating character and I’d be interested to see what it was about him that enabled him to rule Finland for so long. Finally, I’d invite Tove Jansson. While I’m not an obsessive Moomin fan (sacrilege, I know), I’d love to learn about her life and her inspiration for creating something so utterly bizarre. That said, I imagine a dinner where I hosted these luminaries would involve me chattering in nervous excitement while they all sat around the table in bored, stony silence.
As a co-founder of the content marketing agency Ink Tank Media, how do you separate your free time from your work?
I’m in the enviable position of doing what I love. I’ve worked in the advertising business in one form or another for nearly 20 years. For the last eight or so, that has been as a co-founder of Ink Tank Media. In this time, I’ve been very lucky to have worked with iconic Finnish companies such as Nokia, all things Moomin, Fiskars, Rovio, Iittala, F-Secure, Stora Enso and Supercell. One thing they’ve all had in common is that I’ve had the chance to get creative either working on content strategies or content creation itself. Each one of these areas rocks my boat, because I love the idea of creating something which is potentially enjoyed by millions of people. The downside of this passion is that the only way I can really relax is when I turn off the internet and go travelling. Thankfully, that’s quite frequently.
What has living in Finland taught you?
It has taught me many things for which I’m thankful. Finland and Finns have taught me to be comfortable with silence, which I find a really useful life skill. I’m also a lot more appreciative of living a healthy work-life balance. The Finnish way of disappearing to the forest for the whole of July is a thing of wonder. On a more practical level, I feel far better equipped to deal with rubbish weather and have an even greater appreciation of sunshine. Finally, and perhaps most wondrously, considering how terrible I’ve been at winter sports for practically my entire adult life, living in Finland has taught me to ski.
What are the best tips for foreigners when they first enter a Finnish sauna?
Always sit on the lowest bench.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
Wow! That’s a tough one. Well, if I’m still going strong, I’d love to have a novel published. I’ve published a short story collection and I’ve written two non-fiction books. It would be marvellous to add a novel to the list. I’d also love to see Very Finnish Problems on the big or small screen. I’ve had conversations and interest from both film-makers and production companies, so it would be ace to think a TV series, film or documentary would have happened by then. I have no doubt it would do really well, here and internationally. As for where I’ll be geographically, I imagine Helsinki, (but wintering for longer and longer in the Mediterranean sunshine). Hopefully by then I’ll also have finally mastered Finnish and maybe even ice skating. One can always dream.