Cultures of empathy in Spain and Finland

Cultures of empathy in Spain and Finland

Empathy is a personal trait that is inert to all humans, yet taking a look at two modern European democracies we can see that empathy is also a societal norm that manifests itself in very different ways between cultures. In Finland empathy is institutionalized, misery is made clinical and disagreeable subjects are treated with the maximum distance possible. Meanwhile in Spain despite a culture of openly caring for others all attempts to find a resolution to deprivation on a community level never come to fruition.

The word “culture” is a loaded word that encompasses a world of meaning from the superficial to the deep structures of society. What the layperson and the cultural studies researcher think about when they hear the word is quite far apart. When we think about culture, we might think about certain “cultural products” – art, literature, music, theater or maybe film. However, in this article I’d like to delve into the deepest meaning of culture – culture as a way of thinking, culture as the underlying structures that mold our very aspect of being.

Cultural studies focuses on the deep-rooted and hidden structures that make up our societies and the power that is invisibly held within those structures. This is why cultures affect our very being regardless of where we come from or whether we are conscious of the power that our culture has over us. The structural nature of culture is also what brings about culture shock when we travel. One way to understand the phenomenon is to see us as having been “programmed” in a sense to understand the world in a different manner from those in our new environment.

I recently lived abroad for a semester - as many university students tend to do - and as always when living abroad, I ran into cultural differences that both surprised and confused me. But the difference I felt was most pronounced, yet very subtle to define was the difference in our cultures of public empathy.

Finnish people and Spanish people are both acutely aware of the negative stereotypes portrayed of their countrymen. The Finns see themselves as lacking of manners and blunt, while the Spaniards would consider themselves rude for nonchalance towards the personal space of others and for rule-breaking. Finnish people typically do not consider themselves a very “empathetic” people and often cite their southern European neighbors as being their opposite – emotional and compassionate. Yet I argue that we are not in fact less empathetic, we simply care for those around us in a very different way.  

On the structural level of culture, our societies operate in nearly polar opposition. The Finnish political system is built on the ideal that everyone deserves a chance at the basic necessities of life. This political conviction also seeps through into all Finnish culture. Empathy and caring for others is an institution and a human right, not a feeling expected of us as individuals. It is expected on the societal level that no one will be left to survive on their own and that everyone can get by without having to rely on the kindness of other people. We feel it is the responsibility of the community to keep us cared for. The obvious implication is that most everyone in the welfare state will be looked after. The downside however is what is known as bystander effect. We feel that as we are part of a large community where we are not personally responsible for the encompassing individuals, even when we encounter those who have fallen through the cracks we transfer our responsibility on instead of lending a helping hand.

One reason for our hesitance may also be our unfamiliarity with what hard times can mean and that it can fall on anyone as hardship is not visible in a prominent way. If I were to roam the streets of Helsinki by night, I would find a very different scene from the streets of central Madrid – a sight that shockingly displays how in the country where everyone is family, some are without anything at all. Walking through the streets around Madrid’s “Plaza Mayor” the situation never fails to disturb me. Every other building houses a tiny refuge for the homeless who lie in the “shelter” of the doorsteps. The lucky ones huddle on a thin mattress with a scant “blanket” covering them. The unlucky ones hug themselves for warmth.


I sat down to discuss the situation of homelessness and public services offered by the state in Spain with Andrea, who is finishing a Master’s degree in Spanish law. In her words, the average citizen in Spain is worried about corruption in the government. Tax money paid to help the poor or to improve public services seems to end up in the pocket of government officials and contractors, so to help the average Spaniard is more likely to provide help directly to their families, loved ones and even strangers on the street when necessary. Spanish culture leans heavily on hospitality, in itself also a factor that can increase the risk of corruption.

Helping the homeless and those struck by hard times is a task that Spaniards also take pride in. In the fall of 2016, when Malaga was hit with catastrophic flooding that destroyed homes, collections for extra supplies that could be donated to the victims immediately sprung up around Madrid. My landlady and host at the time Bea also collected all the extra blankets she could find around the house for the collection. In one-on-one discussions about Spanish politics she often echoed the sentiments expressed by Andrea about the Spanish government’s untrustworthiness. She also had a soft spot for those around her that needed help and never failed to remind me to buy a little something to eat for the poor that stood outside grocery stores in our area hoping for any donations. Some of the noise she would make about helping out was in fact part of the Spanish charades of “I did more than you did” that never came to fruition, but if comparing to Finnish activism, I’m sure she did more than we have.

Feantsa (European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless) figures show that homelessness is on the rise throughout Europe, excepting Finland with a 10 % decrease in 3 years. The number of homeless in Finland in 2017 was 6700 displaced people (including those that are living rough, staying in temporary housing such as shelters or with friends/family, or in facilities such as hospitals, but without a home to return to). Meanwhile in 2011 28% of housing in Spain was unoccupied due to extremely high living price-to-income ratios that especially hit those low in income. Official figures of displaced persons for Spain are actually registered as low as 23 000, but according to the RAIS foundation real estimates of homelessness are around 35 000 people of which 40-50% live on the streets, with the highest estimates claiming that up to 1.5 million people are living in shelters in addition. The situation also seems hopeless, how can the problem be fixed when corruption eats away at all attempts to change the system in Spain?

One answer is in the culture of caring that has sprung up amongst the ordinary citizens. The homeless in Spain are given food and clothes and charity work is common. When compared with Finnish reactions towards the homeless, we find that we are at opposing ends. Here we are more likely to hear reactions such as” is that person trying to trick me”, “are they trying to steal from me” or “why have the cops not taken them in yet”. The Romani beggars that have arrived in Finland in recent years have confused us. We do not know how to handle them and so react in the most Finnish of ways – look the other way and pretend that we see nothing.

Our culture of institutions means that misery is also very clinical. Depression, mental health problems and even minor problems are not something to be shown and even when talked about they should not be personalized. This leads to the situation, where it is very difficult to talk even with your loved ones or close friends about the difficult things that have fallen your way. And when depression or other mental illness strikes, we tell each other to get professional help instead of trying to fix the problem ourselves. This is especially problematic as access to mental healthcare is very limited and a support system of close friends and acquaintances would be of utmost importance.

Our clinical and distanced culture towards misery and emotions also affects the media content that is displayed in each country respectively. In Finland our news is fairly sterile and images are often chosen not to be violent or graphic. In Spain on the contrary news can be very graphic. This affects the attitude climate of ordinary citizens towards those in need. The refugee crisis of Europe is an illustrative example. Within Finland the attitude climate towards refugees is extremely harsh, whereas in Spain where every news channel is full of graphic images from terrorist bombings, bloody children and families that have lost everything fleeing from danger, attitudes towards refugees are much warmer.

The cultural difference in our way of caring for those around us also manifests itself in the stereotypes about our people. The Finnish often joke about how we are impolite, quiet and blunt and don’t care about other people. Interestingly enough, in Spain I was told multiple times by Spanish students and friends that Finnish people are some of the most respectful people they have ever met. And despite our bluntness, it adds up: we respect rules, we most certainly don’t “get in your face” and we don’t raise our voices and talk over one another (which happen to be the aspects in which Spaniards consider themselves rude). And from our cultural understanding we on the other hand consider Spaniards to be warm (though loud) and interested in other people’s lives instead of being “rude”.

Culture shock is more than just being surprised by something that you are unfamiliar with – culture shock is also a chance to view your own culture in a new light. Despite obvious problems in the Spanish political system and the horrendous figures of homelessness, there is something we can take away to make our own community better. Even in a culture of institutionalized caring, we need to look out for each other. We need to break the bystander effect and maybe drop a coin or two in the hands of someone who needs your 50 cents more than you do, or maybe – and I’m being real crazy here I know – maybe even show some emotion publicly every once in a while. And I do think Finland is catching on slowly to this European trend of sharing feelings little by little.

A Cidade Da Luz

A Cidade Da Luz

Chief Editor's Note: A Change Of Mind(set)

Chief Editor's Note: A Change Of Mind(set)