Monash Association of Debaters

Mirja Hämäläinen, Karen Nelson, Alfred. Snider, Maja Nenadović, Megan Harlow

Debating in Finland: Introducing Clash in a Consensus Country

In 2003 the European Erasmus teacher exchange brought a British English
teacher from the University of Porto, Portugal, to visit the Language Centre of the
University of Tampere, Finland. The teacher gave a presentation about debating
to the Language Centre teachers. I was one of them and this was probably
the first time I, a Finnish teacher of English (with some 25 years of teaching
experience), heard of debate happening outside of the English-speaking world. I
got interested, googled debate instructions and started using debate as part of the
oral English skills classes that I was teaching. The first groups did not see the point
of the exercise, in fact, in one group some students protested very loudly and I
really had to defend my case: what is the point of making the students argue and
defend opinions that they do not believe in? During the first years of introducing
debate as an instructional method, when I asked students what they thought
‘debating’ was, it was quite usual for them to describe it as ‘arguing’ in the sense
of ‘quarrelling’. We watched a World Universities Debate Championship debate
and the students wondered why the debaters were shouting and angry. These
reactions reflect the Finnish speech culture which, although changing, is still in
people’s minds a culture of consensus. When summarising research on Finns as
communicators, Wilkins and Isotalus (2009:12) note that Finns would like to
maintain harmony rather than argue directly. In Finnish everyday life, the way
most of us Finns experience it, avoiding conflict is considered good manners and
therefore debating would seem like quarrelling and bad manners especially if the
style is in any way heated or emotional.

In 2009 I participated in the International Debate Academy of Slovenia organised
by Bojana Skrt, ZIP, and Professor Alfred Snider, the University of Vermont,
USA. This visit opened a whole new world to me. Seeing and experiencing the
international debate atmosphere of young people engaging in rigorous study and
practice of debate from the early morning till night was something that I thought
Finnish students should also have the right to experience and be challenged with.
Coming back from IDAS I was informed that the University of Helsinki has had
a Debating Society since 2001. Through a happy coincidence, the University
of Tampere had its Debate Society founded in January 2010 and thus was the
second university in Finland to have one. The happy coincidence was that Karen
Nelson, a Political Science student, happened to spend the spring term as an
exchange student at our university and she turned out to be a student of professor
Alfred Snider in debating. This is how Karen describes the experience of starting
a debate society at a Finnish University:

”What struck me at the time and still holds weight today is the
concept that public speaking can be used as a means to reprimand
children. This was a huge cultural barrier that I faced coming in
to debate classes and eventually co-founding the debate society.
This meant that what is considered in the United States to be an
exceedingly valuable skill to achieve success in the professional
realm, was associated with disdain in Finnish culture. The
complexity lied in the fact that a Finnish cultural norm- value
was working against a desire to establish a debate society. To
overcome a value/norm is not a simple task and the means that
we used to try to achieve that was to create a distinctly Finnish
debate society. As an American who has lived in the country all
but six months of my life this is a concept that I cannot fully
explain or even comprehend. Which is why I purposely created
a capacity for myself that was simply support and guidance
and facilitation of the meetings. To be Finnish is to be Finnish
and to be American is to be American, a national identity is a
concept and belief that stays with you your entire life. The only
complication that can arise from a national identity is when it
defines the character of the individual that is associated with the
identity. To all of the Finnish students that were required to listen
to a 21 year old American student this was not an easy task, but
overall they managed.”

Karen’s interpretation of how the Finnish culture works against debating is
interesting. What some students told Karen about their negative experiences
of public speaking made Karen think that public speaking had been a way of
reprimanding students. Finnish students have traditionally not been encouraged
to speak in class. Still, public speaking has not been a way of reprimanding
students but for many it has been very challenging because there have been few
opportunities to practice it. This is slowly changing. Teachers here and there in
Finland do use debating to teach philosophy or Finnish for instance. The rules
are usually very relaxed: students can choose the side they want to argue for/
against and often the debates are one-to-one. There are clear signs that Finland
is becoming interested in debating. Just last spring a book on debating as an
instructional method appeared edited by Tuukka Tomperi and Leena Kurki and
published by the European Society for Philosophy in Tampere, Finland. Five more
universities have started debating societies: the universities of Turku, Joensuu,
Vaasa, and Oulu with Aalto University joining this new wave just this fall. In
addition, the first Finnish University Championship competition is taking place
in Helsinki in the beginning of December this year.

After Karen returned to the US, we got another visitor to guide us in debating. In
May 2010, Maja Nenadović gave a workshop at the University of Helsinki. In the
following, Maja describes her impressions:

“Don’t Be Afraid of Silence” or: Teaching Debate in Finland
”I was invited to offer an introductory debate workshop at the
University of Helsinki, Institute of Speech and Communication,
in May 2010. I was looking forward to learning about Finnish
communication culture, as I had previously taught debate
throughout and across Europe’s distinctive cultures. For instance,
in the Netherlands, little was considered taboo: in society with
decriminalized soft drug use, legalized gay marriage, prostitution
and euthanasia, the threshold of what constitutes ‘controversial’
was elevated compared to most other European countries.
Throughout the Western Balkans, however, these same subjects
incited heated discussions. At the same time, in these postconflict
countries these topics were not nearly as contentious as
debating current political affairs or repercussions of Yugoslavia’s
bloody breakup.

Some Finns I met on my journey to Helsinki inquired about
the reason behind my visit seemed somewhat puzzled with the
concept of debate. One woman remarked, “We Finns do not like
conflict, so I don’t think this debating workshop of yours will be
very interesting to students.” Perhaps to comfort me, her husband
casually added, “Finns only speak when they have something
to say.” As a result of these initial encounters, I was somewhat
apprehensive and increasingly curious to see how the students
would react to the workshop, and to being introduced to debating.
To my relief, they turned out to be a very welcoming, interested
and engaged group, all of whom seemed eager to learn about
debate. Without exception, they all took part in the interactive
exercises and debates that filled the day-long workshop. As they
were able to receive extra credits for their participation, some of
them also opted to write essays reflecting on what they learned
about debate and how it connected to their area of study, i.e.
speech and communication.

From these essays, and the workshop evaluation forms I received
later on, it was clear that students felt debate was a highly useful
exercise for improving one’s communication skills. One student
wrote that, “…every debate is about values and limits, that is
what ultimately makes debating possible because there is no
such thing as a simple answer to today’s challenges.” While the
workshop evaluation forms resulted in an overall very positive
feedback from the students, one of the students played a trick
on me (referring to my own earlier made comment to students
how they should not be afraid of pauses and silences in their
speech, but use them instead to emphasize their arguments). In
the section that solicited advice on how to improve the training,
this student just wrote, “Don’t be afraid of silence!” “

The comment “Finns only speak when they have something to say” is a common
stereotype that, as is evident from Maja’s example, Finns themselves tend to
strengthen. Sajavaara and Lehtonen (1997:270) explain this by the observation
that Finns consider talkativeness as “an indication of slickness, which serves as a
signal of unreliability”. Still, this does not mean that all Finns only talk when they
have something to say. Finns can be talkative, but the culture does not encourage
that at all. All in all, Maja’s experience shows that clearly there is a good ground
in Finland to start debating. It is just a matter of timing and right circumstances
for spreading the word.

After Maja’s visit, Professor Alfred Snider gave two workshops at the University
of Tampere; one for Language Centre teachers of Finnish universities and another
one to the new UTA Debate Society students. These are his reflections on doing
debate training in Finland:

”In September 2010 I was invited to the University of Tampere
in Finland to speak at two workshops about debating, one for
teachers interested in using debating in the classroom and one for
university students interested in debating competition. It was a
marvelous experience, and I would say that I learned as much as
those I worked with, if not more.

I had done research in advance, as I had heard that there was a
Finnish “speech culture.” I had learned the saying such as, “A
few words can get you into a lot of trouble.” Yet, those who had
invited me seemed very interested in debating as deployed in an
educational setting, so I was very excited about my visit.

My visit went very well, and both of my workshops were
enjoyable and seemed productive. From my limited experience, I
have drawn several quite tentative conclusions that I would share.

First, it is true that public speaking is something that many
Finns have not done that much of. While public speaking is also
somewhat unfamiliar (and feared) by many Americans, it seemed
to be a bit more so among Finns, especially the adults. Like any
public performance you do not do often, it has a tinge of anxiety
to it. Creating an open and non-judgmental atmosphere in my
classroom seemed to help after a short while.

Second, Finns tend to focus more on the ideas in a debate and not
so much on the speakers. It is not so much a contact of “us” against
“them” where you “attack” their ideas and “defend” your own, but
rather it is an exchange of ideas about areas of disagreement and
agreement. It is not necessarily a contest between persons, but
rather a contest about ideas. I find this to be a very sophisticated
approach that avoids some of the ego-involvement that tends to
hinder some students in their debating activities.

Third, I found that younger Finns seemed far more open and
willing to embrace debating as opposed to the average Finn I
met and spoke to in the hotel (where I talked about what I was
doing in Finland) and even the teachers I worked with. If there is
a Finnish “speech culture” it may be changing.

Since returning I have acquired a copy of Speech Culture in
Finland edited by Richard Wilkins and Pekka Isotalus (University
press of America, Lanham, MD: 2009). I have yet to read more
than a few sections of this book, but parts of it have stood out
for me, such as the quotation from Penti Holappa, noted author,
who said of the communication of Finnish youth today, “Some
of them can. They smile more than they did before. That is very
good behavior.” I saw those smiles in the faces of those I was
lucky enough to work with.”

I would like to comment on the second conclusion above. The two groups that
participated in the training were not totally Finnish but had native English
teachers and international students in them. It may also be that the Finns who
come to a debate workshop are not the stereotypical ones as Finns generally feel
that debate is quarrelling and challenging each other’s opinions is often taken
personally. Sajavaara and Lehtonen (1997:274) point out that argumentation is
difficult in Finland as questioning a person’s opinions is considered questioning
him as a human being. The strategy is to avoid this “quarrelling”. A while back
one of my students gave an example of this: a high school Finnish teachers had
given the students a choice between a debate and a panel. The students opted
for a panel, because they considered it a more neutral method to practice public

While Professor Snider was visiting our university, I had just started my fall term
at the University of Vermont as a Fulbright grantee. I followed the Lawrence
Debate Union (LDU) debate training and participated in three national debate
tournaments as an adjudicator. This was not easy for someone coming from a
country where debating practically did not exist. Debating at the LDU has long
traditions, it has existed since 1899, which is 18 years longer than the Finnish
independence. There are approximately 5 million people who speak Finnish
and although the Finnish written language developed in the 16th century and
strengthened the language that had only been spoken, it was not until the latter
half of the 19th century that the language was made equal alongside Swedish.
This is just a short reference to the linguistic history of the country, but it may
explain some of the peculiarities of the Finnish speech culture.

In the spring of 2011, through one more lucky coincidence
Tampere received an LDU alumni Megan Harlow, to help
developing debating at the society and especially as an instructional
method in the Debating course. These are Megan’s observations:
In the spring of 2011 I found myself in Tampere, Finland where
I had the opportunity to teach with Mirja. I attended her English
course that used debating as an instructional method. I also
participated in the debate society and helped judge some practice
debates between the Finnish students. First I must say that it will
be hard for me to garner an opinion on “Finnish” students, as
the class was incredibly diverse. Second, I am wary to make any
generalizing statements that can be taken as a judgment of the
Finnish character, yet I will say a few comments that should not be
taken as a definitive judgment, just an account of my experience.

Students seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to debate in class
– the interactive time and the freedom to participate instead of
listen to a lecture is generally always appreciated in particularly
classes aimed at speech and language instruction. It did seem
strange to me the way some the debaters I met with one evening
rejected a number of ideas, stating that Finns will just not
participate in debating, we are a consensus seeking society. I heard
this consensus concept a number of times. But in the streets, the
pubs and the rest of society it did not seem uncommon to see
Finns in active disagreement, yet compared to Americans I did
feel a sort of shyness, or a lack of desire for Finns to go out of their
way to speak to strangers. This feeling may have also been due to
my own perceptions and fears as a foreigner, and of course the
fact that I could not speak Finnish probably increased my feelings
of isolation within the environment.

Overall I would say I saw a great deal of improvement amongst
the Finnish students in their ability to use English, their
confidence with the language and the environment within the
classroom seemed to be one where the teacher did not simply pour
information into the students expecting them to regurgitate it.
Instead the classroom became a truly unique place where teacher
and students were both co-creators of a learning experience.

Analysing communication and interaction between people is complicated and
Megan seems to make the same observation that Sajavaara and Lehtonen make
in their article on the silent Finn: “Finns may be less liable to intervene in public
meetings and in classrooms but participate with vigour in pubs, at marketplaces
, or in the sauna.” (Sajavaara and Lehtonen 1977:189). Another important thing
to keep in mind is that when considering the way Finns participate in discussions
in intercultural contexts, the situations involve speaking a foreign language and
that, too, most probably affects the way they behave in those situations.

For those who are interested in the Finnish culture, the article by Sajavaara and
Lehtonen (1997) and the book on Finnish speech culture edited by Wilkins and
Isotalus (2009) give a good starting point. Isotalus (2009:204) describes Finnish
televised elections debates and contends that they are not debates at all but
discussions where the participants express agreements and disagreements. Isotalus
states that this is due to the fact that Finland has a multi-party system where
parties are aware that they will need to be able to co-operate with one or more
parties in the government. The other explanation that Isotalus offers is the socalled
Paasikivi-Kekkonen foreign policy that was prevalent for 40 years until
1991. This foreign policy was related to Finland’s relations with the Soviet Union.
Times have changed since then. The internal policy is being challenged by the
True Finn party which was a winner in 2011 elections. This party is EU-critical
and it has been defined as a protest party. Finland clearly needs to learn how to
debate now.

Compared to the strong traditions and the long history of speech culture in the
US and the rest of the English-speaking world with the overwhelming number
of native speakers, Finns are newcomers in the debating world in many respects.
Some active students are already joining the international competitive debating
world, but there are probably many more who although interested in debating
still think like this student in my Debating for Academic Purposes class: “I can
see the game aspect of debating, but I’m not sure if I like it and if I’m up to it.”.
As Finland and other Nordic countries have so far had a different approach to
finding solutions than debating, i.e. consensus orientation, the question could be
whether global debate could change and become a function where debate would
include dialogue and the competitive aspect would not be so prominent anymore.
Would the game element then be lost?


Isotalus, P. 2009. Agreement and disagreement in focus: a cultural perspective on
televised election debates. In Wilkins, R. and Isotalus, P. (eds.) Speech Culture in
Finland. Lanham: University Press of America, pp.191-208.
Sajavaara, K. and Lehtonen, J. 1997. The silent Finn revisited in Jaworski, A.
Silence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 263-284.
Tomperi, T. and Kurki, L. 2011. Väittely opetusmenetelmänä [Debating as an
instructional method]. Tampere: Eurooppalaisen filosofian seura.
Wilkins, R. and Isotalus, P. (eds.) 2009. Speech Culture in Finland. Lanham:
University Press of America.