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Finland has a nickname and it’s not a cute one. The moniker ‘Rule-Finland’ must have been coined in the last 16 years we’ve been away. On this last trip to my old home country, I’ve learned both the nickname and what it truly means. The answer is three-fold.

1. Don’t question the rule.

When we first arrived, I wanted to access my old bank account. Because of the pandemic, I hadn’t been able to renew my Finnish passport, so I only had a New Zealand one. After a lot of queuing, I learned that my ID was useless. Since New Zealand is not an ETA country, I couldn’t verify my identity and therefore couldn’t access the bank account I’d had for 20+ years. In the end, the only thing I was allowed to do (within the rules) was to close the account and transfer the money to any other account.

During the entire process, nobody (other than me) ever questioned the rules. I mean, if my identity can’t be confirmed, why am I allowed to transfer the money?

After this, I queued in another office to renew my Finnish passport. Fun fact – when you queue in Finland, you queue with other foreigners. Everything here works with your bank account details – you use them to identify yourself online, and update/apply for/order almost anything. So, the only people forced to queue at offices are the ones without the bank verification. Also, there aren’t many offices with actual personnel left. Most banks are now just empty lobbies with a phone number on the wall.

Having learned from my bank saga, I decided I should try to replace the Finnish driving license I’d lost. I used the online system to book an appointment and paid a fee. But when I arrived at the customer service booth, the lady checked my details online and what do you know – a replacement driving license can’t be printed for someone registered as living overseas. Apparently, I can still drive since my license is valid, but I can’t get another piece of plastic.

The oddest moment during that brief visit was witnessing the customer service person’s face light up as she confirmed and then enforced the rule.

“Really?” I asked. “REALLY,” she said with an air of finality and excitement. “There’s really NOTHING I can do for you.”

She stood up taller and a strange, empowering energy vibrated from her whole being. She thought she was excelling at her job by following the rules. That was her only measuring stick. Not empathy or a happy outcome for the customer.

2. Don’t question the system

In some cases, the customer service person wanted to help, but the systems they used were built upon such unbreakable rules they simply couldn’t.

Having successfully renewed my Finnish passport, I traipsed into another bank to open a new account, to get my hands on the bank logins that open all online doors. The customer service person told me she could open an account, but the system would automatically send the list of rotating security codes (banking here is complicated) to my old New Zealand address. I asked if she could override it. She said no. The system is not flexible.

It saddens me that the employees at the bank are so disempowered. Instead of technology being used as a tool to help humans, the human behind the counter is navigating the system, completely powerless in the face of it. I’ve seen it so many times on this trip – a customer service person staring at a screen, shaking their head because what I’m asking or who I am doesn’t fit into their pre-existing formula. When I first tried to get a phone number, I was told ‘You don’t exist.’ and that’s what it feels like at times. To exist in Finland is to follow the rules.

Living a little differently is akin to rule-breaking

When we arrived in Finland this time, we decided to buy a camper van and live in it. This seemed a simple enough plan but turned out to be anything but. Since we didn’t have a permanent address, we couldn’t take car insurance, which is – you guessed it – obligatory in Finland. So, we put the van in my father-in-law’s name and insured it. After our trip around Europe, the van got damaged by another driver parking their trailer. It’s been weeks and the insurance company is still trying to figure out what to do. Since we didn’t have any other address, the van was both our home and our office, we applied for our living expenses to be covered during the repairs. Apparently, nobody had ever made a claim like this in the history of the insurance company. I’d never felt so unique and vagabond in my life.

3. Don’t joke

Rules are no joke. I’ve learned that even though Finns themselves roll their eyes talking about ‘Rule-Finland’, if it’s someone’s job to follow those rules, they’re not amused. Do. Not. Joke. And since Finns take most things (hobbies, interests) quite seriously, the rule-abiding behaviour shows up even outside work.

In 2008, when we first started Uneton48, Finland’s 48-hour film competition, most of the early conversations and questions around the concept were about the rules. Coming from New Zealand, and mostly living there, I wasn’t expecting this and spent hours explaining and clarifying the rules and soothing our contestants.

“The rules are just there to make sure you actually make the film within the given 48 hours, nto because we’re looking for ways to disqualify you,” I’d say.

“But the rules have to be clear! Are others going to get away with not following them?” they asked, flabbergasted. Policing other people’s rule-following is another fun pastime of the Finns.

In the 48-hour competition, including the compulsory elements in your film confirms that you’ve made it within 48 hours. New Zealand, a team once changed the compulsory character from ‘eternal optimist’ to ‘terminal optometrist’. They weren’t disqualified. In fact, they were celebrated for their cleverness and won first prize. If they’d made the film beforehand, they couldn’t have included the wordplay. So, they didn’t exactly follow the rule, but they understood the point of the rule.

In Finland, this would have constituted rule-breaking. Still, the Finnish films were exceptionally beautiful and high-achieving. Following the rules to the letter didn’t hamper the teams’ creativity and there were some very funny films in the mix. Finns can be hilarious, they just do it within the rules.

Trying to pull myself in line

I’m taking it day by day, trying to get used to things and play by the rules as much as I can. While I’m here, at least. I’ve booked myself an appointment at the government bureau to offer them a ‘permanent address’ and see if could get myself accepted back into the role-following crowd. Even if I sometimes question the rule, and apply it a bit more creatively.