When in Rome? As Finland becomes more diverse, there is also a need for cultural sensitivity in alcohol and drug education

Discussions about Finnish alcohol policy often mention European drinking culture, as many would like to see Finnish drinking culture evolve in a more continental direction. We often forget that there are already many different drinking cultures in Finland.

People who immigrate to Finland bring with them not only their own languages, habits and cultures, but also their own drinking cultures.

For instance, many people who come here from the Middle East and Africa encounter an entirely different attitude towards consuming alcohol than they are used to in their home countries. There are countries in which alcohol consumption is not common, and many people are forbidden from consuming alcohol due to their cultural beliefs. It’s a major cultural change for them to see that Finns drink plenty of alcohol. What is normal in Finland is abnormal in many countries and cultures.

Adults who move to Finland most often stick to their own drinking preferences and habits in Finland and/or refrain entirely from drinking. Great conflicts can arise in families when the children adopt Finnish habits – including drinking. Young people do what their friends do. Even if their own family forbids alcohol, young people may end up trying and consuming alcohol.

Their alcohol experimentation can have serious consequences. Alcohol and other intoxicants may be a taboo that their families do not talk about. Having their own child be caught drinking alcohol may be a great source of shame to parents. Parents lose face in their own community – and the community might pressure them to deal with the problem, even harshly. Young people also experience these pressures from their family and community. They may be left alone and unable to find a solution to their predicament. A young person might even see suicide as the only alternative.

Cultural sensitivity for alcohol and drug education

Alcohol and drug education must set out to foster good self-esteem and social skills. It’s also important to involve the parents of young people in these conversations, which can consider the effects of the Finnish alcohol culture on the lives of young people and families. Parents can learn to see the conflicting pressures their children live under. It’s important for parents to dare to break their own cultural taboos and talk about intoxicants with their children.

It’s obvious that we, as native Finnish educators, need new means to engage in culturally sensitive alcohol and drug education. We also require assistance from experts from different cultural backgrounds. The ånni project in 2014-2017 was a step forward. But how long will it take for us to learn how to see people from different cultural backgrounds as a source of richness in alcohol and drug education, too?

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” doesn’t work in the context of this theme. One must be able to live in Finland without feeling that one is forced to adopt Finnish drinking habits. Instead, the greater diversity of society also calls for diversity in alcohol and drug education. Young people from other backgrounds struggle with entirely different issues than native Finnish youth. Does our alcohol and drug education take these children and young people into account? Do we know how to encounter and support them correctly?

Ulla Siimes
Executive Director

Melody Karvonen
Multiculturalism Expert

Finnish Parents' League