Saunas Are Finland's Best Diplomatic Weapon

This may sound like a quirky tradition only suited to the frozen forests of northern Europe, but what Finland is doing seems to be working. Have you ever read about anyone getting pissed off at Finland? Maybe, if our politicians and diplomats got naked...

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Dec 1 2013, 1:00pm

Sanna Kangasharju poses at the Sauna Society in Washington DC. Photo courtesy of the Embassy of Finland in Washington DC

Finland loves saunas. Luckily for me, my mom’s best friend married a Finn and I have a Finnish boyfriend, so I’ve been able to sweat it out on my visits to the Nordic nation. However, it wasn’t until my boyfriend’s mom, Finland’s ambassador to Mexico, let me use the sauna at Finland’s ambassadorial residence in Mexico City that I realized Finland uses saunas as a form of diplomacy.

All Finnish embassies, consulates, and residences have their own saunas. At some embassies, Finnish ambassadors regularly socialize with politicians, diplomats, and journalists while boiling in the buff. At first glance, this looks like another luxury for diplomats, but saunas are pretty normal for Finns and also encourage good diplomacy—Finns forbid people from arguing in saunas and insist everyone comes out as friends. After all, it’s pretty hard to imagine anyone bothering to argue when they’re sweaty and nude.

Yes, everyone gets naked at the diplomatic saunas. “In the beginning, [visitors] normally have their towels around them, but then the sauna itself is quite dimly lit, so people often start feeling more comfortable there, and the towels drop,” said Sanna Kangasharju, the press counselor at the Washington DC embassy’s Sauna Society. According to Sanna, the Sauna Society has become a networking hothouse for both Republicans and Democrats—up to 25 journalists, think-tankers, and Capitol Hill staffers descend on the sauna to discuss politics each month.

“There’s a lot of competition among all the embassies here to get the interest of these people,” Sanna said. “I often say that the sauna societies are our best diplomatic weapon.”

Even Vice President Joe Biden, who lives across the road from the embassy, has supposedly received an invitation to the Sauna Society. (Sanna isn’t sure where the rumor came from.) Sauna diplomacy has a long history of steaming away vice presidents’ egos. George Bush was widely reported to have jumped naked into the Baltic Sea after a session with the Finnish Sauna Society on a 1983 trip to Helsinki when he was vice president.

Finland doesn’t just use saunas to build their relationships with the American government. When Finnish peacekeepers arrive in a conflict zone, like Egypt or Afghanistan, they build a sauna. Soviet big wigs were regulars in Finnish saunas during the Cold War, the steam quite literally diffusing tensions as Finland asserted its neutrality on the edge of the Eastern Bloc. In 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to Finland for President Urho Kekkonen's birthday and allegedly partied in the sauna until 5 AM.  Soon after the visit, the Russians said they were prepared to support Finland's relationship with the west. 

Image courtesy of the Embassy of Finland in London

Finland also uses saunas to create a positive working environment for government staffers. Located in a wealthy neighborhood in west London, the UK embassy is a white, stucco-covered pile of a building. Inside the grand facade, the sauna is tucked away in the basement, beyond a small grey-tiled shower room. The tiny, wood-panelled cube has two-tiered benches that can comfortably fit about four people on either side of a small stove. Unlike at the embassy in Washington DC, only the staff uses the London embassy's sauna. This isn't because Finland prefers the US to the UK. When I visited the sauna last month, Pekka Isosomppi, the UK embassy’s press counselor, said Britons’ prudishness and penchant for coffee dates makes London ill-suited for socializing in the nude.

The embassies insist you won’t find sex in Finnish saunas, let alone in diplomatic saunas, although some people outside Finland still associate Finnish saunas with embraces in the dark. “We find that sacrilegious; we find that almost blasphemous,” Pekka said, when I asked him about that perception. “I find it quite offensive actually.”

Pekka insisted saunas are for friends. This may sound like a quirky tradition only suited to the frozen forests of northern Europe, but what Finland is doing seems to be working. Have you ever read about anyone getting pissed off at Finland? If our politicians and diplomats got naked and sweaty together more often, maybe the world would be a better place.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rachelmsavage

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