The first time I heard the word sisu, a word I heard only a few more times while in Finland, it was at lunch with some Finnish friends. It was a long day and after saying goodbye, both the word and the concept slipped my mind. The same friends said the same word to me again a few weeks later and I had to ask: what is sisu? My friends thought about it for a second and told me: “it’s Finnish power“.
What is sisu
My Finnish friends, I remembered later, said they were proud of me because I did not do it the easy way and rode my bike through the whole winter, which reached -32 degrees Celsius at its coldest point. Since I am Spanish I am no good at being at a given place at a given time, I’d probably have missed the buses and would have had to wait long for the next one in -30 anyway. There was no other way for me but to bike.
But my friends told me I also need to have Sisu to brave the elements. We looked the word up in the Spanish-Finnish dictionary, but the definition just didn’t stick in my mind. What they told me, though, is that it was related to words like “bravery”, “courage” or “determination in adversity”. Since then I knew I had to write something about the fascinating idea of sisu.
Going further with some research, I checked out what Wikipedia says about it: and, of course, it says that it’s a word with no easy translation. One of the translations it offers is to “act rationally against adversity”, but I’m not sure that that’s the same as riding a bike through an entire Finnish winter.
You can take sisu in pills.
Sisu is important in Finland, so much that many brands are named after the term, for instance the Sisu sweets in the photo above, or “Sisu Trucks” (that’s what comes up first in Google Images for the word “Sisu”), or the nationalistic organization of Suomen Sisu (official site (they claim to defend the Finnish culture against intercultural mixing).
Another concept that the definition of sisu brings up is “to stand stoically against adversity”. Sisu would then be the skill to finish a task against the impossible twists of destiny. Not a bad word – or quality – as we can see.
Not all sisu is good sisu
Even though its main meaning is a positive one, Sisu can also be a bad thing. “Bad Sisu” (paha sisu, en finnish language) means malice combined with rudeness and relentlessness: putting effort towards hurting someone, or towards vengance.
Some people say that the Finnish culture can be summarized with “The three Ss”: Sisu, sauna and Sibelius (the Finnish classical composer). Some people, though, replace Sibelius for Samliakki.
I rode my bike for 30 minutes in -20 degree weather that evening. Was it sisu or not?
Have you heard about sisu before? Do you have a story where it plays a big role? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.