Got sisu?

I turned forty this year and decided months ago that to mark the occasion I would get myself personalized license plates. Its arbitrary as a 40th year marker, I know – but buying a convertible wasn’t in the budget this year. When considering what my plate would read, I had no trouble finding the right word. SISU would be the only word to label me and my car.

Sisu is one of those finnish words that is difficult to translate but its one that unites a people. All finns have sisu, and if you are not a finn, you may aspire to have it, but no amount of sauna and vihtu will give you sisu (although we recommend you keep trying). Sisu is a strength of character, defined by stubbornness, confidence, strength of will  – someone with sisu is tough as nails and a force to be reckoned with.

Recognizing this characteristic in other finns is one of the ways we come together. In my family we are divided by hockey. There are those in my family who steadfastly back the Calgary Flames – they can’t help it, they are from Alberta and as I understand it, Albertans will kick you out of the club if you don’t back one of their own hockey teams. On the western side of the divide, we back the Canucks – we love the underdog and faithfully believe that next year will be “the year”. During hockey season, there is no shortage of jabs made across the mountains, done solely to poke fun and insult each other’s chosen teams.

The one area that will unite however is the rally cry of sisu. Whether it is Sami Salo, Antti Niemi, Pekka Rinne, or Miikka Kiprusof, a facebook status announcing the vertible status another team’s Finnish sisu is enough to produce approving nods and mutterings of “joooo” and “neen kylla”. It doesn’t matter that at a playoff game, my brother and I laughed that Antti Niemi was crying for his “Aiti” – he was still a Finn with sisu on those occasions where he offered up a great save.

But sisu is not about sports. Its about character. Its about an uncanny mix of stubbornness  force of will, and self-certainty. Of course, reading those descriptions one can’t help but see the folly of sisu. Such self certainty can be perilous and it’s this underbelly of sisu that I love the most. Sisu is both strength and weakness. To be stubborn and self-certain is ideal when one is right, however, when one is slightly less right, sisu is what digs our feet in, places hands on hips and sets the jaw. The thing about sisu is it is so unyielding that at times one can be seen steadfastly clinging to the side of a sinking ship. Someone with sisu, you see, is never wrong.


One thought on “Got sisu?

  1. Shawn Bird

    Whenever I try to describe sisu, I always mention the Winter War, when Finland caused the greatest losses the Russians experienced (10:1 casualties on the Finnish front) and managed to be the only country to negotiate successfully with the Russians. When the Russians thought they’d gotten the best of the deal by taking Karelia from the Finns, the Finns turned around and emptied Karelia of its greatest resource, welcoming every person who wanted to stay in Finland. That’s sisu! Pride, self-possession, loyalty, patriotism, quiet determination, and persevering against the odds define the Finns.


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