Home » Blog » Podcast interview with Sari Vanska

Welcome to The Bicultural Podcast.

I’m delighted to be joined by Sari Vanska, founder of Muutos.

Janina Neumann (00:32):
Hi, Sari. Lovely to have you here. How are you?

Sari Vanska (00:35):
Oh, hi Janina. I’m very good, thank you. It’s so exciting to be here with you.

Janina Neumann (00:41):
I’m really excited too.

So would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sari Vanska (00:48):
Well, I think we are going to cover quite a lot when we get to discuss these things. As you can hear from my name, I am not quite local, and local in this case means British. I’m originally from Finland, but I have lived in the UK now for 27 years.

Janina Neumann (01:10):
Oh wow.

Sari Vanska (01:10):
And I think that’s a good starting point because we can then start building up from fact.

Janina Neumann (01:17):
That’s fantastic.

So, tell us a little bit about where you grew up in Finland?

Sari Vanska (01:27):
Oh, I’m from a little place called Mikkeli. M-I-K-K-E-L-I. I think is the spelling. It’s a little town. It’s kind of on the southeastern corner of Finland. If you know anything about Finland, there is a kind of area with big lakes. It’s kind of a district of lakes. It’s a gorgeous area of Finland. So I’m from there. And after I did my A-levels, I went to the university about two hours drive up North from Mikkeli, a place called Kuopio. And then from there, I moved to Helsinki, which of course, is the capital of Finland and I started my work career down there.

Janina Neumann (02:22):
Oh, wow.

And just from previous conversations, I was really inspired to hear that as a child, you also learned a lot of languages quite early on. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Sari Vanska (02:34):
Oh yeah. That is quite something in Finland. And I guess in many, many other countries whereby if their language is such that nobody can understand them and they can’t understand anybody else unless they learn some languages. And so of course, we go back now, you see I’m 54 years old now, and I was seven years old when I started school, so we go back quite many decades. So at that time, I was seven years old when I started school and I basically started to learn English on the third year when I was nine years old. And Swedish came along when I was 14. So that was year seven. And then German the year after, when I was 15. So basically when I was 15, I was studying four languages, Finnish including. So Finnish, Swedish, English, and German. And I think I was also quite average student as such that was normally the number of languages we all studied. English was mandatory, so was Swedish. And I think some people chose French instead of German. And I think some people even studied Russia. But that all of us, we started three to four languages and that was a kind of default, it was a norm.

Janina Neumann (04:08):
Oh, wow.

That must have been quite interesting to be also introduced to different cultures quite early on through learning those languages. What do you think the effects of those were?

Sari Vanska (04:19):
The effects of those were, I think it’s quite beautiful thing really, and I had this very conversation yesterday when I facilitate a multicultural or cross-cultural communications training. And what really the effects it has on people is we grow up to be much more considerate people because we understand how difficult it is to learn a language, first of all. And then of course through learning a language, because all the languages, you know, the structure and the kind of grammar is different, you realise that people even think differently because the language is constructed differently. And of course, whilst we studied these languages at school, part of the class or part of the studying was that we were explained some aspects of the culture itself. And I think it’s quite, quite fantastic because we grow up to be much more open-minded, we realise that there are many different languages and cultures in the world and many different types of people as well. And I think it’s really essential for all of us, regardless of your country of origin to have that sort of experience. Makes sense?

Janina Neumann (05:46):
Yeah, definitely. And I think it’s really interesting how you touched upon the way we think is actually influenced by, you know, the language structure, but also the vocabulary we have for certain topics as well.

Sari Vanska (06:01):
Absolutely, absolutely. It is interesting. And of course, you know, in the, in the recent decades, we have seen that all countries or languages in the world I would say or almost most languages in the world. We, of course, have more and more of these global phrases and words and like Finnish language, for example, the Englishness in the language is more and more visible whereby we kind of take an English word for example, and we kind of make it Finnish, if it makes sense. So it’s this kind of we borrow languages, or we borrow words directly from other languages. It’s becoming a bit of a mix and match to some extent and it’s quite interesting. And it’s quite interesting actually, you know what? I tend to realise that even the older generation who doesn’t speak English and they don’t really understand what the original word means, but they are using those international words in their everyday language and it’s actually quite it’s quite funny. Quite funny to listen.

Sari Vanska (07:05):
But yeah, that’s how it’s all evolving. And you know what, my language, I always joke that the part of Finland where I’m from, my local dialect is quite strong and it really is like a country-pumpkin language or dialect. And my Finnish language is at the stage where Finnish language was 30 years ago when I left Finland because my Finnish language hasn’t evolved because I hardly speak it and I hardly hear it. So it’s quite interesting when I go back to Finland, yeah my speaking is a bit weird to some extent. Finnish speaking that is.

Janina Neumann (07:49):
That’s really interesting, you know, and it’s the same in Germany where, you know, it’s a mixture of German English, and I just find it really interesting how culturally things have changed and also conversations have changed, you know, and I sometimes also think about, you know, a certain audience that might not understand English, how receptive they are actually to the messages that you see on TV.

Sari Vanska (08:17):
Yes. Exactly. Exactly.

Janina Neumann (08:19):
But it’s good to hear, you know, that actually some of that generation where you perhaps don’t anticipate that they have a good level of English that they actually start to use it in their conversations. So that’s really good to hear that’s happening.

Sari Vanska (08:36):
Yeah. I think it’s kind of funny because you don’t normally hear them use any other languages or words from other languages or any kind of international concepts. And suddenly you hear these words popping up here and there, and yeah, it’s quite extraordinary really.

Janina Neumann (08:56):
It is.

So tell us a little bit about, you know, how multiculturalism has had an impact on your life.

Sari Vanska (09:05):
Well, it has had absolutely huge fundamental impact because as I have mentioned a few times, I moved from Finland almost 30 years ago. And even I was in Finland when I started my working career, I worked for Hewlett-Packard, HP, which of course is the global tech giant. So from the very beginning of my career, I worked in an international setting and I have colleagues in other countries so that kind of came to my life, the whole multicultural international concept came to my life quite early on. And I have lived in three different countries. So from Finland, I moved to Switzerland in 1992. I was working for the same company, Hewlett-Packard, but in the Swiss organisation. So that was my first real-life experience, you know, living amongst people who had different culture than mine, and of course, used different language as well. And after a year and a half there, I moved to the UK and the organisation that I moved to or where I started to work, it was brand new organisation, multicultural organisation again.

Sari Vanska (10:37):
So, it was Hewlett-Packard’s internal business I.T. support organisation and we basically helped the Hewlett-Packard employees throughout the whole Europe, Middle East, and Africa. So our organisation first of all, because it was a brand new organisation, equals a collection of individuals from quite many European countries. So I think organisation, we had about 10 nationalities, about half of the organisation was British and half of the organisation was kind of international. And that of course was a fantastic experience, especially thinking that we all had to move to the UK because of our new jobs, our new roles. So we were almost kind of climatising ourselves, even learning the language to some extent. So that was such a rewarding experience to work with people from different countries, because you really became to realise that, you know, even as human beings, we all have the same, but we are all very different because of those cultural aspects, the cultural differences. And our kind of user base, our customer base was throughout that EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) region. And I think it was about 30 different nationalities that we dealt with on a day-to-day basis. So, I kind of, you know, see my life and my career as I’ve always worked in that global international setting and it’s basically the only thing that I know really when it comes to the working environment and the companies.

Janina Neumann (12:32):
Oh, wow. That’s fantastic.

And that must have been so interesting also from a communications perspective of how that worked communicating with, you know, not only your colleagues from different countries but also, you know, the users who were based in those different cultures as well. Tell us just a bit more about that, about the communication aspect.

Sari Vanska (12:57):
Oh yes. Yes. That was the fascinating part. And I kind of have a quite interesting, funny story, because when I was at school in Finland and when I was studying, of course, Finnish, you know, the basics, own language and writing essays and things like that. I was hopelessly bad. I was very, very bad at writing essays in Finnish. I just didn’t, couldn’t nail it. And I think it’s a bit of a joke really at how bad I was writing, not grammatically, but just creating context and creating meaningful text. However, what happened when I came to this country and worked for that international organisation, I became a organisational communicator and I had quite many roles in communication within HP. And I was very good at that, and the reason why I was put at that was that I almost intuitively knew how to write to an international audience. My colleagues, my previous colleagues, they ever so often asked me to proofread their text, their documents, or their messages, or even write them for them. English not being my first language, I naturally used very simple and very clear language. And that of course is totally essential when you’re writing to an international audience where English is the second language or the third language even, it is so essential that you’ll use very clear language. You use simple words. You use short sentences, and will just keep it very focused and to the point, whatever you do on writing about.

Sari Vanska (14:56):
And I think that that really was my strong point because of my background that I was so successful creating those communications. And something what I also learned is that it is really worth investing all the time and all the effort at the source when you are writing something. So even if at times, you know, I thought it really doesn’t make sense that it took half an hour for me to write an A4 communication, you know, one-page communication, because I absolutely wanted to make sure that it was well structured and clear and understandable, and I even asked my colleagues then to proofread it who didn’t know anything about the topic. Just to make sure that it was clear for them. And it was essential that I spent so much time preparing and creating that communication because when that communication then went to say thousand people, and if it was clear, easy to understand, it took each person maybe one minute to read. So they spent about thousand minutes reading it.

Sari Vanska (16:05):
But if I hadn’t done that pre-work, if I had left that text a bit unclear, if I had used words which the non-English speaking people wouldn’t necessarily know. If they have to read it multiple times and check out, you know, dictionaries, kind of find out words, I would potentially, you know, cause quite some wasted time. And if instead of using one minute to read that communication, people would spend five minutes to read it. So people would then basically waste 4,000 minutes, which is quite many hours. So that was really the eye-opener. What I realised any communication, especially when it goes to multinational or multicultural audience, it is so essential that we spend a lot of time creating it because then we are going to save time, you know, people reading it. If it makes sense what I’m saying, but that really was a huge eye-opener for me, just the fact that even if I wasn’t the English language specialist nor communications specialist, that I was able to do a good job by keeping it simple and to the point, and so on and so on.

Janina Neumann (17:26):
Wow. That’s such a good insight. And I think there’s, you know, so much value in doing that and actually structuring content so it’s easy to read, you know, it’s an art to do that. It’s, you know, I use design as an example, you know, things that look very simple, you know, take hours of work to come to that. And, you know, if we look at like the communications by councils or local authorities, you know, it’s very straight to the point, so that actually people can easily access that information and want to read that information because it’s not hard work, and like you say, you don’t need to get out your dictionary to understand what the piece is about. So that’s really valuable lesson, which perhaps the native speaker wouldn’t understand as such, because you know, living in the UK for so long, even though when I’m trying to not use idioms, you know, they fall into place and I’m thinking, No, this is not the right way to express myself.

Sari Vanska (18:38):
Absolutely, because ever so often I have this very experience when I speak with my family in Finland or for example, the young nephews and nieces. Well, they are not that young anymore, they are proper grown-ups now, but they speak English. And when I use English for some reason, or I explain because I came to speak with them, sometimes I say something in English if it comes kind of easier and it’s a bit easier of a mix of many things, when I speak with them. But I have noticed myself, or they have actually noticed as well, using these English ways of saying, which of course they are common sense to me because I use them all the time here and I end up using them with them as well, and of course, they are totally puzzled because they don’t understand at all what it means. They often say, “What did you just say? I don’t understand”. And then again, it’s actually so easy when you get used to speaking a language, even if it’s not your first language, but it’s so easy to go into that habit almost to use the local phrases or local sayings and not realising that everybody actually understands them.

Janina Neumann (19:56):
No, it’s like almost using also complex terminology, you know, in your marketing material when actually your audience doesn’t communicate like that. I think is also a good example. But touching on kind of the Finnish business etiquette, would you like to tell us a little bit more about that? Like some of the differences that you may have found, people from UK or from elsewhere that they might find different when they come to communicate or lead in an organisation that’s based in Finland.

Sari Vanska (20:42):
That is a bit of a challenge for me, because I haven’t really, as funny as it sounds, or whether it is funny at all, but I have hardly dealt with Finnish businesses since I’ve lived abroad because it has been this multinational setting and then working for other companies and dealing with the UK, Uk-focused things. I haven’t really dealt with Finnish businesses at all until last year, and they were just a few companies or few leaders that I spoke with and I was astonished because think about this, I’m Finnish person so my cultural background is of course Finnish, but because I have lived such a long time abroad, when I was dealing with them, I must have felt a little bit the same as when a British person would be dealing with Finnish business. And I was a bit surprised how different I saw them or how many differences I saw in that the interaction. And what really was most noticeable was that directness of those people. Somebody might say bluntness because it was straight to the point. So you skipped out, you know, the small talk, which we, in this country, in the UK, we are quite good at that, aren’t we?

Sari Vanska (22:14):
Small talk and talking about weather and not quite saying things quite directed, but it’s often masked by kind of milder versions of what we really think about. But when I was dealing with these people and Finnish business people, yeah, I was quite astonished at how direct they were and how kind of no-nonsense, straight to the point they were. And even myself at times I felt not exactly threatened, but I felt a bit uncomfortable because it was such a kind of direct conversation. And I think that might be something which is a beautiful thing to have, because you know exactly what you spent with those people. And you don’t need to try to read things between the lines. But it can feel a bit uncomfortable if you’re not used to that sort of communication.

Janina Neumann (23:15):
Yeah, no, I understand that. It’s almost changing your perspective on how the meeting will go. Whether you build the relationship more like on a task-based way or more on a relationship-based way. And, you know, usually the approach is to building a relationship way of building trust is, you know, to have those small conversations. So when we’re used to that, it seems almost, you know, abrupt or odd that we have to change the way we build trust with that person. So I think that’s a really good experience to have regularly in your business because I think it just shows that different people buy from other people in different ways. You know, it’s not always the UK way of buying, like ‘know, like, and trust’, that saying, and I think that’s really interesting.

Sari Vanska (24:16):
Yeah. You know, it is and if we think about, you know, the experience that I have had with the global setting, and when I explain or help people understand the cultural differences, its culture is such a fundamental concept and it goes so deep in all individuals that we really need to understand how does it impact people and how does it impact the relationships, and the behaviours, values, you know, everything that culture includes and you touch base that, you know, some cultures are more relationship-driven. Some cultures are more task-driven and the task-driven cultures are like Scandinavia, and the UK and the US to some extent, where the focus is on facts and the goals and timelines and it’s not so much that you need to have a personal relationship with a person before you do business. But of course, some other countries like the Eastern countries and even African cultures, they are all based on that you need to have that personal relationship built up and that trust and then you can kind of move forward with the business.

Sari Vanska (25:38):
But then there are other aspects which are these fundamentals, which we really need to understand especially businesses in other countries and each works on both the differences between the decision-making and the risk-taking and uncertainty management and the attitudes to authorities and even education and qualification. And the approach when it comes to times and completing tasks, they are really fundamentals, which unless you understand them, can be the fundamental differences between cultures. It can become really challenging to deal with people because you can’t understand why they have such a different thinking, different approach. And that’s why I think everybody should really have the basic concepts of what the cultures are or how the cultures can differ. You don’t even need to know which cultures are exactly what, you almost just need to be aware of those are fundamentals that can be different from yours. And I think once we have that, then that of course feeds the understanding that even if we are all human beings, we are all citizens of this globe, we are also very different. And I think that’s going back to your very initial question that, you know, what impact has this multiculturalism had in my life, and the biggest impact is that I absolutely, generally understand that we are all different. And whilst I keep that in my mind, and that as a default setting almost, whether I deal with people in my village or in this country, or in other countries, having that basic concept that we are different and let’s start working from that, then things become much easier. And these frustrations and misunderstandings they kind of go away, because we are open-minded, we know that we can negotiate these different beliefs and behaviours as we go along. And it’s an amazing insight into humanity I think when we have that understanding.

Janina Neumann (28:11):
Yeah, it certainly is. And all that experience and those stories and having that worldview, I think it’s really great how you bring that all together, you know, and help your clients.

So tell us a little bit more about your business, Muutos.

Sari Vanska (28:30):
So we are basically what I call a one-stop-shop service for companies who want to improve their employee well-being and mental health and productivity and even retention and who want to move towards a kind of superior, human-centric company culture. So we really want to empower you to create a thriving and high-performing workplace. And what our specialism really is that we focus on the human fundamentals. We find the route causes of your people’s challenges and we help to solve them for good. We do a variety of things in the Muutos cycle. So we start by surveying and assessing. So first we find out how your staff are really feeling and we use a tool called ‘We Thrive’, it’s a company employee culture survey tool. We use that and we quickly identify which aspects of your employee experiences are thriving and which are failing. And then we find out how your staff’s happiness and productivity can easily be amended or improved. And then we start suggesting practical actions and focus on the things that really matter to your employees and that best improves your whole organisation’s effectiveness and people-dependent performance. And the actual essential that we feel is that we equip your whole workforce with this eye-opening information about their own mental health and I will often say cognitive performance because we tend to work with companies whose employees are knowledge workers or brain workers. So cognitive performance is very important for them and with this information, we better empower them to improve their own workplace well-being and productivity.

Sari Vanska (31:09):
So basically the control to the people themselves. And we equip the managers with the knowledge and tools, which really help them to better understand their people, their teams and support them. And really bring the best out of the employees. We make sure that they have the right people, in the right jobs, at the right time, in the right place, with the right tools and we also give them tools to stop problems before they even happen, so that is really kind of preventative way of looking after their employees. And we mentor and nurture because we really want to ensure that they get comfortable using those new tools and skills and they become comfortable using them in their teams. And we stay with our clients as long as they need us all. So we are around for surveys and we further educate and support and advise them. And we really enable to enable the companies to grow and flourish. Because our motto is ‘We want to be your trusted people partner’ and bring loyalty to your staff and your company’s people-dependent results. So it really that we almost take your hand and we make sure that once we leave, you are fully self-sufficient and you can keep improving your employees, one that can really help with productivity and retention.

Janina Neumann (32:36):
It’s been fantastic talking to you, Sari.

And you know, how can our listeners get in touch with you and perhaps also work with you?

Sari Vanska (32:59):
People are in LinkedIn. They can find me and my company in LinkedIn just by using my name, Sari Vanska. S-A-R-I V-A-N-S-K-A, just the spelling. And the company, of course, was Muutos. M-U-U-T-O-S. Or if they want to email me, they can send an email to sari@muutos.co.uk or they can, of course, give me a call +44 771 200 1911. So those are the most essential of the best methods. Our website is being constructed or to be redesigned and you can see our old offerings there, but we come up with a brand new website, if you want to have a look at it how it stands now, it is muutos.co.uk. So think those are all the methods people can get hold of me.

Janina Neumann (34:00):
Ah fantastic, Sari. Well thank you so much for sharing all those insights with us and it’s been such a pleasure talking to you. You’ve given me more of an insight into different aspects of culture, and I really enjoyed it.

Sari Vanska (34:25):
Thank you. It’s been really lovely to speak to you. I always like talking with people who have the same sort of background, the multicultural background and bilingual or so. And I love talking to you always, so thank you for inviting me here. It has been a real pleasure.

Janina Neumann (34:41):
Ah yeah, I feel the same. I love talking to you, Sari.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, why not subscribe to The Bicultural Podcast?

Ways of subscribing