Common mess rooms on Finnish ships promote multicultural coexistence

Finnish cargo ships with crews of Finnish, Estonian and Philippine crewmembers have a polite host-guest dynamic. Even with the mixed crew, the ships are considered Finnish, and for example mealtimes follow Finnish customs. According to ethnologist Anne Ala-Pöllänen, the egalitarian shared mess room on Finnish ships promotes the development of the crew into a harmonious, tolerant community.

In her doctoral dissertation, MA Anne Ala-Pöllänen studies the life of the crews on cargo ships sailing under Finnish flag. The ships carried mixed crews with three different nationalities – Finnish, Estonian and Philippine – in the same crew. Such mixed crews are a fairly new phenomenon on board Finnish ships, as Finland was the last EU country to allow non-EU citizens to work on its ships. The dissertation is based on field work conducted on three cargo ships under Finnish flag between 2013 and 2015. The research focuses on the development of cooperation and daily life among the crew.

Different fears and concepts of hierarchy

The Finns and Filipinos had different concepts of hierarchy. The Finns preferred an egalitarian paradigm, while the Philippine crew members were used to a clearer division of labour and hierarchically defined positions. However, in certain less formal situations the situation was reversed. For example, during meal times, Finnish crewmembers would sit in their assigned seats while their Philippine co-workers moved around the mess room more freely.

The collegial spirit among the crew was eroded, however, by the fears the Finnish crew had for their jobs. Their Philippine co-workers, meanwhile, worried about having fewer benefits, as they received less pay than others and had fixed-term contracts.

A polite host-guest dynamic

On the Finnish ships, the mixed crew was divided into two groups along cultural lines, with different nationalities primarily socialising amongst themselves. This differs from most international ships where the custom is to form the crews from more than three nationalities. Studies indicate that if each nationality has relatively few representatives, it becomes easier to make friends across nationalities, hierarchies and departments.

On Finnish mixed-crew ships, coexistence had a polite host-guest dynamic: everyone got to know one another, but relationships were careful and distant. The ships are still primarily Finnish. For example, work and mealtimes follow customs which are typical of Finnish ships.

Lack of independence among the Philippine crew?

One of the challenges for smooth cooperation was the work of the Philippine deck officers. The Finns and Estonians thought that the Philippine officers lacked independence and no tasks requiring initiative could be assigned to them, even though such duties are required of a first officer.  This is explained by the fact that the Philippine crew are backed by their government’s system which sends its citizens abroad for work. Many of the virtues emphasised by the crew, such as adaptability and self-sacrifice, can be thought to derive from that system. In addition, the attitude of the Philippine officers towards their work is coloured by the fact that many of them are the primary providers for their families. The fear of losing their jobs can cause risk-averse behaviour, which in turn contributes to their reputation as insecure workers who lack initiative. Shipyards also primarily contacted the Finnish officers, further marginalising the Philippine officers and engineers.

Shared mess rooms and clear rules promote happy coexistence

 “Nevertheless, my study suggests that the Finnish mixed-crew ships have the potential for developing into a system which supports the crew becoming a cohesive, tolerant community,” says Anne Ala-Pöllänen. “One of the factors contributing to this is the shared mess room, typical of Finnish ships, which does not separate the officers from the crew. In addition, the encouragement to spend free time together as well as clear rules at work help the individuals acclimatise to the multicultural environment.”

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Information on the dissertation.

In the video Anne Ala-Pöllänen tells why she got interested in this topic (in Finnish).