Torstila noted in the same speech that Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, also employed the tactic as Finland’s ambassador to Tanzania in the 1970s: “The Tanzanian Foreign Minister John Malecela, who later on became Tanzania’s prime minister, was a regular visitor in the Ambassador’s sauna.” Torstila explained: “Decisions and negotiations take less time in the high heat. Sauna cools down overexcitement and melts away political differences.”
Serious negotiations inside a sauna are rare, however. In the D.C. embassy, the sauna serves as more of a medium for cultural exchange. Kangasharju herself curates guest lists of up to 25 people a month to visit it, and she tries to get a coed mix of Washington professionals, mainly journalists and politicians, particularly those associated with the Friends of Finland Congressional caucus. Almost everyone there when I went was between 35 and 55 years old; at 26, I was both the youngest and least-established person at the event. (I had heard about the society from a stranger in a coffee shop and phoned the embassy to ask whether, as an Atlantic employee, I could attend and write an article about it. The person in charge of cultural relations turned me down, so I tried my luck with the person in charge of press relations, who turned out to be Kangasharju. She said the guest list was full, so the sauna would be “cramped,” but she would “squeeze me in.”)
As a networking soiree, the event was simultaneously sweatier and less slimy than others I’ve attended. Guests were first treated to “flowers”—specialty drinks composed of Finlandia cranberry vodka mixed with pink lemonade. That was followed by an authentic Finnish dinner of gravlax with mustard sauce, smoked salmon, potato salad, beef meatballs, and glazed carrots, with a dessert of cheesecake topped with fresh berries.
After dinner, my male dining companions and I headed for the main event. (The women took their sauna separately.) The sauna itself was so dark and foggy that I couldn’t see more than three feet in front of me. The room was a double decker, and all but two of the men sat on the second deck. After a toast with Bud Lights (Kippis, as the Finnish say), we went around the room introducing ourselves and explaining how we ended up at the Finnish embassy that night. A few of the men were founding members of the society, on Mokko’s original guest list. Others were either Finnish nationals, journalists who had interviewed Finnish diplomats and were subsequently put on the guest list, or Hill staffers whose connections to Finland were never clarified.
All seemed to be there to unwind, and the conversation did in fact revolve around Finnish culture. I learned that the American ambassador to Finland, Bruce Oreck, is the unique diplomat who has tattoos and body piercings. I also got confirmation that Finnish people generally only greet each other once a day; an American expat in Finland recently recounted in The Atlantic his experience being corrected for greeting a colleague he had already said “hi” to earlier.
Clearly, then, the event achieved its goal of enhancing knowledge about Finnish culture. Kangasharju explained to me her belief that sauna diplomacy works because of its relaxed nature, and in fact it was easy to see how the locker-room-like setting could facilitate trust in a way that can’t be achieved in an austere conference room. Maybe other diplomats could learn something from this. In the meantime, I’ve earned my sauna diploma.