Translated: my interview in an Icelandic newspaper

As an expert in the field, Britta Bohlinger is interested in fraud and risk. She focuses on finance, politics and business. Britta, who previously worked for investment banks and a broker dealer in London, is now settling down here in Iceland. She blogs about Icelandic society and wants to connect with the academic and political areas of the population, with a view to providing benefit to the community.

“There is no particular romantic reason for coming to Iceland. I wasn’t in love with one of the common pull factors or anything like that”, says fraud and risk expert Britta Bohlinger.

We are in a cafe in Reykjavik, surrounded by the headquarters and high rise buildings of the Icelandic financial district. Britta was born in Germany, not far from the border with both Switzerland and France, but after graduating from university in the UK and eight years of working in the fast-paced investment banking sector in London, she no longer wanted to be part of this particular environment.

“Some say, one year in this business equals seven normal years”, she says smilingly. “It’s an intense and demanding world that I entered while still doing my social sciences post-graduate degree, not being from a family of bankers. It has undoubtedly given me a different and critical view of the financial sector, certainly very different from what tends to be the norm, in places such as the City of London.”

Not very long ago, Britta lost both her parents shortly after they had reached retirement age, and she says it has affected her way of looking at things.

“I wondered what I wanted to do and achieve in life, and how I could make an impact. After I left the bank I travelled and visited various countries, including Iceland. I could see myself here, and now this is my second winter here.  What’s more, I did see that Iceland responded relatively quickly to legal proceedings related to the collapse, a number of bankers went to prison. I know well that the outside world has taken note of these issues and sometimes with admiration, but it doesn’t always quite match the experience Icelanders themselves had. I do try to see it realistically, not in a rosy light.”

The strength of the Icelandic society lies in its small size, but it also results in certain risks. Short lines of communication are often a good thing, but a close-knit society can also create gray areas.

“This is a small community with relatively high equality, which I consider extremely significant pillars, especially after living in London where inequality has been strikingly high, with a shrinking middle. With the economic balance comes a certain pressure and political willingness to take on certain issues. This crucial feature of the Icelandic society has been demonstrated since the collapse and is likely to continue.

Iceland, however, is part of a globalized world where crime occurs across borders. The situation in distant countries can affect us here in Iceland, with immigration impacting the economy, and other areas.”

German native Britta Bohlinger does not appear particularly impressed with the Icelandic common phrase “Þetta reddast – It will work out.”. She says it is important to try to anticipate which areas of the society may become exposed to the risk of fraud, tax evasion and corruption and how it can preferably be prevented or at least mitigated. It is always better to act before the damage is done.

“Risk and fraud both carry negative meaning, it is therefore vital that those who work in the financial and political sector realize the consequences resulting from a failure of mapping the risk of fraud”, says Britta.

She left work within the internal controls divisions of large investment banks with limited confidence in this side of the operation. Major scandals, such as the recent case of Wells Fargo bank accounts debacle in the US, support this impression.

Ethics and moral values blend into this debate and how we grow the essential characteristics within the school system and society.

“If we take the financial sector as an example, the discussion of ethics is often very abstract, rarely embedded within the daily work of those who work in the sector. It is key though, to link the activity of the individual to any consequences it may entail. We live in a society based on ethics and trust, but perhaps we do little to think about how these aspects color our daily lives and how central they are in glueing and keeping the community together.

Another problem in this respect is the supervisory challenge the government faces. The revolving door and related brain-drain which impact regulatory bodies, tend to go in one direction, with experts in regulation moving over to the corporations that the regulator is supposed to supervise. Banks usually offer significantly higher financial incentives than the financial supervisory entities. “

A new yet familiar image of Icelanders celebrating the boom with champagne may evoke a similar fury as it did before the crisis in 2007. Tourism is fueling this new economic boom, paralleled by rising property prices and housing costs, many people are asking themselves whether Iceland has established a new bubble.

“I, like others, see that there are certain warning signs – red flags,” says Britta. “There is great pressure on the Icelandic society, these challenges require that Icelanders remain vigilant: rising property prices and rents, the large numbers of travelers, for example, impact the working conditions and terms of employment. Awareness of the risk of corruption has increased here after the collapse, yet the debate has been limited, it seems to me. Pressures related to tourism contribute also to a risk of unhealthy trading practices, tax evasion, illegal employment and a potentially overall weakening of the legal status of workers, in certain sectors. This is well known abroad [for instance London and New York where human trafficking presents a severe and growing issue], and it is critical for Iceland to increase awareness of these risks, in particular in times when such drastic and fast changes occur.”

This profile feature interview Vill finna glufurnar í íslensku samfélagi (Will find cracks in the Icelandic society) was published in Icelandic on Fréttatíminn (Newstime) of 17/18th February 2017 and was available at the time of publishing here  (see also Interview PDF) and is still available on the newspaper’s Facebook page. Fréttatíminn became defunct in April 2017, its chief editor created a new political party.

Cross-border community in times of crime

The personal, the societal, the international
When thousands of Icelanders, expats, tourists and exchange students gathered in a memorial walking, the temperatures well below freezing, the mood was calm, quiet and collected. Participants united in a walk towards the point where Birna Brjánsdóttir had last been seen – by public cameras – to place flowers and candles at this spot, and at Arnarhóll, Reykjavik’s historically, culturally and geographically central hill.

What I gathered was quiet compassion and a distinct warmth, a shared sense of this being a real and symbolic loss to a community that rarely suffers any violent losses, in particular when taking an international perspective (New York Times coverage).  Memorial events had also taken place in Greenland’s capital Nuuk, and further Greenlandic towns, as well as the Faroe Islands.

Role of community: Gemeinschaft, cohesion and cultural norms
Community and collective effort in this extremely rare case of violent crime (Iceland’s remarkably low crime rate, OSAC report 2015) have been enormous. The search-and-rescue operation for missing Birna, had been similar to those in the more frequent events of lost hikers, which entail considerable and concerted collective efforts. Here in Iceland, the planet’s most peaceful nation‘s police officers carry no firearms, the military budget constitutes 0.1% of the GDP and the country has no national military force or army.  That makes the significant and effective role of civic engagement and community become even more obvious.

While Icelanders may deem this the national norm, anyone who grew up elsewhere or lived in a society that is marked by more fragmentation, separation, anonymity and lack of cohesion will have been touched by the quiet power of what German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies coined Gemeinschaft.  Outsourcing of certain tasks and relying predominantly on or even exclusively on professional specialists is not an option.  This may be rooted in the geographical location and historically resulting from a strong sense of interdependence in a harsh climate and ever-present risks thanks to volcanic activity and other natural forces.

Violent and white-collar crime in transnational communities
The investigation of the violent crime has brought the aspect of community involvement to international audiences, the attention not least resulting from sustained all-time high interest by tourists. As mentioned in my previous article on tourism risk in Iceland and its characteristic two-way nature, the tragic loss of a young Icelandic woman raises awareness of usually much less visible links.

Iceland’s culture, informal norms, and practices show how civil society and community engagement encourage thought-provoking participation also in temporary visitors and those abroad, those who are maintaining an interest from the distance by the help of conventional and social media.

We also see how crime transgresses national borders.  It transfers from one nation, one island to another – in this case via the Greenlandic seafood trawler Polar Nanoq which had a substantial amount of drugs on board.  We may notice also how little known and understood Greenland’s societal issues are beyond the confines of the Nordic nations, and Nordic co-operation, such as the Arctic Council’s activities (2016 Assembly, panel on mental health issues). Greenland, not a member of the EU or Schengen Area, as the Faroe Islands, is subject to Danish authority, which includes border control issues, and immigration into Greenland.

The painful violent loss of a young woman’s life helps us further understand the vital role of community and civil society in resolving and preventing crime. In this sense, the police investigations, so far, have highlighted some interconnected aspects, such as:

Civil society engagement in both nations, Iceland and Greenland, at this time of shock and grief, have shown that the response and engagement of the wider society are absolutely vital in awareness-raising.  The resulting and ongoing discussion of meaningful ways, responses and mechanisms are central to effective prevention of future crimes, whether in Iceland or Greenland.

At the time of writing the case is still under investigation and a final report of the findings has not yet been published.

Environment and misconduct. The Icelandic approach.

Listen to the article 

Tourism a hundred years ago or so used to be totally different from what it is nowadays.  My maternal grandparents then also were no strangers to relocation and re-rooting.  They enjoyed travel thoroughly and up into their old age.  But their trips used to be longer – actually quite long, spanning often three, four or more weeks at a time. They immersed themselves and stayed in one place.  Their idea of holidaying was remotely resembling an anthropologist’s or ethnographer’s project, when the researcher “is going native” – which is a balancing act as they may lose objectivity. Suffice to say, my grandparents had a rather strong influence on what I would become…

As a result of very low airfares, seasonal collective escapism and the pressures of impression management, we see nowadays something that could be called fast food-style tourism.  Extended weekend trips, or even just a fifty hours visit, especially now at the year-end period, are becoming ever more common.

The Icelandic króna’s strength certainly contributes to this phenomenon.  Our weather here frequently welcomes travelers with wind speeds of 40-60 km/h which add to the issue.  Travelers tend to want to remain sheltered but enjoy the scenic views. Hiring the obligatory 4×4 and going on a selfie spree on moss in Icelandic lava fields seems a – sort of –  natural choice.

Tourists may not find the time to consult their travel guide and read up on the less exciting section with rules and warnings if they actually purchased one in the first place.  This is probably a by-product of being on some kind of budget and taking a short trip.  In addition, many may assume that a nation as widely fluent in English as Iceland, is rather very similar in their values and customs.  And this is where things potentially go wrong.

The legislation concerning off-road driving in Iceland is simple and warnings are issued in English, with hefty fines.  The number of cases has been increasing, though, and keeps making headlines.  Tourists have been found guilty of disrespecting and damaging the fragile nature by ignoring closed roads, by crossing rivers, and driving generally where they are not supposed to.  Extremely quickly changing weather conditions and tourists simply underestimating nature’s power have probably been playing a part in those incidents too.

The cases cover the whole range from amusing to quite unfortunate, some are just bizarre. Fines have been served, some rather steep, tourists have been rescued and an increasing number of warning signs and safety measures have been implemented.

Tourism risk (see also socio-cultural disadvantages such as social stress, United Nations Environment Program) goes both ways: tourists may be posing a risk to the environment but often also to themselves, which triggers more unfavorable comments as to the national rescue service (ICE-SAR) which is run by volunteers.  No doubt, tourism brings about change.  It raises awareness in those who travel and go back home, hopefully being rather more than less honest about misconceptions and cultural differences they were previously not so conscious of. But it also causes change in the locals.

Communication becomes the key to understanding what appears so hard to grasp – all the taken for granted, the common sense that appears to be missing in foreign tourists who litter, trample down what’s precious to nature and locals and ignore the rules that come naturally to the locals.  As often though, whether it is just a few “rotten apples” that give tourists a bad reputation in general or if it is a wider issue, perhaps even systemic, is not so easy to say. What seems to look like ignorance, arrogance, or inhibition thanks to being abroad and possibly intoxicated whether by alcohol, the scenery or else, is perhaps the root cause of this behavior. Again, this may be too simplified – but it is a common notion that shapes the discourse

Communication of values, expectations and boundaries is what is at the core of this issue. It could be argued that some of those may be reasonably assumed as shared across Northern European or even among Western industrialized nations.  But it may be a rather a misleading assumption that would overly rely on simplifications.

From within a most popular yet also very vulnerable tourist destination, I found the way Iceland has been handling the matter very persistent and it remains a curious aspect that may lead to wider subtle changes also among those visiting.  Iceland’s explicit encouragement to blow the whistle on misconduct is refreshing.   A nation that comprises of only 337,000 residents, yet expects 2.5 million tourists in 2017 simply needs to source its own crowd, more than any other nation, it seems.  It wouldn’t be the first time, as you may have heard, rewriting the nation’s constitution by sourcing the crowd  (Stjórnlagaráð 2011 ) was an attempt Icelanders were willing to make.

Locals, and foreign permanent residents alike, are fond and respectful of the fragile nature and while the weather can be brutal, beating you hard with rain, hail, sleet and strong wind, persistent darkness or daylight – anyone who has been outside the urban borders, in the more remote mountainous areas knows that litter (including human waste) and footprints live on for a long time.

Communicating repeatedly – in English –  that reporting misconduct to the police by noting the number plate and taking photos, is wanted and deemed useful.  Identifying and reporting environmental violations is citizens’ civic duty. Underpinned by media reports of fined drivers, the media coverage highlights, in detail, where drivers have transgressed the rules and how they caused damage to the nature – which could be deemed a way to educate the global public on this specific topic.

In this matter, as often, Iceland shows a pragmatic stance with an absence of passive-aggressive behavior.  Instead, the assertive approach sets clear boundaries and signals healthy collective self-esteem.  Quietly confident, Icelanders know what they want to achieve.  Absent from this picture are also the shaming and blaming, the lamenting and generalizing that can be found in some other countries – and tend to be counter-productive as they trigger predominantly resentment which is ineffective in the pursuit of actual behavioral change.

Culture certainly plays a huge role in handling and discouraging unwanted behavior and any attempts to discourage it or change the collective wrongdoing that groups of tourists may temporarily import.  However, swift and consistently acting upon it, including reporting of fines imposed and meaningful actions taken by the police, such as community service imposed, are underlining the credibility and  the sincerity of the approach.  They leave no doubt that the population is vigilant and protective of its valuable nature, thereby increasing the effective deterrent of penalty to be expected by tourists.

Tourists may come from very diverse socio-economic backgrounds and nations, legislation as to environmental crime may differ widely.  Their communities may place very different, perhaps much lower value on the nature, the natural environment, but also, perhaps on individual human beings as such.  Some tourists may hold lower self-esteem, whether individually or collectively, they may indeed also hold lower self-respect and lack the sense of respect for nature that is so deeply ingrained in the Icelandic culture.  This may not be changed overnight, nor by words alone. But these persistent actions speak louder and they may be one of the few long-lasting souvenirs that tourists take home, even if being fined for destructive driving is  financially painful – and community service  no glamorous fun – it may just stick.

The remarkable aspect is that this is no perfunctory act, not out of compliance with some imposed rule or piece of legislation by some regulatory or supra-national body that has been grudgingly implemented.  Rather, it is out of authentic deep-seated understanding and appreciation of the way Icelandic nature works and human-nature interaction is lived and perceived, how many decades are required in order to grow and restore what has been destroyed in a mindless moment, the blink of an eye.

Objectively considered, it may strike many fastfood-style tourists as an odd thing -realizing that what they have come to see took that long and is that valuable.  If their home is in a city that is scarce of nature and features human-built gardens and parks and very limited communal space, but an over-abundance of traffic and air pollution, too much artificial light and too little respect for genuine human needs, then it might be understandable, yet not excusable, that such behavior occurs.

The way this particular tourist misconduct is being dealt with is:

  • non-passive-aggressively,
  • without blaming and shaming, but
  • swiftly and consistently and
  • appropriately for the purpose of restoration and as collective self-protective measure.

It is an attitude that I hope so see being exported and adapted in other nations.  Reporting misconduct, fraud, corruption and other violations tend to remain negatively connoted, often deemed an act of betrayal rather than of deep loyalty and sense of duty.  Instead of focusing on improvement and whistle-blowing as natural civic duty, reporting misconduct remains in many jurisdictions burdened with layers of bureaucracy, lack of efficient and effective judicial commitment as well as slow and ineffective law enforcement.

Who says that lessons learned from managing tourism risk and blowing the whistle on environmental violations can not be transferred to other areas and industries?

Iceland voted. The world watches – what’s lost in translations?

Following Iceland’s parliamentary elections on 29th October , the amount of international attention, support and scrutiny this event has been achieving is stunning. Far more, it seems, than the early presidential election was attracting, which took place on 25th June this year, in the midst of Iceland’s UEFA Euro 2016 success.

In particular, media coverage by the U.S., the British press and the German media is shaping public opinions.  Depending on their audiences and political standing, the views range from fairly enthusiastic to outright pessimistic.  Nations who have little or no experience with successful governmental coalitions color their coverage accordingly. A good selection of specific articles to gain a flavor in English and German has been reviewed and collected for this article:  The New York Times, Reuters US, the Financial Times UK, the Guardian, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), der Spiegel, die ZeitSueddeutsche Zeitung.  Voter turnout figures can be accessed and compared to previous years via ElectionGuide  and IDEA.

Below: Icelandic daily papers: spilaborg means Kartenhaus in German but its actual reference in this context is House of Cards.

20161101_093259.jpg

In light of the fact that Iceland hosted about 1.6 million tourists this year and many of them have discovered or renewed their love of the nation, debates across social media are thriving.  In addition, many individuals from pre-election North America. and post-Brexit Britain are declaring interest to immigrate, ask for details and clarifications in social media and take a keen interest in the government formation process.

With an informed estimate of 2 million tourists expected in 2017, paying attention to foreign voices and opinions here is vital.  After all, Icelandic is not the language tourists tend to speak or understand. Salaries, wages and cost of living are often quoted in Icelandic krona (ISK), the local currency, with a rough estimate usually given in Euro or US Dollar. Unfortunately, foreign audiences tend to quickly jump to conclusions, failing to acknowledge that

  1. currency fluctuations are high
  2. the Icelandic living standard including aspects such as the minimum wage, taxation etc differ considerably from other nations such as the U.S. and Britain.

A nation’s reputation can be put at risk by mis-translations and misconceptions which in turn translates into expectations and assumptions incompatible with the actual reality. This in turn may translate into investment risk. In more detail:

A notion of Icelanders voting for an unstable governmental situation could potentially put off investors or pose risks to ongoing and new projects which rely on predictable policies, functional and effective governmental decision-making and dependable leadership.  The ability to borrow at affordable terms (c.f. German Bonds), expressed in a nation’s sovereign credit rating, is central to its functioning in international markets.  Iceland is currently rated A3 with stable outlook by ratings agency Moody’s – a rating that was only upgraded in June 2016 though (c.f. also Iceland’s Central Bank statement in English which does not yet reflect the latest change by Moody’s).

Forming a stable government and being perceived as able and willing to do so efficiently and effectively is not only important for the population of about of 332,000 people who have been enjoying the tourist boom as “a mixed bag” to quote a presenter at the Assembly of the Arctic Circle earlier in October 2016.  Rather, it also plays a role in light of the approved lift of capital controls imposed after its three largest banks collapsed in the financial crisis:

“On 11 October 2016, Althingi passed a bill, introduced by the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs, amending Act No. 87/1992 on Foreign Exchange. With the Act, which is part of the authorities‘ capital account liberalisation strategy from June 2015, important steps are taken to lift capital controls in full. Controls on resident and non-resident individuals and legal entities will be markedly eased in two steps; first upon passage of the bill on 21 October and second on 1 January 2017.
[…]  Individuals are also allowed to purchase one real estate per calendar year and the requirement that residents repatriate foreign currency has been scaled down. On 1 January 2017, the aforementioned ceiling will be raised from 30 m.kr. to 100 m.kr. and transfers of deposits will be permissible subject to the same ceiling.”

Assumptions and mis-translations on the level of connotation rather than denotation belong to the most severe risks organizations and nations, but also individuals, can run. Actively communicating and managing the resulting misconceptions can be extremely difficult as the distortions remain often obscure, subconscious and seemingly minor.

However, they build up over time and as they become repeatedly re-communicated by large numbers they can solidify what would else have remained indeed a minor aspect of conversations uniting numerous non-native speakers.  However, in countries where dubbing of interviews, rather than subtitling, is common practice and audiences are denied access to the original statement, conveying much more than just words, the power shifts towards what the media outlet wants its audiences to hear (c.f. the IceSave debacle most unprofessionally communicated in the British media, BBC newsnight interview ).

As nation, Iceland is fluent in English – predominantly but not exclusively – and versed with linguistic and cultural differences between British and American English as well as the underlying cultural specifics.  Many Icelanders understand or even speak German and are also familiar with national perceptions and particularities.

The reverse does not necessarily apply, though.  Icelanders, in light of their limited number, may be restricted in their efforts and capabilities to correct misconceptions and misrepresentations resulting from language barriers or foreigners’ misconceptions. Icelanders hold different expectations of their business partners and guests, harshly advising them on mistakes or erroneous assumptions is not part of the national mentality. Awareness building and capacity building remain challenges Icelanders will encounter with growing numbers of tourist and virtual visitors.  Reputation risk may move up the priority list and gain a more prominent spot on the agenda, being more actively managed and valued as potential opportunity.