Meet Helsinki Debating Society: "Debating Forces You to Be Critical and Question Your Own Thinking"

The University of Helsinki has over 250 different clubs and societies ranging from singing to sports and creative writing. We here at Her Campus want to get to know them better, and to start this mission off, we sat down with Johanna Metsänheimo and Kaisa Hyry from Helsinki Debating Society. What is debating all about and what makes is such great fun?

Helsinki Debating Society was established in 2001, but it’s especially in recent years that debating has really taken off in Helsinki and more widely in Finland. HDS organizes weekly debates that anyone can attend, regardless of prior experience. When Metsänheimo, a political science major, and Hyry, who’s doing a double degree in international relations and law, started doing debating in 2013 they were also entirely new to it.

"I had tried Model United Nations once and was a bit disappointed in myself so I wanted to get better at speaking English and thought that debating would be good practice. Later I realized that there’s actually a lot more to it than simply speaking," Hyry recalls.

The language of the society, English, and its international outlook is also what makes Helsinki Debating Society special amongst other student organizations in Helsinki.

"We do everything in English, not just the debates but also picnics, movie nights and other activities that we organize. We also have a very diverse and international group of people from all walks of life attending our weekly debates, which makes it really interesting," Metsänheimo says.

Helsinki Debating Society debates in the British Parliamentary style, which means that debaters are divided into two teams, each comprising four members. One side defends the proposition, i.e. the argument made in the topic of the debate, while the other opposes it. Debaters are given a quarter of an hour to come up with arguments and prepare for the debate. Topics vary from political issues to economics, art and culture. Weighing the benefits of capitalism against communism is a classic, according to Hyry and Metsänheimo, whereas a more current topic could for instance be the possible Finnish membership in NATO. The result of the debate, where each team takes turns in making their case, is announced at the end by a judge overseeing the debate.

What makes debating interesting is that people never get to decide what side they’re representing.

"It’s really eye-opening because it forces you to see things from the other angle, to consider other options and question your own thinking. You become aware of your own views and how sometimes you have a really strong opinion about something, but can’t really provide good reasoning for it," Hyry says.

Metsänheimo concurs: "After the debates, you often go home and find yourself thinking about the debate topic for the rest of the evening, considering it from all possible angles."

Through debating you also become more aware of current affairs and the validity of arguments used to either defend or oppose heated topics in society. For that reason, Hyry and Metsänheimo recommend debating to basically anyone with an interest in what’s going on in the world and how other people perceive it, as well as a desire to challenge yourself and your views. According to Metsänheimo, people who are interested in debating tend to be open-minded and curious, which creates a great atmosphere among participants, both in weekly debates and in competitions or tournaments. The importance of the community and the discussions it fosters are also something that Hyry cites as the best aspects of debating.

Even though the thought of speaking about a random topic that you might not even know so much about for five to seven minutes might sound scary, Hyry and Metsänheimo say that you quickly gain confidence and the skills needed to be able to tackle difficult topics under pressure.

"Once you get used to speaking in front of people with just fifteen minutes’ preparation about virtually anything, doing that presentation in class no longer feels like a feat. In debating, you develop really fast," Hyry says.

HDS members have also successfully taken part in numerous international competitions, among others the World University Debating Championships and the Cambridge Open, to mention just a few. Together with the Aalto university debating society, Aalto Debating, HDS organizes Helsinki Open which takes place every spring. The tournament has gained wider attention in recent years both in Finland and abroad and its good reputation and quality debates have attracted participants from all over the world. In addition to this, HDS trains high school students in debating and helps out newer debating societies in the country.

During the last couple of years debating, which in Finland has generally been associated with British and American schools and universities, has become more widely known and the future of debating here looks bright.  

"I think it’s great that in the space of only a couple of years we’ve gone from a situation where hardly anyone knew about debating to one where more and more universities have debating teams and people are genuinely interested in it. We now have even a national association, the Finnish National Debating Association. Hopefully this means that in the future debating will be more widely taught in high school, for instance. Argumentation and critical thinking are important skills for anyone in our current society," Hyry concludes.

If you’re interested in joining Helsinki Debating Society, or simply attending one of their weekly debates, check out the HDS website or Facebook for more information.