How to Understand an Estonian?

To align our expectations about this blog, let me start by telling you what we, Estonians are like.

Then just add to this equation some international relations experience, studying in Spain, multiply it by extensive travelling, being married to a Brazilian and, voila, there you have me!

The person giving voice to this blog will be this very me, trying to make sense of the world through the multicolored lenses that life has given me and travels have helped to shape. So please remember that all my stories come from a place of conscious subjectivity, with a pinch of creativity to spice things up.

So, let us get started. This is how I would sum up an average Estonian:

  1. No Nonsense

Primarily, we, Estonians are practical and do not have a high tolerance for any nonsense. Rational is always the wiser (and safer) option, as opposed to emotional. This has a direct effect on the way we express ourselves. Less is always more. It is best to be concise, to the point and completely direct.

Speaking in circles or talking one’s ear off is considered not only annoying but also point-blank disrespectful. Everybody knows that time and energy are very limited resources, so we try to use them as efficiently as possible. We can also logically establish here that Estonians are not very good in small talk.

  1. Silence is Golden

An Estonian will not cut anyone off in a conversation, talk louder, or fight for attention. A polite Estonian waits for silence, a question or simply their turn to talk. If they have something to say, that is.

Whether we have something to say or not is determined by two main factors: the degree of self-consciousness of each individual and whether we believe we will contribute with something essential to what is already being said. If not, it is better to stay quiet. Even old folks knew that “talking is silver, silence is golden” (“rääkimine hõbe, vaikimine kuld”- in Estonian).

  1. Sincerious

Sincerious is a word my husband spontaneously invented one afternoon to describe me. It is a combination of the words sincere and serious.

I guess this goes for most Estonians. We are serious people – hardworking, responsible, rule-obedient, simple and transparent. If we make a promise, we will keep it. No additional conditions apply. The same goes for being on time and showing up for appointments.

Moreover, many things worry us. We even tend to use the verb “to worry” in the meaning of “to obtain”. For example, having (worrying) children, getting (worrying) a job, or buying (worrying) an apartment. All serious stuff, not to be taken lightly.

However, when we do say something to you, we most definitely mean it. This is the sincere part. We might seem cold and rough on the outside but tend to be like a warm, fuzzy puppy, yearning for acceptance on the inside. Therefore, if an emotion or affection gets through, you can bet it is a genuine one and, in many cases, lasts a lifetime.

  1. Not Religious but Quite Spiritual

Estonia is considered to be one of the least religious countries in the world. One of the reasons is that after having been occupied by so many different nations throughout history, we have developed a certain reluctance to any kind of foreign influence dictating us how to live and what to think.

However, we do have a native faith called Estonian indigenous Paganism, Neopaganism or Maausk. On average, it means we have a very strong connection to the nature and earth. The divine is often identified with nature itself. Rather than the God, Estonians believe in some sort of spirit or life force.

We believe, for example, that hugging trees can give you energy and even heal. We like to stroll in forests and bogs to relax and we use different herbs for curing a cold. We love to eat fresh fruit, vegetables and berries that pour out of our grandparents’ gardens in autumn. That huge dose of vitamins is probably what helps us survive the cold and dark winter. Moreover, we tend to adjust our rhythm of life to each season of the year, as the climate conditions can differ drastically.

  1. Curious About the World

As a small nation on the verge of Europe, we make a significant effort to let the world know that we exist. We study very hard, speak several foreign languages, travel often and are generally very curious about the world and its cultures.

Of course, I cannot NOT mention here the favorite quote of Estonians by Ernst Hemingway, who seems to have met quite a lot of us on his way: “In every port in the world, at least two Estonians can be found.”

When there is no Hemingway around, we do not get tired of explaining that, yes, Estonia is in the European Union, we are situated between Finland, Sweden, Latvia and Russia; or, no, we do not speak Russian, we speak Estonian, which is similar to Finnish. In addition, you probably do not know that we can vote, park our car, get a doctor’s prescription and sign documents digitally. Moreover, Skype was invented by Estonians!

  1. Personal Space

Although curious, Estonians need their personal space. Quite a lot of it. We do not speak about personal stuff easily. It is much more convenient to have conversations about the news, weather, politics or world events.

We greet new people with a handshake and this is the closest you are going to get. Friends, family, and situations that include considerable amounts of alcohol are an exception here, of course. Alcohol is an especially interesting case. It seems to turn Estonians into great speechmakers, dancers and very affectionate, sentimental people.

Our home is our fortress. This is the only place in the world where we feel completely safe, relaxed and okay to be our true selves without any expectations or social strings attached. We do not invite other people to our home easily.

Nevertheless, when we finally do, it means they have somehow become very important to us. In that case, you can be sure the visit is preceded by a couple of days of thorough cleaning and cooking. We take hospitality very seriously. Even so seriously, we often become so tired that we have to admit: “Guests are beloved twice: when they come and when they go.”

Think that any essential points are missing here? – Write a comment and let me know! 🙂

67 Comments Add yours

  1. Žiga says:

    I appreciated the very smart and upright description of the average Estonian. Being a well traveled European recently settled in Brazil myself, I find your blog an interesting source of insights as to how other “new” Brazilians are faring. I will make sure to follow your future posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Žiga! I am happy that you liked it 🙂 Have you been to Estonia too? Anyway, I will post a new text soon. I also created a Facebook page, to be able to stay in touch easily and notify about new posts: facebook.com/livingitbrazilian 🙂

      Like

  2. After reading your post, I thought that I’m maybe more Estonian than Brazilian, and this is utterly bizarre. It says on my birth certificate that I’m Brazilian, but I don’t know… 🙂
    I do not identify with the local group, and that sucks sometimes.
    I lived in Ireland for a while, and I awkwardly felt more at home over there than here in many occasions.
    Most of the Brazilian stereotypes don’t apply to me. I don’t like the carnival, not good at football at all, I always keep my promises, I’m punctual, not always happy, and I’m biologically incapable of dancing hahah…

    Thanks for sharing things about you and your people. I’m following your facebook page, and I can hardly wait for new posts.

    Like

    1. Thank you, Adalberto, for sharing! That is actually quite comforting to know! Some more posts will be coming soon, I promise 🙂

      Like

  3. CarlW says:

    As a foreigner living in Estonia now for 8 years, I relate to your description. But will add that Estonians appear to be very suspicious of foreigners. Also regarding personal space, I understand this but find it odd while in public space, such as at the grocery store check out, I find this personal space trait is forgotten. What I mean by this is I find in lineups Estonians will get a close as possible as they fear someone might sneak in between them and the person ahead of them. I am constantly turning around to this close person and giving them the stone face stare (which I have learnt from Estonians) to give me my space. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are right! I guess the queue phenomenon is still a leftover from the Soviet era. It is quite annoying, I agree! And loved your comment about the stone face stare hahahahaha XD I know exactly what you mean, it comes in handy here in Brazil sometimes too. Works like magic in uncomfortable situations!

      Like

    2. Astrid says:

      Queues in stores… Maybe the explanation for this is the end of Soviet time. Nothing in stores, we stayed for hours in lineups to have bread, milk etc. With tickets… And I remember as a child everybody tried to sneak in, take my place. So yes, we were afraid to loose our place. So it must be unconscious.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I must say, the same thing happens in Brazil too! Lots of queues everywhere, and there’s always someone trying to be “cleverer” than others and jump the queue 😋

        Like

  4. jana says:

    estonians say, ” we can´t say anything bad”. We don´t say something good for other. 🙂

    Like

    1. Liina says:

      Kuidas see siis eesti keeles kõlaks?

      Like

      1. Lepp says:

        Ilmselt on mõeldud, et:”Kui sul midagi head öelda pole, ära ütle üldse midagi.”

        Like

      2. Liina, ma arvan, et Jana ehk m[tles: Pole midagi halba öelda. Ehk et me pole kiitmises kuigi head 🙂

        Like

  5. kkristella says:

    Reblogged this on Hispaania! and commented:
    (At the dining table) Friend: Are you ok? You’ve barely said one word tonight!? Me: Ah, you now just waiting for my turn here. True story. Every. Single. Time. 🙂

    Like

  6. Pille-Riin Kriisa says:

    I think you also forgot to mention that we do not say “Hi,how are you!?” We say just “Hi” if we want to greet you and actually do not care how you are (in case you are a complete stranger). But if we do ask “How you are” we do not want an answer “Fine”. We expect you to tell us exactly how your feel, what are you thinking of and how is your family.
    I actually find it a better way to communicate than having hundreds of people asking me every day how I am …and we both know that no one actually cares, it is just a form of strange politeness 🙂 #ProudEstonian lets keep it real!

    Like

    1. That is true Pille-Riin! We do ask that only when we really want to know. However, with a stranger it can work as an ice breaker, so I think both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages 🙂

      Like

      1. ehh says:

        That’s not true. If estonian asks how you are it means, it can only be positive. They don’t care (I’m an estonian).

        Like

  7. redfox says:

    I would like to add, that we can sometimes be snarky and sarcastic, and our humor is not easy to understand and not the softest kind, but that´s just because we read a lot (a LOT, highest number of libraries per capita in the world) and if someone doesnt understand our references we get a little annoyed. Even if they couldnt possibly know our local authors. Also, we can endlessly quote lines from estonian movies, like “John, lase vesi välja!” or “Mitu korda ma ühte ja sama meest pean [maha lööma, vallandama, välja viskama jne]. But we mean well even with snarkyness! We just want to make you laugh! We really dont see anything bad in sarcasm. It is just that we expect the whole world to be as smart as we are… (that was also sarcasm. Actually, our grammar is getting so bad it has grown mold on it.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree with you! Our humor can be a bit offending to other cultures sometimes…

      Like

  8. Marcus Sundman says:

    The part about showing up for appointments is completely wrong!

    Let’s say you talk with your Estonian friend and agree to go to check out that new lunch place at 12.30 on Thursday next week. If neither of you talk about it again then then the Estonian won’t show up. For some inexplicable reason they will think that the plans were cancelled!

    This was, and still is, one of the biggest cultural shocks for me since I moved to Estonia. I keep forgetting that I need to send a message every once in a while saying that the plans are still on.

    Like

    1. haha Weird, im Estonian and if we make such plans and we dont talk in between I would also think the plans are cancelled 😀 Usually I would most likely ask you beforehand though.

      Like

      1. Marcus Sundman says:

        Yes, but if you ask only a day before, or on the same day, then the Estonian might have made other plans by then and will thus have to cancel your meeting. So you kinda have to keep reminding the Estonian that the plans are still on.
        Maybe one could get google calendar to send automatic reminders to Estonians once per day or so…

        Like

    2. Haha, that is surprising to hear! Maybe I am already outdated about how things work in Estonia… 😛

      Like

  9. For more generalizations on Estonians and their behaviour, I just read a book titled “The Xenophobes Guide to Estonians”. Some of what you wrote in your blog is there, but you expanded on some other areas. I enjoyed reading your insights. Helps explain some of my behaviour.

    Like

    1. Thank you for your comment, Stephen! I am glad to know that you find my post interesting! 🙂

      Like

  10. Mushin says:

    Thats very accurate description of a typical estonian imo. However I felt the need to remind everybody, that differences between generations are quite big. 50 year old estonian is very different than 20 year old.

    Like

  11. Marie Palobart says:

    Je vis avec un estonien… C est en effet une description tres fidèle de mon homme!!!!
    Je suis au contraire très prise par mes émotions et en cela il m appaise énormément.
    On se marie dans un mois et avec notre bébé c est le plus beau cadeau au monde qu il puisse me faire!

    Like

    1. Hi Marie, I am sorry I am not fluent in French but I hope you don’t mind that I respond in English 🙂 I am very happy to know that you identified with my post! Other cultures can be at time pretty tricky to deal with, but once you do, you always end up learning a great deal. Congratulations to you both! 🙂

      Like

  12. Mikk says:

    Estonians use the word “normal” in the way Americans use”fine”. Ask an Estonian “How’s it going?” (“Kuidas läheb?”) and if he or she has nothing to complain of, the reply is liable to be “normaalselt” (“normally”). Generally, if things are just fine, an Estonian is likely to just be quiet about it; after all, it’s just “normal”; no effusive praise like Americans tend to emit. On the other hand, if things are NOT “normal”, Estonians tend to complain quire vocally while Americans tend to fall silent. Just my observations as an American-Estonian on my visits to the home country.

    Like

    1. Hi, Mikk! Good observation, I agree with you! 🙂

      Like

  13. goingourownwayblog says:

    As an Estonian living in London for a decade already, i find being in Estonia very relaxing. I love the no small talk bs and get to the point attitude. Very refreshing. Time and energy are not wasted on the unnecessary stuff. Let’s go pick berries in silence instead and just be. 🙂

    Like

    1. Hahaha, I agree with you! While I have to adapt to my surroundings and sometimes change my old habits, I definitely prefer the honest & efficient approach myself! 😉

      Like

  14. Hello my name is Jose Mario Calero Vizcaino and I am a Mexican that married an Estonian Anni Oja. Now we have a daughter Emma and we live in Estonia since 4 years approximately. Anni and I we both identified with your text. It is interesting to perceive that the personality of a nations population can be described in brief paragraphs and points. I recon I would have liked to keep on reading but suddenly the text ended, I suggest a second part would be nice.

    Like

    1. Hola José Mario, disculpa por la demora en responderte!!! Estaba de vacaciones y ni me enteré que estaban acontecendo tantas cosas en mi blog 🙂 Gracias por tu comentário! Me alera muchísimo saber que identificasteis con mi post sobre los estonianos! Y claro, tienes razon, esto era un texto muy breve, para explicar la esencia de una nación se necesitará por lo menos un libro, no? Si tienes ideas para una segunda parte de mi texto, están muy bienvenidos! Saludos y gracias otra vez!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Robert Austin Kelly says:

    Wonderful post!! 😃

    I found myself relating intensely. Although not a native Estonian (Irish) I have also been profoundly aware of the difference between low impact cultures such as ours and the high impact Brazilian culture. Rational and direct, valuing silence and personal space, sincerious… haha! I most certainly identify.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Robert! I am happy to hear that! I am doing my best to adapt, but those core things, I sometimes feel that I just cannot compromise.. hahaha

      Like

  16. maspolin says:

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    Liked by 1 person

  17. clare says:

    I have met a estonian man and i noticed he has little facial expression yet he is really polite, i do not know if he’s truly happy or he is just being polite. it’s hard to tell ..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a very accurate observation, Clare! I agree, it can be very hard to tell even for Estonian couples that have been together for decades! 😆

      Like

  18. I am ‘diaspora’ Estonian, A Canadian. Creativity, Artistic, Designers- are all words to describe our innate natural talent to make, think, build. I have not met a fellow Estonian who does not practice ART in some form. Music is a whole other conversation. Athleticism. Estonians love and understand the beauty of the human body and treat their bodies ‘as a temple’ (at least my parents generation did). Estonians ARE competitive and quite often become elite athletes. That hunger to win is tempered by realizing “someone will always be better” but the value of training and losing builds character and prepares you for more complex problem solving and trials in Life. An interesting tribe of people with many good attributes and our turbulent history gives us a special gift of Humanism. Did I say Estos rock? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved your comment, Rita! I have had the opportunity to meet and work with Canadian-Estonians and I must say you are quite special! You have taken the best parts of Estonians and combined it with the tolerance, social skills and empathy of the Canadians and the final result is impressive indeed!!! 🙂

      Like

  19. Alex says:

    Muito intressante este post. Contudo não deixa de me parecer mais uma demonstração do típico narcisismo nórdico. Vocês os nórdicos acham se superiores só por causa da vossa aparência física e da vossa riqueza. Eu tenho uma amiga que está na Estónia a fazer Doutoramento e ela diz que os Estónios são uns mal educados que nem cumprimentar sabem. Fora o facto de ela, como estrangeira, ser altamente descriminada. Uma coisa é o “small talk”, outra coisa é a cortesia básica, que é isso que diferencia os povos civilizados dos que não são. E essa história do espaço pessoal e de não falarem nem convidarem nem visitarem as pessoas só mostra o quão superficiais e egoístas são os vossos povos. Nós nos países do sul até podemos ser mais pobres e feios mas ao menos temos mais personalidade e somos mais autênticos e generosos. É claro também temos os nossos defeitos mas ao menos não nos achamos superiores a ninguém.

    Like

    1. Alex, nobody here mentioned appearances or being superior to anyone. That part is totally in YOUR own head and completely unrelated to this post.

      Like

  20. Spot on! I hope you don’t mind me sharing it with my FB friends. I must say that after 14 years in UK some of those aspects have been soften and sometimes I feel alien amongst Estonians now 😦 I also think that Estonians are suspicious of people who are different from them and they are not sure how to behave, when meeting one, especially older generations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course! Feel free to share ☺ I agree that when living elsewhere some traits tend to soften or even disappear! I think that all people everywhere that do not travel are suspicious of foreigners and do not know how to behave with them. Happens in Brazil all the time too!

      Like

  21. Donovan Parsons says:

    Estonians, in my experience, can come across as very guarded, suspicious, judgemental and curt, when first encountered. Some may even consider them rude & unfriendly! However, once you have earned their respect and gained their trust, they are one of the most welcoming, loyal, logical, loving, generous, proud and fun lovingly, mischievous races, you can have the pleasure of meeting! Don’t confuse their conservative manner with arrogance! Given their history, who can blame them for not rushing in to rash alliances! They are a small country. But as my dad always says “Dynamite comes in small packages, son!”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you are spot on, Donovan! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

      Like

  22. enelaru says:

    I have not read the previous comments, sorry! But I think one point worth mentioning – that we are not ‘Cold and emotionless’! … despite the first expression of us- the ‘lack of our enthusiasm to get to know a person’ (sometimes more, lol), seeming dis-interest and some arrogance… We’re very passionate, open and endlessly sincere once the shell is broken (or even not)! Aren’t we 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree! 🙂

      Like

  23. Juhani says:

    As a Finnish I can say that this blog would apply almost completely to the Finnish people, too (we just are / have been bit more religious).

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Helo says:

    Appreciate everyone here sharing their cross- cultural experiences. My impression as an Estonian American Canadian Chinese Malaysian who is Christian …. whewww , is that living in another culture forces us to become – ideally, children again. We need to humbly accept we do not know what is the normal way to behave. We have to wisely accept we are relying on the generosity of others to tolerate mistakes we will make throughout our lives.
    Finally we can remain true to our values- but lovingly seek out what is the appropriate expression in our new social group . I love my assumptions being overturned in such circumstances.

    A simple example is eating with the Chinese… Don’t debate while eating. Avoiding lengthy conversations allows everyone to enjoy the food at the correct temperature. Only in this way do you experience the tastes in the correct manner.

    However , you can make short , appreciative comments on each new dish which will assure your host his preparations are truly valued 🙂 I’ve learnt its about the food not the conversation!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A very interesting example indeed, Helo! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

      Like

  25. Astrid says:

    It is all true. I love the word sincerious!

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Sally de oliveira says:

    Hi, i really enjoyed your post and my history is a little different. i’m an african girl who met an estonian guy in portugal while he was doing internship and we were together for 4 months i think, until he left portugal. I am a nonsense girl and clumsy but even like that he stayed with me all these time and used to laugh a lot with me but he doesn’t talk too much and don’t show too much about his feelings what used to annoy me because i fell in love with him and i never could understand what he feels for me and sometimes i feel like i don’t know him very well. This post made me understand some of his behaviours and i could see he really used to like me. Now he is back to estonia and i am in portugal with time our conversation started to die i tried everything but i know what would work with a portuguese or brazilliam guy will not work with a estonian so i wanna know what can i do to keep our distant relation?

    Liked by 1 person

  27. ehh says:

    Rational? This is so wrong. I’m an estonian and see it all the time that people judge each-other based on irrational thoughts not on rationality. Just because estonians are cold doesn’t make them rational. This post is just to make estonains feel good. Sorry but it’s not true.

    Like

    1. Well, every culture has its good side and the bad side. I guess it also depends on who you compare them with. Just as a reminder, this blog is written by someone that is living in Brazil. If you look from that perspective, who would you say sounds more rational? 😀 Sounds to me from your comments that you are just very disappointed in Estonians in general…

      Like

  28. Jan says:

    Thank you for sharing your view on how Estonians are like. I could agree on some of the points from my experience, but of course there are always shades of colours between people. It is not even possible to make a straight line between people from different regions in Estonia, even though there are many prejudices towards almost every region. I would like to point out one point that is missing in your description. Peoples opinion about foreigners. If foreigners come to Estonia and learn fluent Estonian, everyone will love them. Because speaking Estonian is so rare for people, almost every one becomes cheerful when they meet foreigners speaking their language. Thats nice.

    But in a lot of cases of cheerfulness, the bitterness comes along with the second sentence: “there are people living in Estonia for their whole lives and not knowing any estonian and you learnt it in one year”. This hints at prejudices against Estonians whose mothertongue is not estonian. In most cases it is Russian. And towards “the russians” (even though they are actually Estonians with russian as a mothertongue) there are a lot of prejudices. To me it seemed like a lot of students are complaining about “the russians” and that they study russian in school. But that’s a point where a lot of estonians are driven by emotions. Indeed, being against learning russian in school and having prejudices against 20% of the population is nonsense. Learning russian in Estonia is a mean of improving the jobchances within Estonia and Europe in general.
    People whose parents are only speaking russian often decide to put their children into estonian-speaking kindergardens. The result: the young people speak Estonian, Russian and English fluent and have good job opportunities.

    Also, russian-speaking Estonians are cool people! I went to Narva and spent one weekend with very cool people overthere and even though they dont speak estonian that much, the people I met were really warmhearted open and friendly people. I can only suggest to all Estonians to do the same!

    Liked by 1 person

  29. stevedickensen says:

    That’s me fucked then.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Peng says:

    Hi. I have read your article. It it insteresting to learn another culture. I am from central China, the world is a insteresting place to discover. I have been to Europe before. I love European culture. It is amazing to discover a different world. May be I will travel to Estonia one day.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Deja says:

    It’s seems like the country is filled with INTJs

    Like

    1. Hahaha, maybe that is also because the author of the text is one 😀

      Like

  32. Ron says:

    Interesting how from the Finnish perspective Estonians look a bit more similar to Brazilians, haha
    http://shaan.typepad.com/shaanou/2006/08/what_is_estonia.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahahaha, that is interesting and funny! I bet if they would put the three (a Finnish, an Estonian and a Brazilian) next to each other and then had to compare, something completely different would come out of it 😀

      Like

      1. Alex says:

        You should do that! In a youtube video or something like that haha

        Liked by 1 person

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