For the past five months, I’ve been a visiting professor of psychology at Tartu University in Estonia. Living and working in a foreign country can be many things, but “boring” is usually not one of them. Something new and interesting happens almost every day, so I’ve decided to share some of my observations and thoughts about Estonia and Estonians.
This article was originally published on Psychology Today.
It’s always risky to make generalisations about groups of people, in part because the individual variations within a group are usually greater than the differences between groups. Nevertheless, cultural groups often differ from each other in psychologically-interesting ways. The differences may not be large, but they are real.
It’s also risky to make claims about a group to which you do not belong. I am not Estonian and I have no Estonian ancestors. I do, however, have Estonian friends and colleagues who kindly answer my many questions. I first visited Estonia in 1997 as a Fulbright Scholar and have returned every couple years to teach and conduct research. Ma ei räägi eesti keelt hästi, aga räägin ja loen natuke. (I do not speak Estonian well, but I speak and read a little.)
In my opinion, one of the most noticeable differences between Estonians and Americans is the preferred or default communication style. The Estonian style of communication is more reserved than the typical American style.
There’s an old joke that most Estonians know. How can you tell the difference between an Estonian introvert and an Estonian extravert? Answer: When the introvert speaks, he looks down at his shoes. When the extravert speaks, he looks down at your shoes.
Estonians speak quietly in public spaces
Estonians speak quietly in public spaces – in cafés and shops and on the street. Many times I have seen a child run ahead of its mother toward a busy intersection. The Estonian mother doesn’t yell at her child to stop; she picks up her pace and calls to the child in a normal speaking voice.
In Estonian cafés, it’s nearly impossible to hear what others are saying unless they’re sitting at your table. When I return home after living in Estonia for several months, I’m aghast at the noise level in cafés and restaurants and shopping malls. We, Americans, could learn a thing or two, I think, about how to comport ourselves in public spaces.
Estonians do not state the obvious. They speak when they have something worth saying. After 10 visits to Estonia in the past 18 years, I still find myself saying silly things like “it’s a beautiful day” and “how are you?” From my American perspective, I suppose I’m trying to forge a connection with someone, but that kind of small talk can make an Estonian feel uncomfortable. From their perspective, it’s pointless.
“From my American perspective, I suppose I’m trying to forge a connection with someone, but that kind of small talk can make an Estonian feel uncomfortable. From their perspective, it’s pointless.”
At the Institute of Psychology where I work, colleagues acknowledge each other at the beginning of the workday by making eye contact and uttering a simple tere (hello). When their paths cross again later in the day, they don’t acknowledge each other a second time. No nod of the head, no smile, no eyebrow flash. They’ve already been there, done that.
Estonians are comfortable with silence
Estonians are comfortable with silence. I have spent many hours in cafés and parks, watching people. I have often seen two people eat a meal together or walk together and barely speak. They are neither depressed nor angry. They simply have no need to fill empty space with words.
Estonians rarely approach or speak to someone they do not know. In my time in Estonia, I don’t think it’s ever happened. I’ve been approached by strangers, but it’s always been a Russian Estonian, a foreign tourist, or an American missionary. The rule here seems to be, “don’t disturb others”.
“The rule here seems to be, ‘don’t disturb others’.”
This rule can produce humorous results. A few months ago I went to the cinema and sat in the seat assigned to me by the cashier’s computer. Six other people did the same thing. The computer gave each person the “best available” seat, which meant all of us were packed together like sardines in the exact centre of an otherwise empty theatre. After the lights dimmed and the movie started, not a single person moved to another seat. We all stayed put, not wanting to disturb or offend someone.
I’ve observed one change in the Estonian communication style since my first visit in 1997. Part of a reserved communication style is a tendency to not use superlatives – to not say that something is the best or the most, for example. But I hear Estonians today using superlatives almost as frequently as Americans do, maybe because of the influx of American TV shows.
In February, I was a spectator at a 100-meter-sprint Nordic skiing competition in Tartu. At the end of a closely contested race, the animated announcer would shout uskumatu (unbelievable)! After this happened six times in a row, I came to the conclusion that close finishes in a short race were, in fact, quite believable.
We are creatures of habit, but habits can be broken. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate and to even prefer the Estonian communication style. It’s liberating in a sense to know that you don’t have to acknowledge everyone you see. To know that you can walk in public spaces and not be bothered. To know that you can sit in silence and enjoy the simple presence of another human being.