Life-hacks for the Estonian society – how to be polite in Estonia

Lisanna Beckner, the operations manager for a hotel in Tallinn, provides some life hacks for being polite in the Estonian society.

Estonians are often stereotyped as cold and hard to reach, unapproachable. Allegedly, we don’t speak, don’t make eye contact, nor any of the other things that would suggest we’re comfortable around strangers. However, the reality for many Estonians is actually quite the opposite and many international people living here find those stereotypes debunked over time, or at least in private.

The coldness melts away within a few minutes of initial introductions, usually beginning with a warm “Hello, welcome to Estonia. Why did you come here?” to which you can respond “to work as a software developer/to study/to live with my Estonian girlfriend,” as all other answers are unacceptable. Think, “I visited, and I liked it/I like the cold/God told me to,” which will lead to a heavy interrogation along the lines of, “But why are you really here?”

Anyway, what should you really know about Estonian politeness?

First thing’s first – silence is a kind of birth right for us. We tend to gravitate toward quiet places: the forest, the sea (white noise doesn’t count) or in the extreme, the exact opposite – those places that help us forget how much there is to complain about here – nightclubs, outdoor bars and concerts.

Tallinn, for many Estonians, is a hellscape of noise. With its incomprehensible city planning that prioritises the car, it’s becoming less an Estonian-friendly place and more a place to pretend that other people care what model BMW you drive. Hence, the unspoken rule: don’t make any more noise, please.

“Don’t make any noise, please”. A scenery in Tallinn; photo by Lisanna Beckner.

The Estonian personal space bubble has two dimensions

In all seriousness, I think the most important thing in public boils down to respecting people’s personal bubbles, and it is evident that Estonians’ bubbles are bigger than you might be accustomed to. Nevertheless, the Estonian personal space bubble has two dimensions that have been discovered so far – space and volume.

Space is obvious – step aside on the street and at the store when people need to pass. However, if bump into anyone don’t say anything, because if you don’t acknowledge it, it didn’t happen and all might be forgiven. Basically, try to make sure no one knows you exist and give people lots of space to avoid contact with you.

Volume – the threshold for when something becomes “too loud” (an entirely subjective value, of course) – is lower than in most other cultures. All might be forgiven if it’s a positive and light-hearted noise in a higher register like laughter, but only in small bursts and its best practice to immediately seem embarrassed for having let yourself go like that.

The manner has evolved into an “if you can’t hear them, they don’t exist” approach, which is a very comfortable little pretence for an Estonian.

“If you can’t hear them, they don’t exist”. Photo by Lisanna Beckner.

Some general guidelines

In public

Be quiet and avoid eye-contact, but feel free to stare when the other person is not looking (Estonians love doing this).

Don’t spit on the ground, or rather, just don’t spit at all (yes, people still do, but it’s gross).

When wearing shoes, don’t put your feet up in the cinema or restaurant – if you ever get to go somewhere like that again (oh, 2019, how we miss you).

At the store, say “Tere”, “Aitäh”, “Head aega”.

At the doctor’s, wait to be called in, you don’t need to knock.

On public transport, never stand in front of the door; if you do, you have to step out at every stop to let other people exit

On public transport, give your seat up to the elderly, the pregnant or parents with small children.

Heads up: people working in shops (especially in malls) will not rush to see if you need help; in fact, they might even ignore you when you walk in. This is normal and enforced by the locals.

With other people

Avoid asking “How are you?” unless you are genuinely interested in getting a real answer – the phrase is not a greeting in Estonia.

Being late (especially without warning) is generally considered rude and inconsiderate.

Take off your shoes when visiting an Estonian’s house.

Bring something to share when visiting an Estonian’s house – they will always say you don’t need to bring anything but do it anyway. This will make people like you!

Remember – Estonians on the street and Estonians that you actually meet will leave you with completely different impressions. The age-old suggestion to buy them beer and get them in a sauna (for males) will always work. If you’re looking for tips to make friends with Estonian women, good luck.

Have fun and remember, don’t come too close!

The opinions in this article are those of the author. The cover picture is by Renee Altrov.

1 thought on “Life-hacks for the Estonian society – how to be polite in Estonia”

  1. “Don’t spit on the ground”
    I’ve been trying all sorts of angles and techniques but whatever I did, it landed on the ground… You’re right about one thing – people around me didn’t like it

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