Estonians, embrace being Estonians – Milena Spigaglia

Tallinn-based Italian writer Milena Spigaglia has written an open letter to Estonians in response to argument about poor customer service in the country.    

Weeks ago I read an article written by Justin Zehmke, a South African professional who came and settled in Estonia to work and live with his family. In his piece, Zehmke told readers how annoying it was buying a bed in Estonia, due to a basic lack of enthusiasm and collaboration showed by the salesperson he coped with. According to him, Estonians ignore the very meaning of customer service.

Do we have to blame this on the heritage of the communist mentality – poor stocks, cronyism, party whistleblowers, no motivations? Perhaps the national temper, that conundrum-attic – if I dare the neologism – yet intriguing “what-are-you-smiling-for” attitude that keen foreigners need a bit to get accustomed to? Or is it all about a whimsical desire to keep this surly, listless customer service as a sort of national anthem and a good matter for complaining in the evenings at the dinner table, just before the dessert but surely after having roundly lambasted Edgar Savisaar (the former mayor of Tallinn and opposition leader – editor)?

Maybe we’ll never know. Meanwhile, I can guess the spirit of Zehmke remarks which, if I do not get it wrong, should sound kind of – Estonians, let’s get the right mood. Let’s get customer focused, consumer friendly. Let’s get globalised. Change – yes, you can.

No. You don’t have to.

My fervent call to you, Estonians, is – please just remain the way you are, because it is the way you are that makes you Estonians. A bit tautological, I know, so let me explain better.

Something sounds familiar

I am an Italian. Italians suffer from an inferiority complex when it comes to other nations. Italians can be so xenophiliac they sometimes sabotage themselves. They – we – always seem to chase a good behaviour license. They – we – always seem in a need of pleasing someone else.

Especially for someone involved in political studies, it has always been so recurring to come across grim analysis pointing at how more meticulous than us German people are (even though in secret we think they’re so boringly predictable, and we are deeply proud of our ability to improvise while toughing it out, we call it “creativity”).

Or how enterprising the British are, and how tremendously civic-minded they are, always queuing at the bus stop and walking down the tube stairs from the right side (but God, they are so hideously dressed – with the exception of Duchess of Cambridge, of course – and they haven’t understood how to make a perfect cappuccino yet, in spite of all the cafés we magnanimously managed to start over there).

Or how open-minded and intrinsically free the Americans are – we love their mental flexibility (we like much less their exit flexibility in the labour market though, and their health-care flexibility in choosing who deserves a hospital bed after an accurate financial background check, and sometimes their flexibility in interpreting international law, I guess they call it “creativity” as well).

I also need to add that I am a true witness that complaining can be a national hobby. In Italy, it is a kind of relaxing practice, better than yoga (a form of meditation actually). It makes you feel safe the moment you realise that “everything changes in order that nothing really changes” (free quotation from Il Gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa). To put it in philosophical terms, through complaint we get a recognition of the world as we know it.

Well of course Italians – we – are those of the so-called made in Italy, excellent food and gorgeous handcrafted works, plus unequalled cultural patrimony, of which surely we don’t take advantage as we should, especially if you consider France’s ability to sell Champs-Élysées and their grandeur or London’s marketing of Churchill’s War Rooms and his English bulldog spirit. Do you see? Only a few lines and I am already complaining about my country and its way to manage its artistic resources. Once you begin, it ends up turning into a native deformation. Never let your guard down.

It’s not just customer service at stake

Of course, as human beings, we are committed to constant improvement. As nations, we must offer our best effort in order to make the world a better place. But what is the best?

My point is that nowadays it seems that being different – cultivating and saving one’s own peculiarity, even oddity – is considered a fault. To apply to the “cool club”, you must follow the “3-S” enforcement proceedings: strip off, smile and sell yourself. It is an imperative. The other one is: find a stereotype and, again, sell yourself. What is a stereotype? It is a kind of soft label, something which is useful enough to make you recognisable in the market, but which you can wash and fade a little when needed.

As an Italian who came to Estonia without having planned it, without even knowing exactly what to expect from this land quite far from mine, quite different from mine, I would like to say you do not need to look like someone else (Finnish included). You have your history and battles and sacrifices and tenaciousness, but also your grace, your modesty, your sobriety, your concreteness (which is not mere pragmatism, it does not imply shortcuts whatsoever) and they all speak loudly for you as a country.

“You have your history and battles and sacrifices and tenaciousness, but also your grace, your modesty, your sobriety, your concreteness and they all speak loudly for you as a country.”

You do not even need to find a collocation. Northeast? Northern Europe? Scandinavia? The Baltics? No-more-Soviet-just-a-couple-of-inches-to-the-west? Who wants to come over and meet Estonia, they will find it. And they will find plenty of things to know, to love, to smile at, to get bothered by as well, or to assimilate only step by step. It is how things work normally.

It is not just about customer service. It is about being the way history has crafted us. By the way, I confess that sales associates’ buzzing around me as soon as I enter a store makes me feel really uncomfortable. They make me feel a thief.

As far as I come from a country where selling is just an all-winks-and-mimes activity, I simply adore the total lack of flattery in the world of Estonian sales. Yes, sometimes clerks and cashiers seem not to notice me. But I know they will not try to sell me something I do not want to buy. They will not cheat me. They will not try to decipher if I’ve got a once-in-a-life-time job in a very smart startup and I am ready to go wild with shopping or if I am waiting the end of the month to get my paycheck – it doesn’t matter, they are going to treat me exactly the same way. No bootlickers, just a practical approach.

As you can see, it is all about perception.

Enjoy being Estonian

As for me, in a couple of months I collected some memories I am sure I could experience only in Estonia: trying a HIV rapid test at a shopping mall; eating juniper bread, which curiously gets better the day after you bought it; reading the president’s speech on the New Year’s Eve that talks about the hours worked by volunteers and songs learned for the next Song Festival and which is one and a half page long, whereas every Italian president systematically feels compelled to bore his fellow citizens for an hour at least, simulcast of course.

Or finding a chocolate bar into a sock I had put out of my door just as a Christmas decoration, without ever knowing the identity of my personal Santa Claus; being almost rebuked by a supermarket cashier for being so bold to put money in her hand, ignoring the designated area next to the point of sale; having my dinette’s lamps repaired by an electrician/carpenter who came to my home and started to take pictures of the landscape from my flat windows just before getting on with his job because he had his “personal album to complete”; finding out via electronic notice that I was given a new Estonian last name – which happens to sound Spijajia – by a really creative UPS courier. Just to mention a few.

What I basically mean and what I wish to people living in this beautiful country is – struggle for your identity. And simply enjoy your being Estonian.


The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover image by Johannes Arro (the image is illustrative.)

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