Back in 1999 I spent a year living in Tallinn, Estonia as a Year Team member with IFES. This week I have been clearing out some old files and I found some hand-written notes I made on what I learnt in the 15 months I lived there about the main differences between British and Estonian culture. I thought it would be worth recording this here on my blog in case any Estonians are coming to live in the UK or vice versa.
Most of the below are generalisations, and they are now 13 years old so things might have changed a little! There will be always exceptions to the rule but I hope this helps anyone who wants to do business or live in Estonia/Britain from an Estonian or British background. Do let me know in the comments if you can think of any further differences!
- In Britain, when entering a house, we wipe our feet but we do not remove our shoes (unless specifically asked to do so). In Estonia, it is considered rude to leave one’s shoes on indoors.
- In Britain we tend to ask a visitor a lot of questions (eg. Where are you from? What do you do? etc) and the visitor is always the centre of attention. The hosts see it as their job to ‘entertain’ their guest. In Estonia you can quickly make somebody very uncomfortable by asking them a lot of questions. The visitor must take initiative to speak – otherwise nothing much is said!
- When leaving somebody’s house in Britain it is polite to say ‘thank you for having me’. In fact, in general in Britain, quite a fuss is made over saying hello and goodbye. If you have not seen the person for a while hugs and kisses are usual. Estonians tend not to show affection physically (eg. with a hug).
- If somebody gives you a meal in Britain it is polite to thank them and comment on how nice the food is (even if it isn’t!) We say our pleases and thank yous even when we don’t mean it. We consider it more important to say it than actually mean it from our hearts.
Food and drink
- British people will offer guests tea/coffee a number of times (usually about 3) until the guest accepts. If you say no the first time in Britain you can guarantee that they’ll offer you again – it doesn’t mean they didn’t hear you, it’s assumed that you were being polite and actually do want a cup! In Estonia, no means no! When refusing something in English it is polite to say ‘no thank you’ or ‘no thanks’ rather than just ‘no’ on its own – even if the person offering is a close friend.
- ‘Tea’ in Britain can mean both the drink and also evening meal. If someone invites you for tea – be sure to check if they mean a meal or just a drink and a biscuit!
- British people mostly eat 3 meals a day – Breakfast, Lunch and Evening Meal (called ‘tea’, ‘dinner’ or ‘supper’). Lunch is usually something light like a sandwich and some fruit. Evening meal is usually something hot. Most people have certain times when they eat these meals. In Estonia meal times are not such fixed occasions and neither is there such a ‘rule’ as main course and then dessert. People don’t all stop at the same time in Estonia to ‘have lunch’.
Business and communications
- In Estonia, if one is addressing a group of people, it is very difficult to tell (unless you are yourself Estonian) what their reaction to what you are saying is. This can be rather disconcerting for a British person. Britons will vocalise what they think a lot more than Estonians eg. ‘That was very interesting, thank you’ or ‘I don’t agree with you on that matter’. Estonians will say nothing unless really prompted.
- In Britain, long periods of silence are considered to be rather embarrassing and people will use small talk to break the silence. Silence in Estonia is considered a good thing and there is no desperate attempt to think of something to say!
- In Estonia, people use imperatives (commands) all the time eg. ‘kuule!’, ‘Anna mulle’ etc. In Britain it is rude to use these without ‘please’ in almost all cases.
- In general, British culture is much more vocal than in Estonia. In Britain we talk a lot of the time. We use small talk: if we want to express feelings we say something. Also, our humour is based largely on sarcasm and plays on words (usually saying one thing and meaning the opposite). A lot of our humour is based on making fun of one another – sometimes this is a sign of friendship.
- In general, in British churches people stand up to sing and sit down to pray – in Estonia it’s the other way around!
- Estonians (and I think Finno-ugric peoples in general) say exactly what they mean from the heart. If they do not have anything important to say, they will not say anything. This is one of the biggest differences between British and Estonian culture.
- British people often plan much further ahead than Estonians and like to be precise about details – and then put them into writing. Communication between Estonians is less clear – they do not make a point, like Britons do, of clarifying agreements.
- Estonians like to be alone or in small groups, they become very claustrophobic in large crowds. British people are more used to being surrounded by a lot of people.
- Most Estonians will say they can’t speak English when actually they can and very well. British people often are impressed if foreigners can speak English, even if only a little, and will praise them for it.
Please and Thank you, Yes and No
- British people exaggerate their thanks eg. ‘Thank you so much’, ‘You’re too kind’, ‘oh, really you shouldn’t have’… Estonians will say please and thank you but once is enough. To exaggerate gives an impression of insincerity and will make people very uncomfortable.
- British people tend to exaggerate most comments, for example ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ ‘I’d love a cup of tea!’ – an Estonian reply would be ‘yes’ or ‘no’!
- Estonians do not use the word ‘yes’ (jah) like it is used in English. For example:
Are you a teacher? English reply: ‘Yes’. Estonian reply: ‘olen’ (I am)
Do we have any milk? English reply: ‘Yes’. Estonian reply: ‘on’ (it is)