Learning the Social Customs of Estonia
Estonia has its own language, Estonian, which has approximately 1 million speakers. This language has Finno-Urgric routes, and is most similar to Finnish, though it has some resemblance to Hungarian. Only about 65% of the country’s population is Estonian by ethnicity; about 28% of the country is Russian, and there are small populations of Ukrainians and White Russians. The largest religion of this country is the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Estonians highly regard their families as the center of their social spheres. In urban areas, it is common for people to live in nuclear families. People live with extended families in more rural areas, but there are exceptions to this. It is not uncommon for newly weds to reside with their parents for a few years, until they can fully support themselves and move out.
A hierarchy exists in Estonian society, and people tend to respect those with greater age, position and experience. Elders are often highly regarded because they are considered wise and experienced. They are usually introduced before everyone.
In general, people act very mellow and reserved. You will earn more respect if you act calm and rational, as others generally speak softly and do not call attention to themselves. Estonians take pride in their cultural identity. They have a strong heritage represented by singing traditional songs and telling traditional stories.
In terms of greetings, they are usually quite formal and executed in a certain order. Younger people initiate greetings with their elders, and men initiate greetings with women. The correct gesture upon greeting is to stand up, shake hands and retain eye contact. The most common thing to say is “tere,” simply meaning “hello” in Estonian. People expect to be addressed by titles; “Preili” means Miss, “Prova” means Mrs and “Härra” means Mr. These titles should be followed by the last name. First names are reserved for people who are very close, so you must wait for this to be invited to address people this way.
Gifts are generally given for birthdays and Christmas. They do not need to be anything fancy or expensive. If you are invited to an Estonian home, you should bring something like flowers (in an odd number) or chocolate. Also, arrive on time for your invitation, and call in advance if you are going to be late. Some houses are shoe-free, so you should check if you need to remove your shoes before you enter. House tours are not common, as people think of their homes as being private. Dress conservatively, and do not bring up business matters. You should wait to be invited to eat and attempt to finish all of your food.