Information about Estonia. The dos and the dont's, business etiquette, general information about the country. The document was created for the project Info4migrants. Project number UK/13/LLP-LdV/TOI-615
Recognized regional languages
Estonia is a Western Europe country bordering the Baltic Sea
and Gulf of Finland, between Latvia and Russia.
As a result of centuries of Danish, Swedish, German, and Rus-
sian rule, the idea of an independent Estonian state had already
been raised in the late 19th century and came true in 1918
when Estonia attained independence from the Russian Empire.
Forcibly incorporated into the USSR in 1940, it regained its
freedom in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since
the last Russian troops left in 1994, Estonia has been free to
promote economic and political ties with Western Europe. Since
April 2004 Estonia is a member of NATO and member of the
European Union since May 2004.
Estonia has a modern market-based economy and one of the
higher per capita income levels in Central Europe and the Baltic
region. Estonia’s successive governments have pursued a free
market, pro-business economic agenda and have wavered little
in their commitment to pro-market reforms. The current gov-
ernment has followed sound fiscal policies that have resulted in
balanced budgets and low public debt. The economy benefits
from strong electronics and telecommunications sectors and
strong trade ties with Finland, Sweden, Russia, and Germany.
Coat of arms
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Size and population
Estonia is small, but it is bigger than Slovenia, Holland, Den-
mark, and Switzerland. Despite its small size, it feels big
because only 1.3 million people live here. This makes Estonia
one of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe, with
just 32 people per square kilometer.
“Eesti” can be traced to a first-century mention by the Ro-
man historian Tacitus of a people or place called Aestii or
Aestui. The name may derive from a German word referring
to the east. Place names have been traced to this period,
suggesting a link between language and homeland.
Estonia is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe,
the University of Tartu, founded in 1632. The region has
been a major center of conflict for centuries, and has been
ruled by all sorts of powers, such as Sweden and Poland-Lith-
uania. Only in the 19th century did a nationalist movement
emerge that would later lead to independence.
Estonia celebrates two Independence Days; the first is the
24th of February, 1918, and the second is the 20th of August,
1991, both commemorating independence from the Soviet
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Estonia is incredibly tech savvy. Not only is Estonia the home-
land of wildly successful software programs Skype and Kazaa,
but you can find Wi-Fi all over, including public parks. Estonia
was the first country to use online voting for political elec-
Estonia has one of the highest rates of atheism in the
world, with only 16% expressing a belief in a god in a 2005
poll. Religious traditions remain, however, including pagan
rituals, which are still celebrated as secular cultural tradi-
Estonia is a great place to be a mom. It has the highest sur-
vival rate in the world for mothers giving birth, and offers
new mothers 100% of their former salary for 18 months, and
other child support services as well.
Estonia is home to the tallest mountain in the Baltic re-
gion, Suur Munamägi, which reaches 318 meters. Estonia
is famous for its meteorite craters, especially around Kaali,
where several craters can be found that formed just within
the last several thousand years. Estonia’s relative flatness
makes it a great place for Nordic ski training.
Due to the low population density, half the country is for-
ested, which makes for great hiking opportunities. Esto-
nia’s forests keep getting bigger, perhaps due to the declin-
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1 January: New Year’s Day
Usually a very quiet day after celebrations.
24 February: Independence Day
Celebrated with the military parade in the morning and fes-
tive family dinners in the evening.
Moveable Friday during spring: Good Friday
Church holiday, a day for mourning and fasting.
Moveable Sunday during spring: Easter Sunday
Commonly known as lihavõtted or munade pühad in Esto-
nian. Celebrated by spring time (dairy based) treats, eggs and
1 May: May Day
The night before (Walpburg night) is celebrated with parties
Moveable day during late spring: Whitsun
Church holiday, celebrated 7 weeks after Easter Sunday.
23 June: Victory Day
Celebrating the decisive battle (1919) during the War of Inde-
24 June: Midsummer Day
Commonly known as Jaanipäev. Celebrated with bonfires,
different events and festivities taking place all around Estonia.
One of the most important dates of the year for Estonians.
20 August: Day of Restoration of Independence
Celebrated with national festivities, events and family gather-
24-26 December: Christmas
Christmas holidays are usually spent with the family.
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Bean Soup made with broad beans,
smoked meat, potatoes and onion. It is
served hot with sour cream.
Estonian Chilled Cucumber Soup
Chopped onion is combined with peeled,
seeded and grated cucumbers and dill in
chicken stock. Once the soup is pureed
sour cream and egg yolks are added. Then
the soup is chilled for at least 4 hours.
Boiled pork in jelly (Sült)
The jelly is made by boiling the pork bones,
sometimes hooves and heads. It is often
made in large batches; so many Estonian
families have stacks of jars of solidifying
sült all over the house.
Fish in Tomato Marinade
Whitefish fillets are cut into pieces and
sprinkled with salt and pepper and coated
in flour. The fish is browned and put into a
marinade for about 6 hours. When ready
for serving, a sauce is made with vinegar,
tomato paste, sugar and spices.
Brown bread with garlic
This dish made from the country’s perfect-
ed brown bread recipe, which is rubbed
with garlic, deep fried, and served with a
very garlicky and refreshing tzatziki-like
Black pudding (Verivorst)
Blood and barley sausage, similar to what
the English diplomatically call ‘black pud-
ding’ due to its colour. In Estonia, this is
traditional Christmas food and is served
with a red berry jam.
Estonian Ground Meat Patties
Ground veal, beef and pork are combined
with eggs and spices. This is made into
patties, dipped in bread crumbs and fried.
In addition, it might be served with braised
Sauerkraut, pork loin, apple, onion, pearl
barley and spices are combined and sim-
mered for about 4 hours.
Traditional Estonian cuisine has substantially been based on meat and potatoes,
and on fish in coastal and lakeside areas, but is influenced by many other cuisines
by now. In the present day it includes a variety of international foods and dishes,
with a number of contributions from the traditions of nearby countries. German,
Scandinavian, Russian and other influences have played their part. The most typ-
ical foods in Estonia have been rye bread, pork, potatoes and dairy products. Es-
tonian eating habits have historically been closely linked to the seasons. In terms
of staples, Estonia belongs firmly to the beer, vodka, rye bread and pork “belt” of
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Sauerkraut stew (Mulgikapsad)
Estonian sauerkraut side dish. Sauerkraut
stew with pork, served with boiled pota-
Unleavened barley bread (Karask)
One of our desert items was this cake-like
Veal shoulder, fresh pig’s knuckles, onion
and carrot are placed in a pot to boil with
whole peppercorns and bay leaves for
about 3 hours. Then the meat is removed
and cut up. The meat is placed into molds.
The boiled stock is poured into each mold,
and then the molds are placed into the
fridge until the stock has jellied.
There’s really no equivalent in most other
traditions. Basically it’s a thick desert drink
made with sour milk (keefir), and a mixture
of ground grains – rye, oat barley, and pea
Vanaema’s kook (Grandmother’s
It’s a layer of pastry crust, jam, and some
wonderful crumbly topping.
Root Beer (Kali)
The Estonian, non-alcoholic beverage called
Kali. Referred to as “the Estonian Coca-Co-
la,” Kali is a kind of unfermented beer. It’s
sweet and has a very light fizz to it.
Vana Tallinn is a dark brown strong liqueur
with a mild rum taste. The liqueur has a
vanillin, slightly exotic and velvety taste,
characterized by several natural ingredi-
ents, including citrus oils, cinnamon, vanilla,
as well as rum.
Vana Tallinn should be drank straight, with-
out any additional components, with a
cup of coffee. Often Vana Tallinn is served
straight, adding just crushed ice. The liquor
is also an excellent component in cocktails.
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Languages in Estonia
The official language of Estonia is Esto-
nian, a Uralic language which is related
to Finnish but unrelated to neighboring
Russian and Latvian, which are of In-
Russian is by far the most spoken mi-
nority language in the country. There
are towns in Estonia with large Rus-
sian-language communities, as well as
towns where speakers of Estonian are
in minority (especially in North-East of
Estonia, e.g. Narva). The Baltic Germans
(German: Deutsch-Balten, or Balten-
deutsche) were ethnically mainly Ger-
man inhabitants of the eastern shore of
the Baltic Sea, which today forms the
countries of Estonia and Latvia. The Ger-
man language is the third most popular
foreign language among Estonians today.
The Estonian Swedes are a Swed-
ish-speaking linguistic minority tradi-
tionally residing in the coastal areas
and islands of what is now western and
Almost all of Estonia’s Swedish-speaking
minority fled to Sweden during World
War II, and only the descendants of a
few individuals who opted to stay are
permanently resident in Estonia today.
Estonians are socially introverted and
maintain a distance in public and private
spaces. People move relatively quickly,
seldom make eye contact, and talk in
hushed tones in public.
Business greetings are formal and re-
served, greetings are usually with a firm
handshake. People should be addressed
by the proper titles and you should wait
to be invited to use first names. Trust
is seen as important as is keeping your
word, meetings can often take place at
lunch. Decisions still tend to be made at
the top, so it can take several meetings
to get decisions made.
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• Estonians on the whole are quiet and
• They tend to speak softly and do not like
to draw attention to themselves.
• Being rational, calm and not going to
emotional extremes are all respected qual-
• At first, Estonians can come across as
aloof. Once a relationship warms up this
becomes less so.
Meeting and Greeting
• Greetings can come across as rather for-
mal and rather reserved.
• Men should initiate greetings with wom-
en and the younger person always greets
the older person.
• When meeting someone make sure you
are stood up, offer direct eye contact and
give a nice firm handshake.
• The most common greeting is “tere”
• Titles are very important. “Härra” is for
Mr, “Prova” is Mrs and “Preili” is Miss. All
should be followed with the surname.
• Only use first names once you have been
invited to do so.
Gift Giving Etiquette
• Gifts are usually exchanged for birthdays
and at Christmas.
• Gifts need not be expensive as it is more
about the thought than monetary worth.
• If you are invited to an Estonian’s house,
a decent gift is a box of chocolates or flow-
• Flowers should be given in odd numbers.
• Gifts are usually opened when received.
• Arrive on time. Punctuality is expected.
Call if running late.
• Check to see if shoes are being worn in
• Do not expect a tour of the house –
homes are private.
• Dress conservatively.
• Try and offer to help the hostess with
the preparation or clearing up after a meal
is served. This will be turned down but is
• Do not discuss business.
• Reciprocate any hospitality received.
• Table manners are relatively formal in
• Remain standing until invited to sit down.
• Table manners are Continental, i.e. the
fork is held in the left hand and the knife in
the right while eating.
• Do not begin eating until the hostess
starts or someone says “head isu” (“good
• Avoid resting your elbows on the table.
• Compliment the hostess on the meal.
• Try to finish everything on your plate.
ETIQUETTE AND CUSTOMS
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Estonians have strong ties to the Nordic countries stemming from important cultural
and religious influences gained over centuries during Scandinavian and German rule and
settlement. Indeed, Estonians consider themselves Nordic rather than Baltic, in particular
because of a close ethnic and linguistic affinity with the Finns.
PEOPLE IN ESTONIA
Estonians are part of the Finno-Ugric eth-
nic group, making them cousins of Finns,
and somewhat more distantly, Hungarians.
This group holds a rather unique place in
Europe, as their languages have no connec-
tion to those around them. The country is
considered more Nordic than Baltic, and
participates in a number of economic co-
operation agreements with other Nordic
Estonians have strong connections to lo-
cal traditions related primarily to differ-
ent dialects and reinforced by variations
in customs and dress. Islands, including
Saaremaa, have their own traditions, and
people speak distinctive dialects. Other
local cultures with different dialects include
the mulgid (in southern Viljandimaa), the
vorukad (from Voru), and the setud (from
Setumaa, currently divided by the border
between Estonia and Russia). Despite local
attachments, people feel that they share a
common culture. The country has a sizable
community of ethnic Russians whose con-
nections to Estonia have begun to develop
The country is extremely well educated,
with one of the highest literacy rates in the
world, and a top-performing school system
when compared internationally. Out of the
nearly 200 countries in the world, Estonia
ranks number two in adult literacy with its
rate of 99.8 percent
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Free Public Transportation
The mayor of Tallinn offered free public
transportation to anyone who is a registered
resident of his city. Despite the costs to the
city for providing the initial transport, it also
means more people register as residents.
This, in turn, means more tax revenue for
Tallinn’s administration. Furthermore, since
people can move around the city freely and
with affordable prices, the business of local
shop owners improves. More people are
using public transport and fewer cars are on
the road, which also benefits the environ-
While many countries are still debating
the concept of online voting due to secu-
rity concerns, Estonia has already been at
it since 2005. Estonia is a very tech-savvy
country, with most classrooms and homes
having an Internet connection. For the sake
of convenience, then, Estonians decided to
automate voting. The Estonian government
issues all citizens unique pins and logins for
online government services, so they already
have a secure infrastructure in place.
The Estonian government was the first in
Europe to put a flat tax system into practice.
While Estonia is a small sample, the results
have been quite good so far. However, many
countries that adopted a flat tax after Esto-
nia have not done very well in the economic
crisis, and they have now switched their tax
systems back. Estonia, on the other hand,
believes that the flat tax is still the best sys-
tem, and Estonian economy has recovered
from the crisis.
Estonia is concerned with keeping their
roads safe. Due to Estonia spending a lot of
time in darkness, the authorities are often
worried about pedestrians getting hit by
vehicles. To avoid this, you must wear safety
reflectors to make sure that people can see
you. Estonia expects pedestrians to act re-
sponsibly, and you can be fined if you don’t
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DOS AND DON’TS
DON’T sit until invited to sit down.
DON’T eat until the host begins or until
someone says “head isu” which means
DON’T put your elbows on the table.
DO compliment the host and finish every-
thing served to you.
DO shake hands firmly upon meeting some-
one. Maintain eye contact.
DON’T remain seated while greeting some-
one. Stand up!
DO wait for a woman to extend her hand
Gift Giving and Accepting Gifts
DO give odd numbers of flowers, not even.
DO open a gift upon receipt.
DON’T be late! And if you think you will be
running late, call to explain.
DO take your shoes off.
DON’T ask for a tour of the house. In Esto-
nia, homes are considered private.
DO offer your hosts help with preparation or
with cleaning up.
DON’T discuss business.
DO bring a gift for your host, such as choco-
lates or flowers.
DO have one side of your business card
translated into Estonian. Present the busi-
ness card in a way that the recipient can
DO understand that Estonians prefer to do
business with friends. Business lunches and
dinners will be primarily social so that your
Estonian colleagues can get to know you
DO remember that business is very formal in
DO be patient. It may take a few meetings
for a decision to be made.
Socializing and Conversation
DON’T raise your voice. Estonians tend to
speak in a soft voice.
DON’T offer compliments unless they are
genuine. Estonians aren’t quick to give out
compliments, so if you give too many it
might be considered suspicious.
DON’T refer to Estonia as “Eastern Europe.”
Estonians consider themselves to be Nordic.
DO be careful when bringing up the USSR.
DON’T confuse being Estonian with being
Estonians are proud of their
heritage, and it’s very import-
ant to follow their etiquette. As
a visitor to their country, it will
help you not only fit in bet-
ter, but also it shows a great
amount of respect.
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Meeting & Greeting
A good firm handshake accompanied with
direct eye contact is the norm. The most
common greeting is “tere” (hello). Esto-
nians as a people, especially in business,
can come across as slightly cool and de-
tached. This is merely an extension of their
leaning towards being level headed and not
displaying emotions, so do not misinterpret
a lack of smiles as unfriendliness.
As a culture that still respects hierarchy, it is
important to show due deference to those
in senior positions when doing business in
Estonia. Titles are therefore very important.
Use “Härra” (Mr.), “Prova” (Mrs.), or “Preili”
(Miss) followed by the surname. Business
cards are essential but there is no ritual sur-
rounding their exchange. It is always a nice
gesture to have one side translated into the
Estonians are direct communicators. They
say what they mean and mean what they
However, there is a certain diplomacy in
their communication style which means
they will temper their comments if they feel
it could harm a relationship or cause some-
one embarrassment. Silence is often used
to collect thoughts in order to respond to
Conversations at the start of a relationship
will be pragmatic and reserved. Estonians
are not emotive speakers and may find
those that are overbearing. A certain lev-
el of professionalism and respect should
always be demonstrated until a relationship
warms up, so politeness is key when doing
business in Estonia.
When doing business in Esto-
nia you will note that greet-
ings are formal and rather
reserved. There are certain
protocols that should be ob-
served such as men initiating
greetings with women and
the younger with the older.
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Meetings and Negotiations:
Meetings in Estonia are formal. It is prop-
er etiquette for the most senior figure of
the team to open proceedings with a short
speech and introductions.
Similarly the most senior member of the
other team should give a short speech
thanking their hosts and introducing them-
selves. Small talk, if it occurs, is short and
Prior to doing business in Estonia and hav-
ing a meeting, it is recommended to send
an agenda. If possible, have all written ma-
terials translated. Presentations should be a
blend of visual and oral information backed
with accurate figures.
Estonians do not appreciate hype, exagger-
ated claims or gimmicks. Good eye contact
with all the attendees is important.
Decisions are made at the top in any busi-
ness, and it will take more than one meet-
ing to accomplish tangible results.
The key to success is a good, firm proposal
that offers long-term gains accompanied by
building of trust.
It generally takes several meetings to reach
a decision. When negotiating, Estonians
can be direct to the point of bluntness and
may appear quite stubborn.
It is important to always keep to your word
and deliver on what you promise. Failure to
do so will damage your reputation. Try your
best to mirror the Estonian preference for
tactful language in tricky situations so as
not to cause individuals embarrassment.
Never lose your temper or raise your voice
as this will damage your standing.
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WAY OF LIFE
A typical Estonian would like to portray himself as hard-working, reliable, smart, innova-
tive and friendly. Though these qualities are all true, they are often kept as a hidden trea-
sure. In attempt to avoid being seen as obtrusive or aggressive, Estonians (even service
staff) keep to themselves and wait for you to make the first move. Once there, you will be
greeted with an honest and kind attitude.
Sense of Humour
The Estonian sense of humour is dry, sarcastic and quite
often politically incorrect. In Europe, it is most simi-
lar to the British one – jokes at our own expense
are popular, though you are much more likely
to get a grin and not open laughter as a
When asked to sing out loud, you’re
met with shy refusal. Yet, many
Estonians have sung in a choir and
our National Song and Dance fes-
tivals (once every 5 years) are the
biggest gatherings in Estonia: hun-
dreds of thousands of Estonians will
come together to hear choirs of up
to 20,000-strong sing and see thou-
sands of people perform folk dances.
In contrast, the same modern Estonians
are the ones behind Skype, mobile parking,
e-elections and many of the innovative technol-
ogies and solutions. Various e-services like e-bank-
ing, online medical and document registries; digital
tickets; full wireless connectivity and excellent mobile coverage
are considered to be as elementary as air and water by most modern Estonians.
Compliments given by an Estonian are genuine, handshakes are valid and invita-
tions heartfelt. No wonder many people claim Estonians make the best of friends.
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IN EVERYDAY SITUATIONS
Estonia is one of the most non-religious countries in the world, but Estonians value
traditions. Christian holidays and rituals are often observed or mixed with pagan ones.
A good example is All Saints Day on the 2nd of November: the day before, many people
visit churches and graves of lost family members, and at night,
candles are lit on the windows of thousands of Estonian
homes to greet the wandering souls.
Traditional handicraft and cooking skills are
passed on from one generation to another:
each year, from July to the end of Septem-
ber, Estonians are busy picking berries and
Local homemade jam, pickled vegeta-
bles and mushrooms are a real treat!
Favorite foods are sauce made of
minced meat (“hakklihakaste”), cab-
bage stews, meat in jelly and oven
baked potatoes with pork. Also, poul-
try and fish (smoked or fresh-salted)
are well-loved dishes. During summer,
grilling and barbecue are an important
part of the family gatherings.
Be sure to try Estonian beer and the non-al-
coholic “kali” (an Estonian style cola) and take
home some smoked hams and sausages (deer,
wild boar, moose and horse) to your friends!
Children go to school for 12 years, starting from the age of 7, and even though maths,
physics and science are a huge part of the curriculum, they all learn at least 2 other lan-
guages. Most commonly, Russian and English are taught at school; French, German and
Swedish are popular alternatives.
It is typical for young Estonians to start their careers at an early age, whilst still at univer-
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IN EVERYDAY SITUATIONS
sity – economy, law and medicine being the most valued areas of
study. Tartu University, known for its medical and science
fields, is one of the oldest in Europe. The number of
people in Estonia with a university degree is pro-
portionally one of the highest in Europe.
Theatre, art and reading are also an im-
portant part of Estonian culture: there
is a theatre in every city and you might
be surprised by the volume of books in
Estonian homes. There are numerous
art galleries in Estonia – the most fa-
mous and largest is the KUMU Mod-
ern Art Museum.
Most of the country houses (and
many private houses and even apart-
ments in cities) have a sauna, and
heating up before jumping into a lake
during summer or rolling in the snow
during winter, to cool down, are an im-
portant part of our bonding and cleansing
rituals. But prepare yourself if you plan to join
in: heat is high (80° Celsius is considered to be
“warm”) and nudity is normal.
Nature and sports
Estonians love nature and feel part of it: weekends are often
spent hiking, camping or just walking in the forests or by the sea – both have
played an important role throughout history and Estonians are proud of their wild, clean
nature, rich in varied – and even rare – flora and fauna. Fishing and sailing are popular and
during winter, cross-country skiing captures the mind of most Estonians.
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