Book Review: Culture Smart!: Estonia: A Quick Guide To Customs And Etiquette

Culture Smart!: Estonia: A Quick Guide To Customs And Etiquette, by Clare Thomson

As someone who attempts to travel intelligently, I have viewed my upcoming trip to Estonia [1] as an opportunity to read about the country and its ways. As someone who tends to read as a general way of preparing for something, this is the sort of book that is easy to appreciate, and that provides some useful knowledge about Estonia and its people and history and contemporary politics, for those who are interested in such matters. The book is short, with just over 160 short pages of reading material along with some suggestions for reading for those who want to read more, including some of the novels and short stories that are well known, and translated into English. As Culture Smart in general focuses on helping people get along in business, it is little surprise that the topics of discussion tend to focus on those areas that are likely to be of most interest to those who are doing business in Estonia rather than those whose travel is for religious reasons, which might strike Estonians, not a very religious people, as somewhat unusual. At any rate, the book is easy to read and highly accessible, and tends to be very understanding towards Estonian quirks, which makes for friendly reading.

In terms of the organization and structure of the book, this guidebook contains nine chapters. The first chapter discusses the land and people, giving climate information, comments on the largest cities of the mainland (which are not very large, for the most part, in this thinly populated land), and gives a brief historical and political discussion. After this the author discusses the values and attitudes of Estonia, including their black humor, penchant for stubbornness (jonn), legacy of occupation and trade as a Hanseatic base frequently fought over throughout the centuries, as well as a Lutheran work ethic which includes excessive amounts of work and a tendency to look down on idleness. After this there is a chapter about festivals and celebrations, which points out that most celebrations have either pagan or nationalistic origins, as well as a comment on weddings and other rites of passage. The fourth chapter talks about how to make friends as a foreign worker or student through hanging out, enjoying hospitality, going to the sauna, and following some simple conversational dos and don’ts, encouraging sensitivity and avoiding harangues on local politics, which is generally good anywhere one goes. The fifth chapter discusses daily life, including health care, family life (women do most of the housework), family life, education, and pets. A pleasant chapter about time out in the countryside, enjoying Estonia’s sports (they are fond of basketball), the arts, food and drink, and shopping. A very practical chapter on travel follows which expresses that Estonia’s trains are a bit of a wreck and that buses are the way most people who do not have their own vehicles get around, along with some comments about walking. The last two chapters focus on doing business and communicating, which comment that most Estonians communicate through e-mails mostly.

Although I had known at least some of Estonia’s difficult history, this book had some interesting reminders about Estonia as a culture and the behavior that its people that I will take to heart. For example, Estonians are known for being a bit frosty, have difficulty smiling, and have a strong cultural tradition of jonn (stubbornness) that tends to leave people unwilling to communicate displeasure with others very easily. Estonians are known for being straightforward, skeptical, frostily polite, with troubles communicating difficulties and highly hostile to authoritarian bullying. They are not known for smiling, nor do they seem to engage in small talk. I am greatly curious as to how my own interactions with Estonians will go, seeing as I do not really know all that many of them, having only had a couple of penpals from the country during my lengthy years of letter writing. Given Estonian sensitivities about Russia, sensitivities I share [2], I will likely be in the mood to tour museums and gardens, enjoy quiet opportunities at reading and using their famous widespread wi-fi, and get to know the people around me, if they show anything remotely approaching friendliness. After all, that is how I behave wherever I go.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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10 Responses to Book Review: Culture Smart!: Estonia: A Quick Guide To Customs And Etiquette

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