Estonian Business Etiquette

Tervitus! (‘‘Welcome!” in Estonian)

Estonia, along with neighboring European nations Latvia and Lithuania, are commonly referred to as the Baltic States. This is due to the fact that all three countries border the Baltic Sea, which also touches Sweden, Finland, and Poland, among others.

Although Estonians share common ethnic and lingual ties with the Finnish and were ruled for decades by the Russians, Estonia is unique in its languages, customs, and culture. Estonia is a relatively small country with a sparse population (just about 1.3 million residents - about the same amount as San Diego, CA), but it is considered a developed country with extremely high-income residents. At 99.8%, Estonia also has the second-highest literacy rate in the world, demonstrating the country's rigorous education standards.

Before you venture off to Estonia, let’s first learn about the dos and don’ts of Estonian business etiquette.

The Lowdown

                                          Kiiking

                                          Kiiking

  • The capital of Estonia is Tallinn, which is also its largest city.
  • The official language of Estonia is Estonian, but many citizens also speak Russian.
  • Approximately 70% of the population identifies ethnically as Estonian – the remaining percentage is composed of various other European ethnicities.
  • Estonia is relatively religiously diverse; however, the majority of the population either abstains from practicing religion or does not disclose their beliefs. Estonia is considered one of the least religious countries in the world.  
  • Estonia is a parliamentary republic (there is both a president and a prime minister).
  • Fun fact: In the mid-1990s, Estonians invented a new sport called “kiiking”, which is basically a form of extreme swinging wherein adults stand on a giant swing and try to flip it over the swing bar. You can check out a kiiking in action here. (Warning: if you get motion sickness like I do, this video may make you a bit dizzy!)

Dressing Sharp

  • Estonians are very similar to other Europeans when it comes to the standard of business dress.
  • Men should wear: dark, clean suit and tie with nice shoes.
  • Women should wear: dark, clean pantsuit or jacket-skirt combination.
  • Estonian dress is usually hip and stylish.
  • Your outward presentation should always be tidy.
  • Some companies will have a relaxed dress code. If you suspect this may be the case, check with your Estonian business contact before packing.
  • Summers are rainy, and a good portion of the year the temperature is very cold. Depending on what time of year you visit Estonia, check the weather and pack and dress accordingly.

Make or Break Meetings

  • Schedule meetings at least a few weeks in advance.
  • Estonians are compulsively punctual. They do not like wasting time or money. Be on time or a few minutes early for all meetings and engagements.
  • When greeting an Estonian business person, maintain polite eye contact and shake the hand of all present parties.
  • Titles are of the utmost importance – if the Estonian party has a specific title, use it. If not, you can use "Härra" (Mr.), "Prova" (Mrs.), or "Preili" (Ms.).
  • Estonians are more formal and reserved in business communications, so don’t take this personally.
  • Business cards are exchanged at the first meeting. It’s polite to have one side translated into Estonian out of respect for the Estonian party.

Dining Decorum

  • Be on time for dinner! Just like business meetings, Estonians are punctual in regards to meal plans.
  • Meals may be held at a restaurant or at the home of an Estonian. If it is held in a private home, offer to help the host with the setting of the table or the meal clean-up.
  • Table manners are Continental and usually quite formal. 
  • At the beginning of the meal, the host will usually say "head isu," which means "good appetite."
  • Do not: sit down until you are instructed to do so, begin eating until you are instructed to do so, rest your elbows on the table, or leave food on your plate.

Giving and Getting Gifts

  • Gifts are generally not exchanged between business partners. Sometimes, gifts are exchanged between coworkers on special occasions.
  • Acceptable gifts include: candy, chocolate, flowers (in an odd number bouquet), or merchandise bearing your company logo.
  • Keep it small!
  • Gifts are typically opened upon receipt.

Down to Business

  • Estonians prefer to do business with those who they are comfortable with, so it is worthwhile to build rapport with your business contacts.
  • When speaking or presenting, keep the tone of your voice low and your hand gestures to a minimum. Estonians may find loudness or animation to be abnormal.
  • If your Estonian business contact does not speak your language, you should hire an interpreter.
  • Negotiations will likely be slow, as several meetings are generally necessary in order for Estonian business people to feel informed enough to make a decision.
  • Estonians are extremely pragmatic when it comes to making decisions. Facts and figures which support your claims will go a long way.
  • Estonian business people will keep their word and they expect you to do the same. If an agreement is made, it should be honored.

Now that you're well prepared for your next jet-setting business trip to Estonia, don't forget to stay tuned for our next Business Etiquette blurb!

Hüvasti! (‘‘Farewell” in Estonian)