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Business & Culture in Estonia

Estonia (»Eesti«) the most northern of the Baltic states, can be traced back to a first century, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, to a place or people called »Aestui« or »Aestii«, The first evidence of Estonia is mentioned in the Chronican Livoniae (1180-1227), which includes descriptions of the society and phrases of the language.

Estonia has been ruled by many countries after the 13th century; Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Poland and Russia. The country was divided into two provinces during the Polish-Swedish rule from 1560-1710 (Estland in the north, and Livland in the south, incl, a part of Latvia), and later under the imperial Russia.

Estonia was politically independent between 1918 and 1940, and became independent again in 1991 when the country regained its independence from the Soviet Union.

The Estonian language belongs to the Finno-Ugric linguistic group. It is closely related to Finnish and also distantly to Hungarian and various spoken languages in Siberia. It bears no resemblance to the languages of the other Baltic republics, Latvia and Lithuania, or to Russia. Today, about one quarter of the population is of Russian-speaking origin. However, this is changing rapidly, because Estonians are pushing Russian citizens toward learning the Estonian language. English is in fact gaining popularity in Estonia as a second or third language. Ethnic Estonians are the majority of the population, amounting to almost 64%.

Tallinn, the capital, is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe, and tourism accounts for 15% of Estonian GDP. After the independence in 1991, Estonia has transformed its economy from central planned system to a free market. The main sectors of the economy are electronics and telecom sectors, engineering, food products, metals, chemicals and wood products. As a member of EU and WTO is Estonia steadily moving towards a modern market economy with increasing ties to the West. Major and traditional trading partners are Germany, Finland and Sweden.


The Evangelical Lutheran Church is the largest denomination. Under the Soviet rule became religion a silent protest for most Estonians. After the independence several religious organizations appeared. With the purpose of uniting the different churches, the Council of Estonian Churches was established in 1989. Most people attend church only at Christmas.

Family Values

The family is the fundament of the Estonian social life. Nuclear families in the cities and extended families on the countryside. The average family includes husband, wife and one child. Newly wed couples live often together with the parents of one of the spouses. Elderly family members are highly respected and are often taken care of at home instead of being placed in a care home. Grandparents tend to help with the child care when their parents are working. Wives are responsible for the household even though they might have full time jobs. Marriage to non-Estonians is not forbidden, but mixed marriages especially between Estonians and Russians are not especially welcomed, as it is estimated that more than 50'% of all marriages end in divorce. 

Gender Roles

Women's rights are legally protected by the Constitution, which explicitly forbids gender discrimination. However, still are men given executive positions, while women are given more visible positions in the service sectors; in banks, retail shops and secretarial work. There are women active in politics, but few in the government.

Social Behavior

Estonians are formal and reserved, do not like to draw attention to themselves, and maintain distance in public and private spaces. They seem to avoid eye contact, and talk in a hushed tone. Being calm and rational are respected qualities. Once a relationship is established their distant behaviour will change. Estonians look at Russians as being loud, boisterous and not respectful of personal space.

Hierarchical Society

  • Position, age and life experience are highly respected.
  • Elderly people are introduced and served first.
  • When addressing people, it is important that you use their titles and surnames.
  • Do not use a person's first name until you are invited to do so.

Meeting and Greeting

  • When meeting someone, present yourself with a firm handshake and direct eye contact.
  • Address people with Mr/Mrs and their surname.
  • Women will wait for men to initiate the handshake.
  • Older people always expect a younger person to say hello first.
  • Respect Estonians’ need for personal sphere and integration by keeping physical distance.

Business Cards

Gift GivingBusiness cards are exchanged without any ritual. If you have any academic titles, you should add them to your card. When doing business in Estonia, you ought to have one side printed in the Estonian language.

Gift Giviing

Gift giving among companies is not common. However, should you be invited to an Estonian home, bring flowers (odd numbers) or a box of exclusive chocolate. Gifts are opened when received.

Business Attire

Men should wear a nice suit, shirt and tie. Women should wear a neat business dress. Avoid revealing clothing.

Lunches and Dinners

  • Punctuality is vital. If you are delayed, notify your Estonian counterpart immediately.
  • Dress conservatively.
  • When being invited to a private home, you might be asked to remove your shoes. You will be offered slippers.
  • Do not shake hands over the doorstep. It means bad luck.
  • An Estonian home is private, so you should not expect to be shown around in the house.
  • If you offer the hostess your assistance with the food and clearing up after the meal, it will be appreciated.
  • Table manners are continental (fork and knife) and formal!
  • Watch your table manners!
  • Wait with sitting down until you are shown to a seat.
  • Wait with eating and drinking until the hostess gives the sign.
  • Do not rest your elbows on the table.
  • Your hands should be visible all the time and not placed on your lap.
  • Give compliments to the hostess for the good meal!
  • Try to finish everything on your plate.

Business Practise

  • Appointments should be made 2-3 weeks in forehand.
  • Working hours in Estonia are normally from 9 am-5 pm, with 1 hour’s lunch between 1-2 pm.
  • Confirm the appointment by fax or phone.
  • Communication is formal.
  • Already at this stage you ought to find out what language your counterpart prefers. Younger Estonians speak fluently English and possibly also German. If your counterpart is a senior, you might need an interpreter for the meeting.
  • Make copies of all documents and prospects for the meeting.
  • Prepare your presentation thoroughly and detailed.

Business Meetings and Negotiations

  • Arrive in time, as punctuality is expected. If you are delayed, notify your Estonian counterpart immediately.
  • Do not shake hands over the doorstep.
  • Greet everyone in the room with a firm handshake and direct eye contact.
  • Remember that you should always be standing up when greeting another person, as it is considered rude to sit when greeting someone.
  • If a woman enters the room when you are seated, please stand up.
  • Business cards are exchanged without any formal ritual.
  • You ought to show interest and read the ones you are receive. Showing your this way means that you also respect other people..
  • Place the business cards you receive in front of you on the table. In this way you will show your respect and interest by addressing people with their correct professional titles and surnames.
  • Address people who have no professional titles with Mr/Mrs followed by their surname.
  • Your ability to listen will be appreciated!
  • Maintain eye contact during the meeting!
  • Estonians do not usually do much small talk when negotiating, but go straight to the point.

An Estonian business meeting is opened by a senior who welcomes with a short speak. It is expected that the most senior person from your side will respond to his speak. Estonians are open-minded for new, potential foreign business partners. They have long traditions with foreign trade and with a good reputation as hard working, honest and professional business people.

  • Formal meetings will follow a strict agenda and protocol.
  • Estonians are reserved and quite especially at the early stage of a relationship.
  • Passive silence is their way of communicating. Body language is usually slight, and when Estonians speak they speak only when they have something important to say.
  • Estonians do not feel embarrased or uncomfortable with long silences, but it may feel strange for people coming from a country outside Estonia. In negotiations, silence means that the Estonians are just thinking about what just have been said.
  • Behave professional, competent and polite.
  • Do not gesticulate or talk with a loud voice.
  • Estonians do not show emotions when they speak.
  • Be patient and do not rush any decisions. Normally, it will take a couple of meetings before a decision is made by the top management of the Estonian company.
  • Estonians are honest and direct. They are determined to keep their word and expect others to do so too. Do not criticize or speak negatively about anyone or anything.

A meeting is often followed by a lunch or dinner, where the atmosphere is more social. However, you should maintain to behave polite and not casual.

  • Do not turn down such an invitation, as it is an opportunity for both parts to learn to know each other better and to develop a more personal relationship.
  • Good topics for discussions are sports, culture and travels, Avoid the topics;  »relations between Estonians and Russians in Estonia«, salary, taxes, or religion.

Follow up the meeting within a week with a letter about what has been agreed. Your letter will most likely be responded, in order to make it clear for both parts that all points are understood

Last update: March 2015.