Friday, April 18, 2008


The groceries were scanned and the price totaled. I paid using a debit card, and the receipt was placed on the glass tray. (Money and receipts never go hand to hand, but hand to tray to hand.) During the entire process the check-out lady at the food store had never looked at me, much less spoken to me. She now looked away and into the distance. I said, in Estonian, “Hello! How are you doing today?” She appeared surprised, and as she looked at me for the first time, her face softened. “Fine, thank you” she said, and smiled.

I was probably the first, and perhaps the only person who would have spoken to her that day. Friendly, chatty communication with strangers is just not done in Estonia. One only speaks to people one knows.

This is not unusual for Europe, where languages intermingle in impossibly complex patterns and one is never sure what language a stranger might speak. So the best policy, for most Europeans, is not to speak to anyone except friends and family. This is not true all over Europe, with the Danes being the most wonderful exception, but for the most part, spending time in international airports like Heathrow or Orly or Frankfut will let you hear snatches of many languages from small groups of people, but seldom will a stranger say anything to you.

Estonians seem to take this reticence to an extreme level, however, and I began to wonder why this would be, for Estonians are not unfriendly people and the Estonian language is almost universally spoken here. Today one may still find Russian-Estonians who refuse to learn Estonian, but except for the old and uneducated, this number is rapidly dropping. Wherever you go, you can be fairly sure that the stranger you meet will be speaking Estonian (whereas just a few years ago, you could be fairly certain that everyone could speak Russian).

After regaining independence in 1991, the Estonians quickly de-Russified the country, removing Russian street signs, for example, and eliminating the need to learn Russian language in school. The desire to not speak Russian often made life harder, but the memory of its imposition on society was strong. Sometime in 1993 I was in Estonia and staying in a small hotel that had only a few years ago been a private house. One day I was in the lobby when a young couple came in and began the check-in process. This was not an easy task, since neither the youngsters nor the lady behind the check-in desk could speak English very well, and they were doing their best to communicate. After the couple went to their room, the check-in lady came over to me and told me that the youngsters were Latvians. “We would have got along very well in Russian,” she said, “but we just did not want to.”

Perhaps one reason for the reticence in speaking to strangers is that during the 50 years of Soviet occupation Estonians (and of course others in the USSR) had to be very careful about what they said. Even the smallest remark critical of the government could be costly. The father of my neighbor here in Pirita was sent to jail for 5 years for saying something like “Communism is a lousy economic system” and being overheard by a KGB informant. Small children were routinely questioned in school about what their parents might have been talking about at home, so even casual conversation in the home was guarded. And the most dangerous speech was with strangers who might be informants. So there is a history of not talking, and this can only be undone with generational turnover.

But there has to be more to the lack of communication. The signals are clear. For example, if you stop for a pedestrian on a crosswalk in the US (at least in New London NH) you will invariably receive a thank you wave. Not here. And people here will very seldom use blinkers when changing lanes. That small courtesy of driving communication is not commonly practiced. When you hold a door open for someone, there is no acknowledgement of the kind deed. It’s as if the presence of other people is an embarrassment.

I was born here, and yet I am very different from native Estonians when it comes to friendly incidental conversation. What was it about my own upbringing in America that changed me so much, and what kind of person might I have been if I had grown up in this part of the world? Would I have ignored the humanity of the check-out lady, just as other had?


CeilingGazer said...

A good reminder that as rude as Americans can be (especially in big cities), we're still the smiling, bounding cocker spaniels of the world. xo/emili

pamela said...

I like to think that you picked up some of that friendliness from your days in the south. But really, this reminds me of how Grandpa intentionally engaged checkout clerks. When they'd ask the rhetorical question: how are you? He'd answer: worse, thank you.

Triin said...

Well, look at the positive side of it. We don't even have to teach our kids not to speak to strangers, because there is natural propensity not to do it in the first place.

Actually, your little story reminded me of some Estonian friends who moved to the US with their 2-year-old daughter who at the time did not speak any English. She apparently learned quickly, though. About a month after their move the little girl was in a grocery store with her mom when an old lady started the usual: "Oh, you are so cute, what's your name, etc." The girl scowled at the old lady and then blurted out: "You stupid animal!"

You can guess three times whether her mom was mortified or not... :-)

Triin said...

LOL, I happened to be reading this (in Estonian!) today and remembered your post...