SPECIAL ISSUES FOR AMERICAN-ESTONIAN RELATIONS
The following comments are based on our observations and experiences of possible areas of misunderstanding especially between N. Americans and Estonians. These are not accusations; they are issues that arise because of the difference in the expectations of the two cultures. Being aware of these expectations now may spare you the pain others have experienced in learning them by mistake.
“Differences in Hosting”
When I first arrived in Estonia, I came expecting that some Estonian family would invite me to live in their home just as my family and others had invited church interns and missionaries into our home when I was growing up. I learned quickly, though not easily, that this was an unrealistic expectation to apply to Estonians.
The Estonian home is a sacred and a private place. Estonians are wonderful hosts and will bring out their best for visitors. But long stays in the home are reserved for family and a tight “inner circle”. Privacy is a paramount value. For this reason, an invitation into some one’s home indicates a desire to know and be known, not as a friendly acquaintance but on the road to a deep, committed and intimate relationship.
As visitors in Estonia, we may be invited into people’s homes as guests. If so, we must remember that this is a sacred and private place and to honor the invitation as best we can. One very tangible way to do this is to take off your shoes upon entering and to greet with a dignified hand-shake as I’ve described above.
“The importance of leaving one’s shoes at the door.”
Every once in a while a foreigner will visit an Estonian’s home and make the mistake of asking if they need to remove their shoes. A host might answer that it’s not necessary and wave the visitor in. But in fact this is no small matter. Wearing one’s shoes into the house – in spite of being told it is alright – will give one the status of a “tolerated guest”.
This theoretical category was used throughout Estonia’s long history of foreign occupations. When a new conqueror would march on the capital, it is said that the leaders of the city would quietly offer them the keys. Why allow the city to be destroyed when the invaders would eventually leave or be replaced by another invader? Estonian identity and popular opinion could survive quietly while those outsiders claiming to have power were patiently tolerated.
The title of tolerated foreigner is the kiss of death for visitors to Estonia, especially those with good intentions. But there are many who do not know how to watch, listen and ask who bear the title unawares. Unfortunately the list of “tolerated foreigners” includes many missionaries, both past and present. Estonia has seen many, many, many missionaries and mission teams come and go in the last 14 years. Many of them come with big agendas and great ideas of what they will accomplish. Fewer actually accomplish what they’ve promised.
When we step onto Estonian soil, it is imperative from day one that we walk with humility, that we remember that we are guests and that we “leave our shoes at the door”, that is, we pay attention to what is most important to Estonians and commit ourselves to living by it.
“The Parable of the Two Sons”
A father had two sons and he asked them to go out to work the fields. One of the sons quickly agreed but rather than going to work, he busied himself with other things. The second son told his father that he would not work but after his father had gone, went and did what he had been asked to do.
“Let your yes be yes and your no be no.”
It is very important in Estonia to understand the seriousness of the spoken word. If you do not mean to do exactly what you say, it is much better simply not to say it. In fact – if you can bear it – it may be best to use you mouth for questions and leave the speaking to your actions.
“Lessons in Relationship Building.”
American children learn each year that they must make friends quickly. As we move from one grade to the next, we typically find ourselves in an original assortment of classmates. Some of them we remember from previous years but there are always some we’ve never met before. In this and other ways, Americans become adept and forming and reforming friendships quickly.
In the Estonian school system, a child will likely have the same classmates in 12th grade that they have in 1st grade. The class remains the same except for the few children that may move away from or to the neighborhood. This reflects the Estonian approach to relationship building: slow and steady wins the race.
While Estonians are very friendly and inviting, it takes time, consistency, faithfulness and trust to develop what an Estonian would consider a friendship. The typical North American friendliness is well received in Estonia. But Estonians have learned that while the words we use to speak about friendship are similar, the realities we speak of and our paths to get there can be very different. Friendly Americans sometimes promise the friendship they would like to have with the Estonians they meet only to leave in a week and misplace their address book.
In this very important aspect of living and loving, let your actions communicate what your words may only confuse.