If you have just arrived to Estonia this information may help you to get to know some of the local customs.
Meeting first time. When introduced to someone, Estonians usually shake hands. They will do so even when you have met people before. It helps to follow their lead.
Giving Flowers. Estonians like to give flowers at every occasion: birthdays, visits, mother’s day, weddings – any occasion is suitable for giving flowers! It is very important to unwrap the flowers before handing them over.
Making a toast. The “style” of the toast is to lift your glass, look at the person you are toasting, sip the drink, then look again before putting the glass down. If “clinking” glasses with several people, make sure you look at each person as your glass touches theirs.
Visiting at an Estonian home. Estonians in general won’t invite you to their home until they feel they know you well. Similarly they won’t feel comfortable visiting someone whom they do not know. People are invited for birthdays, weddings and anniversaries which are often held outside home. Estonians do not usually hold dinner parties at home, instead they may invite you to a restaurant. When invited to an Estonian home or a gathering it is a nice gesture to bring the host/ess a small gift, such as wine, a box of chocolates or flowers. Remember to take off your shoes when invited inside. You are expected to do so for practical purposes, especially in winter.
Instead of waiting for the host to introduce you to everyone, when you first arrive, introduce yourself and shake hands with those who are already present. When leaving, it is customary to say thank you to the host personally, for others guests a general goodnight will do.
When invited to a housewarming you can bring a gift, flowers, etc. or be original and come with salt and bread. Housewarming in Estonian is called “soola leib” (salt and bread). Traditionally these items were given so that the family would never be lacking either in their new home.
Neighbours. As in most Nordic countries “Know your neighbours” or “The Welcome Wagon” has not made it to Estonia. It may be quite some time before you meet your neighbors, especially if you are living in a residential area. Although apartment dwellers may see their neighbors on a regular basis, they can continue on a casual nod basis for a long time before tuning into familiar discussions.
At weddings. At an Estonian wedding there usually is a toastmaster who directs the reception, keeps the atmosphere and the wedding program which usually includes lots of original songs for the couple copied up on sheets of paper and put to familiar tunes. The toastmaster will usually call upon members of the bridal party to give a speech, party games are also quite common. You are expected to bring a gift for the newly wed couple. It can be something for their home or even money in an envelope if the wedding invitation requests so.
Estonians tend to not give gifts for a newborn baby until he/she is born. It is not a good tone to visit the baby in the hospital which is reserved for close family only. Friends and relatives can expect a home invitation approximately two months after the baby is born. Estonians will come to a “katsikud” (babyshower) and bring gifts.
Dresscode. Most people wear a suit to the office, though ‘business casual’ is catching on.
Out on the street you will notice that people do not usually dress very casually unless it’s summertime and really hot. Estonians are quite style conscious. Young ladies also have an amazing skill of being able to walk in the old town while wearing very high heels.
When going out, Estonians tend to dress up. This could be jeans and a nice blouse/shirt/sweater or a nice outfit. The darker the jeans, the dressier they are. Holes in jeans have never really made it as a fashion statement here except with teenagers.
People also tend to dress up to go to the Theatre and the Opera.
You can ask your host what type of dress you are expected to wear (pidulik – semi-formal, tume ülikond – dark suit, black tie, smoking – tuxedo, frakk – white tie). For finer gatherings (especially in bad weather) it is common to wear “outdoor” shoes to the party and take your “indoor” shoes in a bag.
For casual visits, you are expected to take off your shoes at the door: bring slippers or indoor shoes with you if you have cold feet!
Punctuality. Estonians generally tend to be punctual, if you are late you are expected to apologise and briefly mention the reason. Buses and trains are supposed to be punctual and usually are.
Smoking. Smoking is banned in public places such as offices, stairwells, pubs and restaurants unless in designated areas.
Restaurants. Restaurants can be fairly formal affairs. There are, however, quite a few “family style” restaurants in Tallinn (besides McD’s): Pizza Americana, Cantina Carramba, Rucola, F-Hoone, etc. Please note that Estonians are used to tipping. Tips are not included in the price, you are expected to tip at least 5%.
Midsummer Eve is called jaanipäev and celebrated on the evening of June 23. Also the following day on 24 June – Victory Day – is a national holiday. These two dates are the hit moments for Estonians in the summer and usually celebrated with a party and gatherings in the countryside. Large bonfires are lit and much food and drink is consumed. This is one time when Estonians are very open and more likely to invite casual friends and mere acquaintances to join them.