How diverse is Estonia?

A talk taking place at the Opinion Festival on Saturday, ‘Diversity in the Estonian workplace and society: the good, the bad and the ugly’, examined issues of culture, race, identity, and discussed both what foreigners can do to feel more part of Estonian life, and also what Estonia as a whole can do to be as welcoming as possible.

The Opinion Festival throws up annual surprises, but one regular topic is foreigners and their integration into Estonian life. This is perhaps understandable – with the rapid expansion of Estonia-based companies like Transferwise, along with increased international investment in the country, has come a shift in the population demographic. This has not been without friction, as the discussion, in the shadow of Paide’s Holy Cross Church, showed. Nonetheless, there were anecdotes that showed how much has changed for the better for residents of other nationalities.

A lot of the discussion revolved around learning the Estonian language; many adult learners say that they find it difficult to pick up. There was also some talk about whether the problem is that, for the majority of incomers, at least those based in Tallinn, there is a lack of immersion culture – in other words, most Estonians in the capital are happy to speak English, and so it is rare for there to be a definite need for the Tallinn-based foreigner to converse in Estonian. For this reason, the idea of making it compulsory for all foreigners living in Estonia to learn the language was raised. However, although there was some support for the idea, in general the audience, which was quite evenly split between Estonians and foreigners, preferred encouragement of language learning to compulsion.

In general the discussion was calm and measured, but there was more passion shown when an African-American audience member brought up a word often used in the Estonian language to describe a person of colour, which sounds very similar to a term which has become known as very abusive and racist in the UK and US. She said that hearing that word used made her feel uncomfortable.

There was then debate over the perceived historical context of the word in the Estonian language, and whether the requirement to change should be upon the individual who heard the word and was offended, or upon Estonian society not to use the word (there being plenty of other, synonymous, terms that could be used that would not offend anyone). Although no definitive decision was reached, there seemed to be a consensus that increased care over not offending people with any language used would make the world of work more comfortable for many.

A Latin American living in Estonia described how he had, initially, greeted his colleagues in the office each day by shaking their hands, and had regularly hugged people who he knew well, until being told it was not a common thing to do in an Estonian workplace. He explained his personal dilemma, before saying that he decided to “embrace” the fact that he did not look, sound or act “like an Estonian”, and that he was proud of his cultural identity. Two young Russian-Estonian siblings also talked about their positive experiences learning Estonian at a Russian school.

From there, the talk moved onto the ways in which foreigners can get to know Estonian culture. The theatre was cited as a great way to learn the language and to gain a greater cultural understanding; many high-profile productions are subtitled in English, while another idea raised was to hold performances written specially in easy-to-understand Estonian, for adult language-learners. The talk was held in the ‘world cafe’ format, meaning that microphones were passed throughout the audience, and participation ‘in the round’ was encouraged, rather than set speakers taking part in a more conventional forum.

Ask Not What Your Country…

Estonia is in an interesting place at the moment, seen increasingly as a great spot in which to do business, and as such accommodating increasing numbers of international workers. This, and Estonia’s corporate social responsibility agenda, were covered in two entertaining and informative English-language talks at the Opinion Festival.

The growing number of Erasmus courses offered by Estonian universities is also helping to change the complexion of Estonia. How are foreigners finding life in Estonia, and how good are relations with local people? This was one of the questions considered by the talk on Saturday, ‘Do Non-Native Residents Feel Like Hosts or Guests?’, presented by Estonian World and the Estonia 100 Celebration team.

The panel was moderated by Stewart Johnson, an American long-time Tartu resident who is also one of the stalwarts of English stand-up comedy troupe Comedy Estonia. He raised a point which seemed to elicit several different answers from different people, about the supposed need for children born with two passports to choose if they wish to keep their Estonian passport or another one at the age of 18.

Although Johnson, the guests and the audience discussed the constitutional need for a child to choose, the Estonian state is prevented from taking away a passport, which, if taken literally, means that if an 18 year-old makes no decision, he or she keeps both passports. It was an intriguing point, and one that perhaps ought to be clarified now that more and more children are being born to one Estonian and one foreign parent.

Otherwise, the talk was mostly about cultural difference, race, and understanding of others. There was a discussion of what needs to be done to make foreigners feel more welcome in the cities in which they have settled, with Joao Rey, a Portuguese living in Tallinn, making the point that there appear to be far fewer negative incidents related to a person’s race or nationality in the capital than in a city like Tartu, for example.

Although most of the panellists spoke of at least one racist incident, the talk was generally framed in a positive way, with Johnson, a fluent Estonian-speaker who sometimes performs his comedy acts in the language, closing by reassuring the audience that he and the panel understood the need for Estonian language learning in order for a person to contribute fully to society.

Another English-language talk followed, down in the centre of Paide. ‘Whose Business is Social Responsibility?’ was moderated by Mart Soonik, with contributions from Kristiina Esop, Annika Migur, civil servant Liisa Oviir and outgoing British Ambassador to Estonia Chris Holtby. Ambassador Holtby has only nine days to go on his posting in Estonia, but can be said to have made huge steps to influence positively the international perception of Estonia.

Asked about the challenges of giving his staff a corporate social responsibility requirement, Holtby said how he had made it a requirement in staff’s annual review that they complete a CSR task. He experienced some push-back to that requirement at first, but according to the Ambassador, the response after staff completed tasks in the local community was overwhelmingly positive. He also talked about how there are plans in the Estonian government to axe the need for supermarkets to pay tax if they give away more than 3% of their stock for free. Rimi was alone among Estonian supermarkets in having given away stock to soup kitchens in spite of having to pay tax on it.

There was also discussion of the gender pay gap. Currently recruiters are not required by Estonian law to list a salary in job advertisements, meaning interviewees usually need to name their salary. There is some evidence that women generally ask for a lower salary than men would in the same situation. In response to an audience suggestion that the requirement by law for a listing of salary in the advert might close the largest gender pay-gap in the European Union, Oviir said, “yes, we did suggest it, but we have a coalition government, so it’s not currently an option. We hope it will be back on the table after the next election.”