Estonians In Cross-Cultural Perspective – Don’t Beat Around The Bush! Time Is Money!

There are cultural variations in how people understand and use time. Researchers have divided cultures into two groups in the way they handle time: monochronic or linear-active cultures and polychronic or multi-active cultures. Our culture shapes our communication and designates what we pay attention to and what we ignore. Our time perception is reflected in our communication style.

The majority of Estonians, for instance, are monochronic, thus, they belong to the linear-active cultures. This means that time is experienced and used in a linear way – comparable to a road extending from the past into the future. For Estonians’ time is divided into segments. It is expected that everything happens at exact time according to the timetable and they feel satisfied when everything goes according to the carefully planned schedule. Estonians prefer to complete one task at a time, they value punctuality and keeping to schedules. Schedules are sacred and deadlines are taken very seriously. For example, if it is said that the deadline for applications is at 4:00 pm on Monday, then there is no point to send it five minutes later any more.
Estonians highly value their time.

Estonians’ linear time perception is reflected in their communication style. People talk about it as it were money, they have a wide range of expressions which link time to money, such as “Aeg on raha!” (time is money), “Iga minut on arvel!” (every minute counts), “Kaotama aega.” (losing time), “Ära raiska aega!” (Don’t waste time!) “Säästa aega!” (Save time!), “Aeg saab otsa.” (To run out of time.).

Estonians speak as there were lack of time. The Golden rule is “Keep it short, say what is relevant and get to the point!” Estonians want to get results quickly and hate waiting as this is regarded waste of time. The same concerns communication patterns. For example, if there is a pause longer than two seconds, Estonians think that people either do not understand them or do not have an opinion and thus, start paraphrasing or clarifying their statements in order to get a response. If they think that people didn’t understand them, they try to rephrase it more shortly and make it more explicit and clear.

Linear-active cultures are characterized by direct communication style which strives to represent facts accurately and avoids emotional overtones and suggestive allusions. Estonians’ cultural preference is for clear and direct (linear) communication as evidenced through common expressions such as “Ära keeruta!” (Don’t beat around the bush), “Räägi asjast! (Get to the point). If you speak too long and make too many words, they stop listening because they think that you never get to the point and and that you deliberately waste their time.

Indirect communication style in multi-active cultures (e.g. in Arabic countries, in Latin-America), is ambiguous, persuasive and emotionally rich – “all voices together”. Estonians are not good in comprehending or following the real purpose of the indirect message and they perceive it as a waste of time. I have witnessed many conflicts which have aroused only because a person from another culture just talks to much and too long.

Estonians as listeners focus on the words articulated by the speaker; they try to grasp the message exactly, asks questions and make remarks and short comments when listening. The most common expression are “mh-mh”, “ja-jaa”, “ah-haa”, which means “yes” and may sound as they agree, however, it actually means only that they are listening, or even not really listening, but just waiting their turn to talk. Estonians as typical representatives of linear-active cultures are used to wait their turn to speak and thus, they always get in line and stay in line and they are therefore extremely frustrated when someone doesn’t respect this order.

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