Why are Estonians so introverted? 6 highly unscientific theories

Estonians have a reputation for being introverted. In fact, Estonia is one of the 11 most introverted countries in the world.

While I can’t comment on a global scale, I have noticed that Estonians are far quieter and more reserved than the romance countries in Western Europe, where I found it nearly impossible to walk down the street without someone trying to start a conversation (though maybe that had more to do with me being a 20-24-year-old girl travelling alone…). But even when compared to a more moderately friendly culture, like back home in Australia, the difference is noticeable.

When I go to the supermarket, the only words I exchange with the cashier are ‘tere’ and ‘aitäh’, and it’s not uncommon for them not to make eye contact during this exchange. When you pass people in the street, they actively avoid eye contact, lest you take the opportunity to start a conversation.

And on the bus, I’ve noticed it’s common for a third of the seats to be empty, but everyone insists on standing. At first I thought this was because everyone was just trying to be polite and let others have the seats (not realising that by not taking a seat, they are inconsiderately preventing movement through the bus). But now Drew and I have a theory that they just don’t want to sit next to other people…

The big question is why. Why would a people who seem to have so much going for them (haven’t you heard that the country is populated solely by evangelical entrepreneurs and supermodels?) be so reserved?

Having been here for all of three months, one week and five days (but who’s counting?), I think I’ve solved the puzzle.

Behold: 6 reasons why Estonians are so introverted!

1. They have no peripheral vision

‘What?’ you say, ‘How has this not been covered in the news? Where’s the public outcry? The awareness campaigns?’

Well the truth is that Estonia is a small country, and doesn’t have much of a presence on the global media stage…

Gotcha. The truth is that Estonians have no peripheral vision for the four to six months of the year when the weather drops from chilly to cold to freezing and they need to put on their heavy-duty winter jackets.

‘Why?’ you ask?

Heavy-duty winter jackets feature heavy-duty winter hoods, which are so big that, when your hood is up, you have no peripheral vision. (You should see how often I have to do a full 360-degree turn when Drew and I are out to see if he’s still next to me/behind me.)

Introversion hypothesis 1: If you can’t see the people around you, it’s a bit hard to interact with them. Multiply that to up to half the year, and your social skills are bound to be affected.

2. It’s dark and cold for 6 months of the year

Admittedly, I haven’t been here long enough to know if winter weather does last for six months, but it sounds good so let’s go with it!

We are now in early December. The weather has hit -8 degrees Celsius and we’ve had snow four or five times already. Today the sun rose at 9:02am and set at 3:23pm.

It’s not the most hospitable environment (despite the fluffy, white snow, pretty Christmas lights and mulled wine). Most creatures go into hibernation. With the exception of going to and from mandatory activities (read: work), so do Estonians.

Introversion hypothesis 2: If you don’t go outside, you can’t talk to people. Before long, you’re out of practice.

3. They know what everyone looks like naked

Naked saunas are a thing, here. Apparently the traditional way to do it is to have your sauna and then go out and roll in the snow naked like the Finns, but I haven’t been lucky (unlucky?) enough to experience this yet.

I have been to the sauna at my gym, though. And yes, everyone was naked (except for one awkward Australian in her bikini…).

Interestingly, the sauna is where Estonians seem to be the most sociable – what starts as someone asking if she can throw water onto the rocks turns into a 10-minute conversation between long lost friends. One time, I had a woman valiantly try to speak to me in Estonian when I was the only other person in there. Needless to say, it did not go well. (Note to self: Ask Estonian teacher about appropriate sauna conversation topics.)

Introversion hypothesis 3: After you’ve spent 20 minutes naked in the sauna with someone, when you run into them at the supermarket, it’s easier to avoid eye contact than to admit that you know what all their bits look like.

4. Words are hard

Estonian has so many vowels! And some of them have accents!

Just consider:

  • Uusaastaöövastuvõtuhommikuidüll
  • Kuulilennuteetunneliluuk
  • Kuuuurija
  • Jäääär
  • Veoautojuht
  • Töööö
  • Aoäiaõeuueoaõieaiaõueauaööau
  • Jõululaululaulja
  • Vanapaganatagavara

No wonder they don’t talk to anyone – it’s too hard!

Introversion hypothesis 4: Talking is hard, so why bother?

5. The Russians might hear them

Estonia is a former Eastern Bloc state and was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991 (with a brief break of German occupation from 1941 to 1944 – yay, I guess?).

Although they have been independent, tech-savvy startup hipsters for nearly 30 years now, and the supermodel population is thriving, Russia is still right next door. And it’s still … you know … Russia.

If the Estonians get too loud, Russia might remember they’re here.

Introversion hypothesis 5: Enough said.

6. The overwhelming prevalence of elbow injuries

This startling new fact just emerged in the last week following a peer-reviewed, double-blind study involving Drew and I going to our local pharmacy to look for knee braces/bandages.

(Backstory: When you’re unfit and suddenly start doing several HIIT workouts a week, which involve lots of jumping, your knees won’t be happy.)

We arrived at the pharmacy and found the section with bandages and braces. I searched for something that might help my knees and there they were! On the bottom shelf, there was a range of stretchy, tubular braces.

Or so I thought.

They were all for elbows! Why?! Do Estonians have some sort of degenerative elbow condition that I don’t know about? Are all of their other joints so robust that their elbows just seem weak in comparison?

Now you might be wondering, what does this have to do with Estonians being introverted?

Introversion hypothesis 6: I’m not sure what the link is here, but I’m sure it exists. What other explanation could there be??*


*Including the elbow braces in this post also meant I could avoid creating a separate post just for them. :p

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