Our friend and business partner Tiina composed a letter to an American publishing company informing them of our decision not to reprint the entire appendix of a book we had translated into Estonian. The reason? Many of the sources were either inaccessible or irrelevant for Estonian readers.
Though Tin's English is strong -- it's one of the main languages in her home, along with Estonian and Swedish -- I was asked to edit this letter, just in case. I was glad I did. To put it bluntly, Tin was blunt. Too blunt. Absolutely rude. Tactless. Rather than trying to assuage the publishing house about our good intentions in cutting part of the book, she went to work on detailing exactly why we had absolutely no need to republish all that crap in their manuscript.
With some buttery, flowery, feel-good American language, I was able to smooth out the kinks in Tin's text to make it sound as polite and quasi-British as possible, cutting of course the obligatory insincerity that pollutes English discourse ("I'm terribly sorry"), and dressing it up in sunny, optimistic tones ("Let's work together to make this book a success"). Our relationship with our partners would remain cheerful but still smart and businesslike.
It wasn't really Tin's fault that the letter came out that way. It's just that if you communicate the way Estonians communicate in English, you can come off sounding like a rude bastard. If your newly renovated house is ugly, they won't tell you that it's different, they'll tell you that's ugly. If they don't like your food, they won't tell you that they're full, they'll tell you it stinks. Estonians are not liars. They'll tell you to your face what they think of you and not even feel the slightest need to polish it with niceties. This cultural idiosyncrasy, as you can imagine, might pose some troubles for Estonian diplomacy.
Such problems work in other ways though. Just as an Estonian might come off as blunt and tactless in English, an American might come off as abrasive and downright ridiculous in Estonian. It was recommended to me, for example, that for a certain media project I contact a university professor who I'll call Virve. "You should work with Virve," said one academic. "She's quite talented." "Oh, you should talk to Virve, she'll help you, she's really good," said another. Finally, even Epp gave it her blessing. "Talk to Virve. She's one of the best."
So I wrote a letter to Virve and said I was contacting her because her colleagues recommended her and said she was quite talented - päris andekas. I thought such flattery might automatically win her friendship. People are vain, right? They like to hear good things about themselves, right? It works in New York. My colleagues always tell me when someone says something good about my performance. But in Eesti?
"Päris andekas?" Virve was surprised. "Should I take this as a compliment or does it have anything to do with my age and gender? This is something we usually say to a school girl."
A school girl? Shit. I checked it out with Epp who confirmed that, in this context, telling someone they are talented, especially a man telling a woman she is talented, is rather patronizing. "Patronizing?" my body temperature dropped. "Oh no, what have I done? What have I done?" I felt like an idiot. Not only had I been patronizing to Virve -- who, surprise, was too busy to help me -- but my patronizing tone had perhaps even been laced with subtle sexism. And all because I told someone that they are talented! (Still ashamed, I'm rubbing my face even as I write this).
These are just the things that happen when multiple cultures collide. There's no stopping it. It's hard though to rectify some situations because some Estonians, particularly some male Estonians, are the opposite of open. There are infrequent displays of, "That's ok, bro, it's all water under the bridge." There's a paucity of self-deprecating jokes. In short, a lot of the Estonians I've met are convinced that they're just about perfect; it's pure coincidence that they happen to be surrounded by assholes. Nobody's perfect, though, not even these Estonians. Life is messy. People are messy. Even people with the best intentions make mistakes. Maybe honesty and openness in these situations are the best policies because not every letter can be edited by a well-meaning friend, nor every conversation monitored for correct usage of vocabulary.