We all know that our success in life depends in a great deal how good communicators we are. New immigrants often believe that just learning vocabulary and grammar makes them effective communicators in Estonia and solves all the problems. However, in the long run they notice that they have misunderstandings and conflicts everywhere. By observing cultural differences in communication styles and practices of new immigrants in Estonia and other European countries, I have recorded several cultural differences that lead to conflicts and misunderstandings instead of success.
Recently we saw a case in media where a group of Arabs tried to change their drivers licenses in Estonia, however, caused a media event by threatening officials instead. The main reason for the conflict was that although Arabs spoke Estonian, they used totally different communication style than Estonians do. It was really interesting to see how the officials tried to explain the regulations according to their own direct communication style, however, as Arabs and Estonians have very different listening and speaking habits, Arabs did not get the message but perceived it as an unfriendly behavior and responded with threats. For Estonians, on the other hand, it is difficult to grasp that speaking volubly and with a rising tone might show sincerity in other cultures and thus they usually perceive it as an aggressive behavior.
There are enormous cultural differences in low and high context communication, in how to approach other people, how to say what is relevant, in body language, in direct and indirect communication styles as well as in values and norms. Officials who analysed the situation claimed that Arabs didn’t listen to them, that they spoke about irrelevant things, didn’t obey rules and threatened officials. Customer servants usually claim that Arabs don’t understand the meaning of the word “no”, they don’t get that it really means that “something is not possible”. They seem to think that they just have to explain longer and come back on the next day with bigger group and speak louder. According to my experience Arabs tend to use the same communication behavior over and over again in different situations in Estonia although they never reach their goals.
Arabic and Estonian cultures may be distinguished in terms of direct versus indirect communication styles. Estonian cultural preference is for clear and direct communication as evidenced by common expressions such as “Ära keeruta!” (Don’t beat around the bush), “Räägi asjast! (Get to the point). As we see from these two examples Estonians use even less words to express these phrases than English speakers which means that they really prefer to get to the point as quickly as possible without wasting time as that is how they feel when someone talks too much about “irrelevant” things. In high-context communication, (such as Arabic) much of the “burden of meaning” appears to fall on the listener. In low context cultures (such as Estonian), the burden to accurately and thoroughly convey the meaning in one’s spoken or written message appears to fall on the speaker (Hall, 1976). 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 that have aroused only because a person from another culture just talks to much and too long.
The direct style strives to represent facts accurately and avoids emotional overtones and suggestive allusions. Indirect communication style, which is more common among Arabs, is to the contrary, ambiguous and emotionally rich. The desire for precision is not as important as creating emotional resonance. For Estonians, it is difficult to grasp that speaking loudly and with a rising tone might show sincerity in other cultures and thus, they usually perceive it as aggressive and hostile behavior.
Although Arabs are considered as representatives of indirect communication style,the Arabic language seems to be in many ways much more direct than English or Estonian. For example, in Estonian you cannot say to someone “I want this!” or “You must do this!”. Instead, one often paraphrase it as a question or use conditional mood “Ma sooviksin… ” (I would like to have…), “Kas oleks võimalik/kas ma saaksin…? ” (Would it be possible/could I…?). In those cases Arabs tend to use according to the Arabic language structure quite direct approach which may shock officials, customer servants as well as all other people in Estonia because it sounds aggressive. In addition, like in the German language there are familiar and polite forms for saying “you” (Sina – Du, Teie – Sie) and in official communication context between strangers only the polite form is always used as it enables to keep distance and shows respect. This is definitely another reason why Estonians regard Arabs’ communication style as aggressive.
So far we have been training only officials and customer servants on these issues to reduce cross-cultural conflicts in Estonia, however, it doesn’t make new immigrants more successful communicators. In ordinary language courses language teachers are not aware of cultural differences in communication styles and are not able to teach those skills. The Estonian language course books are not designed to teach cross-cultural communication nor how to become successful in business and life. This is why it is relevant offer seminars and training materials for new immigrants to raise their cultural awareness and teach how to achieve their communication goals in Estonia.