I am the one who knocks – overcoming the small cultural differences on a term abroad

Before arriving in Estonia, I wondered how it would be to spend six months in the north of Europe. I knew about a few things – beautiful nature, the vibrant student city, the emotional history – but how it would be to live in the City of good thoughts was not imaginable for me.

My first lecture in Estonia was on a Tuesday morning, where we heard about English-speaking cultures. Already beforehand I was excited: the lecture was supposed to be held in the historic Main Building that can also be found on numerous postcards. In walking through the hall to my lecture, I felt honoured to learn in this historic building, which makes you feel the past of nearly 400 years of research. As soon as the lecture was over, I was surprised that everybody left the room immediately. It struck me as very rude, or maybe I had missed a command from the lecturer? My confusion was caused because in my home country (Germany) the audience always knocks on the table at the end of a lecture or presentation. It is called ‘academic knocking’, and there are several rumours on how this tradition started. Accordingly, I was the one who knocked on the table – the only one. But luckily it was just for a second and then I left with the others. Until this day I never questioned the necessity of it nor did I think of it as unusual.

‘The Kissing Students’ sculpture and fountain is one of the most recognised symbols of Tartu. Photo: Kathrin Hüing

Estonia is a quiet country. I knew that before, but coming from the highly populated Germany, it was sometimes a bit hard for me to get used to the calm way in the north – awkward situations in the lectures where nobody would answer questions from the professors included.

If you are going to Estonia, be aware that the natives might be a bit silent at first. Since I arrived during winter, my first suspicion was that this was due to the lack of sun and warmth (it was hardly above minus 5), and everybody (including myself) felt a bit down and was not very talkative. But I soon realized that this is the Estonian way. However, acceptance of every personality is very broad, which I highly appreciated. I also started to get used to a very relaxed and positive way of dealing with problems. But don’t worry, if you put some effort into it, there are lots of possibilities to befriend Estonian students in Tartu! And finally in a bar, after a beer, everyone does become a bit more connected.  Another good thing: I never experienced popular events to be hectic or crowded – the Estonian way to enjoy a festivity. In the end, it was a very valuable experience for me, and I hope that I have taken home a bit of the northern spirit.

Tartu gave me a term full of enriching talks – not only in university, but often outside of it. I got to know degree-seeking students from all over the world who each brought with them their very personal ideas, philosophies, and topics. Looking back, I am grateful for so many discussions, whether in our academic fields, personal matters, or cultural subjects. The latter subject was always good as an ice-breaker or for a laugh. The time broadened our horizons, while at the same time we got to know how different and yet similar cultures and lives can be.

Beautiful sunsets in Tartu. Photo: Kathrin Hüing

Of course, I shall not leave out the Estonians that accompanied my way in Tartu. The first true natives one meets are probably your language teachers. I had the luck to participate in a three-week intensive course (language and culture) before starting the real university stuff. It was a truly intensive input of blue, black, and white! Learning the language was hard, but our teachers were dedicated to making it as much fun as possible. We also got to know famous Estonians during the class, be that singers or bands, to help learn the language, as well as historic personalities that we encountered in museums and films. All the time I was surprised by the energy, pride, and sympathy each of those people had in conveying their culture to us.

Lovely streets of Tartu. Photo: Kathrin Hüing

Later in the semester, I was asked to hold a talk about cultural differences between Germany and Estonia. At first, I had to think hard: there are so many shared values that only similarities came to my mind. But then, I thought back to my first week and the awkward situation of being the only one to knock on the table. That is where I started my presentation and this article. However, at the end of my talk I was rewarded with the wonderful sound of knocking on wood, a moment of cultural fusion I shall not forget.

Kathrin Hüing from Germany was an Erasmus student last semester in Tartu, studying English and Estonian culture. Here are all of the posts from her time in Tartu.

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