Latvia cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
There are no hard and fast rules. As in Canada, opening topics could be the standard nonessential statements about the weather (is it normal to be so cold or warm or wet?) and how good it is to be in Latvia ( a bit of flattery—how far Latvia has progressed during the past year or two, the impressive stature and work of the President Vaira Vike Freiberga). Topics to avoid: alleged discriminations (language issues, etc) against minorities, generally from Russian sources. Subtle subdued humour always is helpful.
In general, there is hardly any difference between an average normal Canadian and an average normal Latvian in an average and normal situation. The question what is average and what is normal applies to both countries Canada and Latvia. In simpler words, if in doubt how to act in a situation in Latvia react as you would in a similar situation in Canada.
It is best to stick to general topics of introduction in first meetings. Latvians can be reserved and will probably not divulge a great deal of personal information immediately, so while subjects like family and work will not offend, do not be surprised if the conversation does not go very far on these subjects at first.
Latvians are very proud of their country, especially in light of its recent independence. Good introductory topics could focus on questions about Latvia and asking your new acquaintance’s opinion on important places to see, cultural events to attend such as opera and theatre and a bit about general history.
Rule of thumb: never interchange "Latvian" for "Russian". Latvians were part of the Soviet Union and most Latvians, especially of the older generation, speak Russian but Latvians are a distinct ethnic group with a language that belongs to an altogether separate family of languages, a different religious background with its own set of traditions and distinct cultural personality.
Latvian humour can be hard to detect at first; it takes time to understand the dry wit that is often steeped in cultural references not well known to outsiders.
Latvians differ from one another. Previous exposure to foreigners is a factor in determining peoples¹ level of comfort with touching and gestures.
Latvians, like Canadians generally have a very strong sense of space and will generally stand a few feet from the other person. Distance can be even greater when speaking or dealing with strangers. Each person¹s degree of comfort with touching and their preference for personal space varies.
Eye contact is important but not necessarily as a measure of person’s trustworthiness. Latvians will not necessarily maintain constant eye contact, but will not feel comfortable if a person refuses or is reluctant to make eye contact.
It is customary to shake hands, more than in Canada, with both men and women when greeting the person. According to the rule of etiquette—the older person (or a woman) is the first who extends the hand, but most often the rule is not followed. In certain cases, notably among intellectuals and artists, men and women will give each other a kiss on a cheek (seldom on both cheeks). While talking, men generally do not touch other men. This rule also applies for contact between men and women and among woman.
There are some gestures that are considered rude (waiving a pointed index finger, persistent pointing at someone). Latvians make relatively little use of gestures and at times find a lot of gesturing distracting or even annoying. Latvians are aware that people of other cultures use more gestures.
Normal tone of voice and directness are the norm.
Perhaps the most unique feature of Latvians is their reserve. This reserve can be downright disturbing for those non-Latvians who tend to be full of smiles and small talk. Latvians generally do not engage in small talk with people they do not know well and they do not feel uncomfortable about long silences in conversations with strangers.
This reserve will dissipate over time as genuine friendship emerges. On a work level, this reserve is important to remember in planning events or determining how to get the information that you want. For example, roundtable type events will not work with a group that does not know each well since no one will want to speak up. This can be remedied by ensuring that the group has enough time to get to know each other before subjecting them to this type of event or by planning other events that don’t force people to contribute if you cannot ensure that the group will know each other.
Display of emotion
The public display of affection or other emotions are acceptable, but not common. The public display of anger is considered undignified and ill mannered.
Considering the typical Latvian reserve, it is not surprising that public displays of any kind of emotion are not very common. There are exceptions, however. When alcohol is involved in a gathering, emotions emerge and tears, affection and anger are accepted without question. And anyone who has been to a hockey game in Latvia can attest to the true depth of passion that Latvians can reach.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Work styles and pace differ between workplaces but, generally, the pace is slower in Latvia. It is important to be clean and punctual. Generally, Latvians, like most Europeans, are more formal than Canadians. Men and women tend to dress more conservatively in the workplace both in summer and in winter, especially the older generation.
Supervisors and even colleagues are initially addressed by using Mr. or Ms. with the last name. Usage of first name comes later, and often it is initiated by the more senior person. Younger generation Latvians, especially those who have travelled to Canada or USA, will more readily switch to the less formal forms of address.
Most workplaces have established work hours; punctuality and reliability are highly valued by colleagues and bosses. Flexible working hours are not common, but times are changing.
Deadlines are set with the expectation that they will be met, but not to the degree the Canadians are used to. Overtime work in order to meet a deadline may be expected, but most often not paid for.
One of the most striking characteristics of Latvians is their physical beauty and the attention they tend to pay to appearance. This will be impossible not to notice, especially in the summer months in Riga as young women don ever-increasingly revealing clothing.
Latvian women spend a good amount of time and money on beauty treatments, ranging from hairstylists through to special spa-type treatments. (It should be noted that these treatments are more affordable than in Canada.) For the workplace, this means that good office clothes should be worn all the time. "Latvian casual" can be worn out, but this never translates as a pair of jeans and sneakers. Latvian women may dress casually on weekend or evenings, but it is almost with an outfit that demands a pair of heels. Men should wear suits or similarly dressy clothes to the office most days and plan on wearing the best of casual clothes for evenings and weekends.
With regard to language, Latvians will use more formal language and would be unlikely to use first names in introductory meetings. In meetings with close colleagues, the atmosphere is more familiar and the meeting can resemble a gathering of friends, and it may even be possible that alcohol will be offered. For those that are not opposed to drinking on work time, the acceptance of alcohol will likely aid the discussions. Those that prefer not to drink can decline and if the pressure to drink mounts, a firm explanation that he/she does not drink should be sufficient reason for not participating.
Depending on the organization, the corporate culture can be anywhere from very western-style productivity oriented (usually the private sector) to very casual (many government agencies) with a more laissez-faire attitude towards absenteeism and tardiness. This tendency is probably a leftover from the Soviet period when underemployment meant that many people did not have to put in long hours at the office, coupled with severe consumer goods shortages which made shopping itself a full time job.
At the same time, frequent absences from the office hide the fact that many Latvians work until 9:00 pm on a regular basis, and later when circumstances necessitate it. It is also important to note that due to the low wages, many workers have an additional job and many younger workers, even civil servants, are completing their university degrees while working, so absences from the office are a matter of necessity.
Preferred managerial qualities
A superior is respected for his or her position in the organization, and not necessarily on the level of experience in the industry or work at hand. Academic and professional skills are important. An approachable boss will be more trusted than one who puts a lot of distance between him or herself and the staff. Still, being open to ideas by the subordinates is a new concept that is not yet readily understood and appreciated.
Staff is generally very quiet around a superior but not because there is little trust in that person. A superior who is not respected would not be told so directly, but it is most likely that his or her staff would talk amongst itself.
While Latvian work culture, especially in the private sector, resembles European corporate culture, and Latvians value education and experience in order to succeed, it is important to remember than the private and professional lives are quite intertwined in Latvia.
In the Soviet period, the state provided a long list of social benefits, mostly offered through employers. For example, it was not uncommon that employees ate subsidized or free meals at work and free or subsidized social events were organized by employers, even to the extent that employees received their vacations from the employer, meaning that husbands and wives usually vacationed independently of one another.
While these benefits no longer exist, there is a lingering mentality that one’s social life can occur at work and that the employer should facilitate it. Therefore, when it comes to qualities of effective bosses, Latvians work for their bosses because they have to, but they will work most productively because they like them and the atmosphere created for them at work. The expat should be aware that social events at the workplace are as important as the work itself and make all efforts to participate and include his/her family as appropriate.
Expat managers will have to tread carefully if imposing new policies and remember that it is essential to ensure that the employees’ needs are being met (a new policy, for example, prohibiting absences from work would not allow people to get the errands done that they are used to doing). It might take some time for employees to warm up to a new boss and even more time before that boss can expect to have an open dialogue with his/her employees. As a new boss makes his/her place in an organization, it will be important for him/her to get to know the staff through group events, such as a dinner out.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In general, strict "pecking order" is observed, but times are changing. Quite often, committees are established to review the issues involved, but orders for action are the prerogative of the immediate boss. Discussions with supervisors for answers and feedback are acceptable, but more often than in Canada, the boss may be tempted to imply "I am the boss and an order is an order to be followed without delay."
The workplace tends to be hierarchical rather than team-oriented and ideas will flow from the top to the bottom. The boss will make the decisions and everyone else carries out the work.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Latvians have always respected equality in the issues involving gender. Women have been highly regarded in business and politics (note: in Latvia at the time of writing, The President of the Republic, the President (Chair) of the Parliament (Saeima), the Foreign Minister, the Minister of Culture are headed by women).
There are no taboos in matters of religion. Main religions are Lutheran and Roman Catholic, there are others equally respected. In general, religion is not a vital part of a person’s life in Latvia.
There are no class distinctions of society in Latvia. There are individuals who believe that they belong to the "elite class", but it makes no difference in the workplaces.
Ethnicity matters are somewhat important in Latvia due to the fact there is a large contingent of ethnic Russians who are not willing to accept the notion of a free and independent Republic of Latvia, the official language of which is Latvian. This is one area where discussions should be avoided.
This is a confusing subject for non-Latvians to understand. Newcomers will be surprised by the inordinate amount of young, sometimes, very young women, working in positions of power. Most young women carry relatively little debt and combined with low housing costs, this allows them a great deal of autonomy before or without marriage.
On the other hand, chivalry is alive and well in Latvia. Manners that have long been displaced in North America are followed in Latvia: men open the doors for women and pay for their dinners as well. The good manners are accompanied by a healthy dose of flirting as well. It is impossible to provide advice in this regard but it is helpful to know that mild flirtation is a norm, meaning that men make a habit of complimenting their female colleagues and women tend to expect to be complimented.
In general, men are expected to help women in and out of cars, offer a hand or arm while navigating cobblestone streets, insist (not simply offer) on carrying all heavy bags and again, insist, on paying for everything. Non-Latvian women faced with such a situation should remember that these things are cultural norms and that nothing is expected in return. Accept the offers of help graciously and a small thank you for dinner is much more acceptable than spending half of it fighting for the right to pay; you won’t win and the host will feel uncomfortable.
The younger generation of Latvians is not very religious in the traditional sense, except for the widespread adherence to pagan traditions and holidays, paganism being the indigenous Latvian religion. The summer solstice, for example, completely closes the capital for a couple of days and it takes the entire country the good part of a week to recover from spending an entire night awake, consuming solid amounts of alcohol and jumping over bonfires.
Economically speaking, a new middle class has emerged since the independence of Latvia, along with a small nouveau riche. Some members of these groups made their money by questionable means during the period of privatization in the 1990s. Others, especially younger people, have used their education and experience to gain lucrative jobs in the private sector and given low, controlled housing costs and freedom from large debt loads, are able to enjoy their salaries.
Young people, whether they have the means or not, like at least to look as if they are living well. Women invest a good deal of their salaries in looking good and dressing well, most people own cell phones and use them without reserve and the plethora of designer stores in Riga provides some indication of the buying power of Latvians.
Ethnicity remains a difficult issue for Latvians. Sharing their country with an almost equal number of ethnic Russians for the good part of the century, the balance of power was turned on its head in 1991. During the Soviet period, Russians held most positions of power. With independence Latvians have emerged to run their country while Russians, with many exceptions, make up the bulk of service industries and grey economy. Most older Russians never learned Latvian, despite having lived most of their lives there. The Latvian government is struggling with this issue, imposing rigorous citizenship laws that demand a solid knowledge of Latvian and at the same time, exploring means to ensure that the next generation of Russians becomes bilingual and able to integrate themselves into the economy.
The shared history has produced a number of contradictions. Since Russian was so predominant, Latvians have incorporated a number of Russian words into their daily vocabulary. Interestingly and perhaps because the younger generation is more removed from the realities of the Soviet occupation and Stalinist period, young Latvians find some aspects of the Soviet Union amusing, and as a result, some bars memorializing the Soviet period have sprung up and it would not be unheard of to see young Latvians celebrating, tongue-in-cheek, old Soviet holidays.
In addition there are the many "foreign Latvians" as they call both Latvians who emigrated to a number of countries, including Canada, during the Soviet period and the children of these emigrants. Foreign Latvians began returning en masse in the early years of independence and, for the most part, have been eagerly welcomed back. There are dozens of examples of foreign Latvians who have successfully taken up new lives in Latvia and they have undoubtedly contributed to the revitalization of the newly born nation. Latvia is one of few successful countries born out of the Soviet Union and some scholars give some credit for this to the involvement of the western educated and experienced foreign Latvians. But the fact that one group grew up under the Soviet regime while the other lived under very different governments in the West has produced tensions as differences emerge.
The relationships should be cordial, but, like in Canada, the importance of the personal relationship is an open question, and will depend on circumstances and individual situation.
The importance of establishing personal relationships with key colleagues or clients cannot be overstated.
Perhaps because Latvia is such a small country, most people tend to retain the same friends throughout their lives. Most Latvians spend their weekends away from Riga, returning to their home towns, allowing them the luxury of spending time with old friends. Second, in a country where you cannot really run away from anywhere, it is not in your best interest to make enemies.
In Latvia, friendship and loyalty are treasured. It may take some time to get to now someone but once you do, the friendship will be very deep. Latvian friends become very involved in each other’s lives and very few circumstances will change that.
The best way to integrate into Latvian life, both work and private, is to begin making friends. You may have to initiate the friendship since many Latvians will be too shy to start. Invite someone for coffee, ask for advice on going to the opera and take up all invitations to help you sightsee. If you happen to make one good friend, it is likely that you will be introduced to family and friends and eventually included in that social circle.
Privileges and favouritism
Generally—No ! on all accounts. Latvians, more than Canadians are loath to such practices. However, they are fully aware that such practices take place.
Some people might argue that the kind of merging of personal with the work life is unprofessional, perhaps even corrupt. These people would point to the influence of the old Soviet system which created a sort of cashless society in which one had to barter goods and services; in this kind of system, the more people you knew, the more "rich" you were in your ability to acquire coveted consumer goods.
Most Latvians, having known such a system most of their lives, would find nothing wrong with it. Furthermore, petty corruption, such as buying your way out of a speeding ticket, is quite widespread and although people do grumble about it, they tend to accept it as a fact of life.
In this atmosphere, it is not surprising that special considerations are expected among friends and work colleagues. However, this may or may not be a problem for a non-Latvian working in Latvia since Latvians have a good understanding of international norms and would probably not expect special favours from a non-Latvian.
Conflicts in the workplace
Private confrontation is acceptable, but definitely not publicly. Latvians, in general, are not as open as Canadians to show their grudges. There are no definite rules or opinions on how to deal with these situations.
Confront the colleague directly but privately.
It might b difficult to know at first if a colleague has problems with you since a confrontation is unlikely. The problem would likely be expressed by silence, avoiding you and excluding you from the social aspects of work.
Motivating local colleagues
Money and fear of failure would top the list of the motives, followed by a sense of loyalty and commitment. Job satisfaction or good working conditions have yet to be recognised as good motives for job performance.
In the new economy, many factors will motivate a colleague to work well. People who gravitate to the private sector do so for the wages that tend to be more than double those for the civil service.
The many Latvians who remain within the civil service despite quite poor salaries do so for ideological convictions of contributing to their newly independent country and/or because the possibilities for advancement are great (it is a realistic dream to become a State Secretary or even enter the political arena at a national level at a very young age). Other civil servants recognize that the benefits of the civil service sometimes outweigh the low salaries; ie, a relatively more relaxed work environment, the increased possibilities to travel abroad and perhaps greater career advancement in the long term.
Recommended books, films & foods
There are dozens of good books about Latvia and Latvians in English, unfortunately available only in Latvia. Some of them are available in a bookstore in Latvian Cultural Centre in Toronto. There are no films or TV shows readily available outside Latvia. The best book for travel in Latvia is called Latvia in Pocket, there are others. There are literally thousands of websites—start with Search Latvia Web (www. search.lv).
Since Latvia is such a small country and not well known here in Canada, there are not that many sources of information on Latvia on this side of the ocean. However, one book available in Canada, Walking since Daybreak by Modris Eksteins will provide the reader with a beautifully written account of one Latvian emigrant’s history.
The Latvian embassy in Ottawa will provide tourist information as well as updated commercial information on Latvia. The embassy also publishes an updated list of Latvian websites. It is worthwhile to contact the embassy since it has hosted films in Ottawa and may be open to including interested persons in other events.
The Canadian government hosts a Baltic evening dinner annually at Parliament. Finally, Rogers cable offers a half hour Latvian show, produced in Toronto, (on Omni every Sunday morning in Ottawa), so it may be useful to contact your local cable company.
In Riga, the Canadian embassy is a good point of contact especially for business people since it organizes events for the Latvian-Canadian business community. A number of monthly guidebooks are available for free in downtown Riga, at a variety of locations that tourists frequent, such as hotels. These guides are written locally and more accurate and interesting than guide books you can find in a Canadian bookstore; it is best to save your thirty dollars and pick up the free guides in Riga (also frequently available at the Latvian embassy in Ottawa).
Food to eat?—there are many world class restaurants in Latvia catering to local and international cuisine.
The multitude of all the cultural and social activities during the entire year, but especially in winter, are well advertised in various communications media outlets. The variety may appear overwhelming, especially in the capital city of Riga. It is worthwhile to ask your colleagues or acquaintances for recommendations. Most of them will be pleased to help, some of them may even be flattered for being asked.
The best way to experience Latvia is with a new Latvian friend who can become your "cultural interpreter". Many Latvian pastimes take place at home on weekends. Latvians spend a lot of time away from the cities in the summer, enjoying outdoor activities.
A special word should be said about the prominent place of the sauna in Latvia. Sauna has played a pivotal role in Latvian life for centuries; women even gave birth in them. Today, the sauna plays its biggest role in social life and many parties include a sauna. A good rule of thumb is to inquire about the nature of the party before you go; if in doubt, pack a bathing suit as it will be difficult to duck out of the sauna, nor would you want to. Depending on the company, men and women may sauna together and sauna is perfectly appropriate even within a business circle. The sauna typically is not one quick event in the evening and the festivities continue in the sauna, beer and all. Expect to come out a little wrinkly but cleaner than you have felt in your life.
You can begin to experience Latvian life solo by seeking out cafes and restaurants listed in local guides. Concerts, opera and theatre must be experienced and can be accessed quite easily by going to the Opera House and buying tickets. If you are a hockey fan, it w ill be easy to stay entertained in Latvia by rooting for your new team.
As well as the various guides that are published monthly and which will help you navigate the city, high culture, sporting events, short excursions out of town and nightlife, The Baltic Times, an English language, Baltic-wide newspaper, is printed weekly and available at newsstands.
There are many who have lived and died—a long lesson of history is needed. The present President Vaira Vike-Freiberga could be classified as a national hero (refer to 4. below).
There are a number of political heroes in Latvia’s history that have helped shaped it as an independent country but the contemporary national heroes that reach across the entire population relate to hockey. The Latvian national team is a group hero for the large portion of the population that is interested in the games. To some extent, hockey is political as well since victories over Russian teams become especially important and especially celebrated.
Shared historical events with Canada
Latvians have high opinions of Canada and Canadians. There are various reasons, one in particular—Canada was the first country to recognize Latvia’s renewed independence after the collapse of Soviet Union and supported Latvia’s entry into NATO. Also the fact that the present President of Latvia is a "Canadian"—she grew up, was educated, spent most of her life in Canada and gave up her Canadian citizenship to become the President of Latvia.
The main link between Canada and Latvia is the fact that the current president of Latvia is a former Canadian. President Varia Vike-Freiberga, born in Latvia during World War Two, immigrated to Canada as a child. In 1999, he was elected president and in the subsequent years, has raised the profile of this post beyond the ceremonial and is probably the best known of the Baltic leaders.
Canadians may occasionally be considered self-centred, but not in a derogatory sense.
The main stereotype that Canadians have is that Latvia is or was part of Russia. Some Canadians assume that, at the very least, even if Latvia is not part of Russia, it is a lot like Russia and the language is probably similar.
Many Latvians will be understandably offended by this as it implies that Latvia is not a real country. Latvian language and culture stand quite apart from Russian language and culture, with traditions not at all known or practised in Russia.
At the same time, history is not black and white. While their history is one of occupation, it is still a Latvian history. Most Latvians have at least some fond memories of this period and a minority of mostly older Latvians feel a great deal of nostalgia for that time. To dismiss the last fifty years as simply tainted by Soviet occupation is to also dismiss the achievements of Latvians that enabled them to be so ready for independence in 1990.
It will be important to deal with the historical issues of the Soviet Union and Russian occupation in a sensitive manner because those historical events have had real and lasting impacts that last to this day.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Aluksne, Latvia. He was raised in this small town until the age of thirteen in the north-east part of Latvia. Together with his family, he escaped from Soviet Russian occupation of Latvia during the Second World War and fled to Germany, where he stayed in various refugee camps for four years. He later immigrated to Canada to live, study and work in Toronto area. He graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Toronto. As a Consulting Professional Engineer, he initially worked for various engineering/architectural firms and later for more than 25 years ran his own consulting engineering company. He is currently living Mississauga, maintaining interest in engineering profession in a semi-retired basis. He continues to be active in local Latvian community and has regular business in Latvia. He is married and has two children and four grandchildren.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Nova Scotia, the oldest of three children. She was raised in the same province and studied languages at Acadia University, thereafter completing a Masters degree at Carleton University in Ottawa. Her work sent her abroad for the first time in 1988 where she worked in the refugee camps that first welcomed the growing tide of East European refugees that preceded the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Your cultural interpreter lived in the former Soviet Union in 1990, a newly independent Ukraine in 1991-1992 and in Russia in the mid 1990s. Afterwards, she began work on a project in Latvia and travelled there often for three years. In 2001, she moved to Latvia, where she lived for one year. She recently returned to Ottawa from living in Tunisia with her husband and son to work on a new project in Russia.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.