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Cultural overview: Eastern Europe Cultural overview: Eastern Europe
by Joseph Gatt
2019-11-13 09:54:45
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Individuals and countries can have very different cultures and mindsets. Sweeping generalities about cultural traits in Eastern Europe.

Generalities

What a lot of Eastern Europeans tell me is that during Communism pretty much everyone was guaranteed a job and housing, and that crime rates were very low. Today unemployment is very high, and crime rates are very high.

easr01_400Many Eastern Europeans rely on family members who live in Europe or East Asia or North America for survival. For many, the only source of income is remittances from family members based overseas. Many Eastern Europeans spend their entire days indoors and hardly ever venture out.

Crime rates are very high, bags are often stolen, hold-ups are common, many will get kidnapped. Don't ever get confrontational with an Eastern European, because a lot of times they can shoot you during minor disputes. For the anecdote an Eastern European friend of mine had her phone on the table, I accidentally knocked it off, then tried to put it back where it was. She violently grabbed the phone out of my hands, and I got five minutes of rage.

But Eastern Europeans have an easy going side. Many will show up if you invite them to parties, many have great stories to tell. And if you're smart and well-read, they will tend to admire you. 

Small cultural note: if you're working with or dating an Eastern Europeans and you have a dispute of some kind with them, here's what tends to happen. They will call all kinds of people recounting the dispute (often accurately, but with some altered details) and will tell everyone they know about the dispute. This unsettles many people.

Language

Most Eastern European languages don't really have regional dialects despite being quite large countries. Russia is one huge country with basically no regional dialect. Ukraine is huge, and people speak the same Russian as the one spoken in Russia, with no dialectic variation, so do people in Belarus. Polish is pretty much the same everywhere, so are Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Czech and Slovakian. The former Yugoslav republics all have their local languages, although many will speak Serbian or Serbo-Croatian, again no regional dialects.

Stereotypes they have about foreigners

Let's say that Eastern Europeans tend to stick to their ways and culture, but blend in fairly well with other cultures. Many will pick up foreign languages, many well have a huge network of friends from foreign countries. Foreign cultures are not admired, nor are they vilified. Foreign people are human beings and that's it.

Note that neo-Nazi groups exist, and that there have been instances where Africans, Arabs, or anyone with foreign features have been attacked, just for being foreigners. So if you're waiting for the bus or waiting in line and that someone starts behaving in crazy ways, you want to either look at the floor and pray they won't notice you, or discreetly get out of the way and walk in any direction. Either way, don't make eye contact with crazy people and don't stare if there are disputes. If someone starts yelling at you or threatening you, act like you have no clue what's going on.

Greeting

Very close friends, both men and women, tend to greet each other with a big wet kiss on the cheek, in some cases on the lips. Note that many men and women, during drinking parties, will ask to be “French kissed.” So if you're out drinking and that a man and a woman French kiss, doesn't always mean that they are dating. If you're challenged to a French kiss and want to oblige (I don't) keep the kiss short and quick.

Colleagues and business partners usually have a sloppy handshake, or just a casual greeting. But, before you say anything in most Eastern European countries, always start with “hi” as in “privet” in Russia or “Dobry Den” in the Czech Republic and so on. Even when leaving comments on Facebook pages, Russians always start with “privet.”

Note that during email exchanges, in some cases it's considered rude to send an email out of the blue. Many will send an email that just says “hi” or “hello” and nothing else. What they are expecting is for you to say “what's up” or “how is it going” before they proceed to writing a formal email.

Small talk

Here's a short list of stupid things people want to discuss with Eastern Europeans. Pornography, prostitution, sex, pretty women, Communism, Stalin, The Prague Spring, the Cold War, Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, democracy, vodka, zubrovka, Tatu's hit song “all the things she said”, street pornography etc. If you discuss those, they might agree to discuss them, but you will be labeled a “retard.”

So here are the things that you want to discuss. World history, global events, travel, health, music, theater, film, musicals, art, sports, literature, architecture, beautiful sights, languages, and childhood memories. 

Either way, avoid discussing money. Always make it sound like you're struggling to get your finances in order. You can complain a little bit about Eastern Europe (they will actually expect you to point out one or two negative things) but don't go on rants.

Meals

Eastern Europeans will rarely invite you home for a meal, and if they do, that usually means they hold you at high esteem.

In most cases, people will just buy a sandwich and sit on a bench and eat it (or sit at the office or in some closed area).

Bulgarians, Romanians and Poles tend to serve lavish meals. But the Russians, Ukrainians and people from Belarus will probably order sushi or pizza and that's what you'll be getting. There are two kinds of reactions over this. My reaction and people like me tend to think meals don't really matter as long as there's good conversation. Some disagree with that and believe Eastern Europeans should make an effort when it comes to serving meals.

Some meals will include alcohol, others just water.

At home

If Eastern Europeans invite you to their place, it's usually because they like you. TV will be switched on and you can act casual at home, help yourself with the fridge, use any facility. Men and women will be doing laundry, ironing, cleaning the house in your presence, but will tend to refuse your offers to help. As they clean the house, or do whatever activity they are doing, they will rant about their life.

By ranting I mean remember Eastern Europeans had it tough in the 1980s and 1990s. So they will complain that their university shut down, that they were forced to drop out of college even when they were bright students, that their boyfriend or girlfriend left them because things were getting rough, and will recall other woes. Listen politely and show empathy, and don't tell them to “get over it.”

Everyday life (hospitals, banks, the post office, pharmacies)

As in Africa and the Middle East, there are good doctors and terrible doctors. You want friends who know where the good doctors are, and there are many horror stories involving terrible doctors.

Banks have become decent since around 2010. But there is no internet banking, and some transactions can involve paperwork. As in Africa or the Middle East, don't count on banks to dish out loans. The postal services tend to be slow, but more or less reliable.

Pharmacies have improved drastically over the last 10 years. A lot of the medication is expensive, and healthcare in general is very expensive.

Shopping

Supermarkets tend to offer a limited choice of products, and anything related to baking can be very expensive or hard to find. A lot of ingredients are not available. The Baltic States have the best choices, other nations tend not to offer too much variety.

Fashion and cosmetics are easy to find, but big sizes can be hard to find. Either way, fashion and cosmetics are very, very expensive.

Many go to flea markets and hunt for the best second-hand or black market fashion, cosmetics, and grocery items.

If you're going to buy a car, keep in mind that you'll need one with the kind of engine that can tolerate freezing temperatures and the kind of wheels that can endure slippery roads.

Asking favors

Eastern Europeans might ask you to buy something for them on your way to work or on your way to their home. They could ask for loans, and keep in mind that in some cases they don't pay them back. They could ask you to drive them somewhere.

You could ask them all kinds of favors, and a lot of times they will oblige. But if you ask them too many favors, they could blow up.

Note that at work, if you ask for a favor, they could tell you to figure it out yourself. If you ask for information at work, they will tend to only give you the information once. That is if you forget the instructions, they will be very mad, and in some cases won't repeat the instructions.

Bragging

My God do they brag about their children. Especially women, and even men, will discuss their children at length. Their children are all a mix of rocket scientists and high-profile actors.

But few will brag about themselves or their achievements. But if pushed, they could brag about themselves.

Either way, if you brag about something other than your children, they will tend to shoot you down. If you brag at the workplace, they will deliberately start rumors that you blew that deal you were bragging about. So avoid bragging about signing good deals for the company.

Dating

Here's how it usually works. Most women will bring a female friend to a date, and the female friend will stay with the woman throughout the first date. In some cases, women can stick to their female friend until your relationship stabilizes and she figures out you're a decent guy. This means that for the first dozen dates or more, you will be chatting with your date and her friend. And in most cases, they are not looking for a threesome.

Now this confuses many. In some cases men are not even sure which one of the two friends is the one who is interested or has a crush. Is it girl A or girl B? Both will be a little flirtatious, both will hide their feelings.

This happens in Eastern Europe and in Mongolia and Central Asia as well. If you are being followed around by two women, one of them probably has a crush on you. If you give them your phone number, they will call you interchangeably. Usually one will be a lot more flirtatious than the other, and that's the girl who usually has a crush on you. Note that both girls will be spending 70% of their time discussing every detail they can find about you.

Note that the two girls can also drop hints on social media. For the anecdote, when I broke up with my ex many years ago, there was this Eastern European girl who was crazy about me, and her friend was working at some far away country. The minute my breakup was official, the two girls met in a city and held a “summit” on what steps to take for the girl to date me. Unfortunately I was not interested.

Boys are a lot easier to date, but some would say can be boring to date. Boys like to hang out with other boys and rarely go on dates or spend time with their honeys. And if you break up with the boys, they'll be like “next!”

Marriage

Poland, Romania and Bulgaria are rather conservative when it comes to marriage, and are also very status-conscious in dating and marriage. Girls there try hard to impress other girls, so the wedding will have to be perfect and the groom has to look perfect. Poland is a Catholic nation and most weddings are held at Churches. Romania and Bulgaria will hold weddings at expensive and luxurious wedding halls.

Either way, in Eastern Europe, all friends, near and far, will be invited. Some ceremonies can have as many as a thousand guests or more. That means you will need to spend around 10, 20 perhaps 30 thousand dollars on your wedding. Everything from food to music to the wedding hall to the decoration arrangement to the clothing, gifts, and so many other expenses. So you want to keep that in mind if you're getting married in Eastern Europe. Your Eastern European husband or wife will be offended if you suggest a small wedding with family and close friends.

How they treat children

Children tend to be incredibly respectful and obedient. They will call you “uncle” or “aunt” and will be both obedient and warm with you.

Most parents are not strict with their children. Many send their children to music and art academies, many parents dream that one day their children can become famous artists or actors. As children grow up, they tend to believe they owe a debt to their parents, and often give their parents monthly allowances.

Fathers rarely get violent with their children. Mothers can use a belt if the son or daughter engages in some kind of crime or grossly violate school rules, or engage in otherwise bad behavior.

Pets and animals

Many Eastern Europeans love pets but few will adopt them. Pets are not big in Eastern Europe. Quite a few keep rabbits as pets. So if you're invited to a home and there's a weird smell, that's usually the pet rabbit.

Driving

Avoid driving at night. Street lights don't work very well and you could have vision problems, and could get hit by a speeding car. Either way, there are good drivers and terrible drivers. As the winter basically lasts for 9 months or more, roads tend to be slippery and many people lose control of their vehicle. If possible, use public transportation, or rent a place right by where you work. Many expats will be housed in apartments right above the workplace, or right in front of the workplace. 

Religion

Poland is Catholic, the Baltic States have significant Christian populations. Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Bulgaria are Orthodox Christians, and use a different calendar. Christmas is celebrated in early January, and Easter about 10 days after the Catholic Easter. Not that many people take religion seriously, although some do. Either way, few people will claim to be “Atheists” and there will be religious signs at home. Many weddings also have religious elements in them.

Smoking, alcohol and recreational (legal and illegal) drugs

Almost everyone smokes, both men and women. Many start smoking at a very young age. Many chain-smoke, many smoke 3 or 4 packs a day. Many take huge puffs and inhale significantly larger quantities of smoke than in other countries, and many smoke strong cigarettes. Few intend to quit at some point. People smoke in offices, at pubs, in all public places. The only places that don't allow smoking are some high-end restaurants and a few places where there are fire hazards.

Many will have an alcoholic drink first thing in the morning. There have been many instances where I asked for coffee and was served coffee with a shot of whisky in it (an it tastes foul to me.) Many will offer you drinks at work, and many have a few drinks during their lunch break at work. People can have a few drinks at work “as a snack.” You can refuse drinks of course, they'll usually be too drunk to be offended. Note however that most won't get violent when getting drunk, most will in fact become a bit more shy. Drunk women sometimes could ask you to  “take them to bed and sleep with them.” Hangover cures abound, anything from yoghurt to garlic soup to many other “miracle hangover cures” that don't really work. What do I do? I limit myself to beer, and start drinking as late as I can.

Illegal drugs are illegal, and often involve gangs and the mafia, including marijuana. If you smoke spliffs, you  could end up hanging out with the wrong crowd. And if caught, you could face jail time.

Death and funerals

Family and friends will gather. In many cases money is given to the mourning family. If it's a close friend who lost a relative, it's polite to give them something like 100 dollars in an envelope with a condolence note handwritten on a white sheet of paper in thick black ink, if possible with a fountain pen.

Many will cry, although not too hysterically. Some people prefer burial, others cremation. There are some buildings housing urns with the ashes of the cremated, where people go for memorial services.

During the wake, corpses are placed in open caskets, impeccably dressed and with makeup. The wake can last all night, and men and women tend to play cards or poker during the wake, drink alcohol and chain-smoke.

Social gatherings (conferences, cocktail parties etc.)

Conferences are incredibly expensive, and computers are not available. However, the plus side is many conferences feature great talks, and most Eastern Europeans know their stuff. Mingling at conferences is a lot better than anywhere else, because few adopt an arrogant attitude about their intellect. My favorite professors are actually Russian professors and Eastern European professors in general, as they tend to be incredibly knowledgeable, and humble about their intellect.

Cocktail parties. Note that Russians tend to stand at a very close distance, and will basically stand at around 50 cm from you. If a woman does that and that you're a man, she's probably not trying to date you. If a man does that and you're a man, he's probably not gay. Few Russians use business cards, and many won't ask for your phone number or contacts.

K12 education system

Eastern European teachers are mostly women, and education is very “old-school.” No talking allowed in class, most things will be written down on the board or dictated. But, complete information tends to be provided, and most classes are content-rich.

Language education and art education is taken seriously, so is sports education. Both men and women have mandatory gymnastics class, mandatory art and drawing class, and in some cases music class. Elaborate shows are performed every now and then, and they tend to be spectacular considering it's only middle or high school students.

Sports education is also taken very seriously and will involve gymnastics and athletics and in some cases swimming, but few team sports.

University entrance examinations tend to be difficult and many, many fail. Academic inflation has not yet hit Eastern Europe.

University education system

Universities are also old-school and involve professors lecturing in large lecture halls. If you're a professors in Eastern Europe, here's what you need to know:

-Most university campuses are huge and many students will have class in one remote building followed by class in a building at the opposite end of the campus. This means a lot of students may show up late to class, some students might ask you to cut the lecture 10 minutes early so they can move to the other building.

-Most universities don't have “lunch breaks” and this means if students have many consecutive classes they might eat a sandwich in class. I suggest you tolerate that.

-Eastern European professors tend to believe you can do whatever you want in class as long as you're not making noise. So a lot of students will do homework for other classes or play with their phone in class. Eastern European professors tend to tolerate such behavior.

-You want to give them written tests rather than papers. If you ask them to write papers, 95% of the class will plagiarize them, and won't even make an effort to cover up the plagiarism. Some will even forget to delete the author's name from the paper. So format for the test should either be two long essays, or three short essays, avoid multiple choice.

-Eastern Europeans are not the best writers, and if they don't know or are not sure about something, they will deliberately write things that don't really make semantic sense. They will try to use all kinds of big words or weird expressions hoping that you think those make sense.

-Finally, grading is harsh. BUT, don't fail everyone. BECAUSE, if you fail everyone, students will assume the only way to get good grades with you is by bribing you or sleeping with you. So you can use relative grading for example, and give like 20% students a decent grade, 40% students an average grade and so on.

How their elites behave

The elites usually work hard but tend to be kept at a distance from the rest of the population. You won't find the elites at conventional venues. Corruption exists of course, but the elites are very secretive about what they do with all the money. Some believe the money is reinvested rather than spent on luxury goods and real estate.

No one knows much of anything about the elite's children either, as they tend to be secretive about belonging to the elite. Unlike children of the African or Middle Eastern elites who tend to be spotted at night clubs in Monte Carlo or Ibiza, and are open about being the children of the elite, Eastern European elites tend not to reveal what background they hail from.

Entertainment

Drinking alcohol is of course an important ritual. Music tends to be appreciated, anything from classical music to local ballad singers to local rock bands to local metal bands. Gypsy music is also very popular in many circles.

Night clubs exist and many will spend weekends there. French contemporary authors such as Bernard Werber, Michel Houellbecq, Marc Lévy and Frederic Beigbeider are immensely popular. Football is popular among men, and women love watching gymnastics and figure skating events. Musicals are immensely popular, and so is the circus and magic shows. Any extravagant show is always appreciated.

Technology

Selling technology in Eastern Europe won't be easy, as it is one region in the world where many, many, many people still use pens and paper. Even the younger generation is not too much into technology. Most Eastern Europeans have social media accounts, but hardly ever use them. Technology tends to be a cause of stress rather than anything else. In broadcasting, companies still use the old analogue tapes and the circle switch to cut and edit videos. And... cassette tapes are still being sold, and many buy those. Vinyl disks also exist, and some still buy those.

Intellectual conversation

A commonly held belief in Eastern Europe is that the Americans are trying to turn the rest of the world into Americans. Eastern Europeans can go on and on about how Americans are imposing their food, their entertainment, their technology, their press and everything else. So that's a common thread in intellectual conversation.

Many will also have different theories about what happened during the Cold War, and a lot of conversation will involve trying to dig for the truth about what happened under Communism. Speculations abound, and people try to find out what the leaders were thinking during Communism. Many believe they know the truth about what really happened.

The subtleties of language is also a good topic for intellectual conversation. Etymology and philology are popular topics, along with the exact definition of big words and the origins of big words.

Note that Eastern Europeans tend to try to be as precise as they can and will correct you if you get the dates mixed up or if you misuse a word.

How to deal with money

Coldly. No emotions. Most go Dutch, and if someone picks up the tab that can cause confusion. Getting discounts can be very complicated, and no amount of yelling or kindness will get them to give you good discounts in many cases. Prices are just a fact of life and involve little or no emotion.

If you have an Eastern European husband or wife, you may notice in some cases (everyone's different) that they may overindulge in spending. If you are a company, be very careful, because some will buy stuff with the company credit card and the sell the stuff back and keep the cash. Happens in every country, but very frequent in Eastern Europe. 

The legal system

Law places a premium on mediation. Trials are rare and you will only face trial in severe cases like murder or big crimes. Otherwise, most solutions will be mediated. Note that the legal system tends to punish “fools” and if you get scammed, the justice system will tell you that you should have been more careful. If there was a burglary, they will tell you that you should have woken up. And if you're a victim of rape, they could tell you that you should have dressed more modestly.

Farewells and before you leave the country

Now this is where Eastern Europeans surprise everyone. You'll spend two, three, four, five years working with them. There will be a lot of coldness, a lot of drama, sometimes you become close, other times you would think you're just acquaintances. Suddenly you announce that your mission is over and that you are about to leave. That's when you will be invited to about a dozen farewell parties, and on your last day at work, boys and girls will cry, and things will get very emotional. Even those who hardly ever greeted you in the morning will give you tight hugs. And when you say goodbye and go through that door, or when your car leaves, things get even more emotional.

If you come back for a visit, you will get a very warm welcome, and they will be eager to tell you what you missed out on. And those friendships can last for life.


      
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