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10 Things You Should Know When Meeting Hungarians

Updated on June 2, 2018
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Marianne is from Edinburgh in Scotland. She enjoys travelling and has visited Hungary at least once or twice a year for the last few years.

Are you dating a Hungarian and meeting their Hungarian relatives? Or just visiting some locals in Hungary?

Here is a guide to Hungarian culture and what you might expect and some interesting facts.

1. Greetings

If you are meeting family or friends it is normal to greet them with 2 kisses, one on each cheek. When you leave, you normally need to do this again.

In more formal business settings, just shake hands, especially if you are male.

2. Palinka

It is likely you will be offered Palinka. This is fruit schnapps which is commonly made from peaches, apricot, plums, pear or cherries. It varies in strength but 50% or more alcohol is not uncommon. To be classed as palinka it must be at least 37.5%. Palinka is an important traditional part of nearly all Hungarian social gatherings. It is rude to refuse it, so at least take the first shot offered.

You can buy palinka in shops, but many Hungarians prefer to make their own.

Other Alcohol

After your shot of palinka (or 2) expect to be offered more alcohol.

Hungarians are very proud of Hungarian wine and will tell you how good it is. It is good.

Beer is also popular follow-up drink after palinka. Hungarians are proud of Hungarian beer too, although not to the same extent as wine.

Avoiding Cheers with Beer Glasses

Apparently, according to tradition, Hungarians never say cheers with their beer glasses. In 1848 Hungary suffered a defeat in war, against the Austrian Habsburgs. The Austrians celebrated by clinking glasses of beer, meaning Hungarians vowed not to clink for 150 years. It is now 170 years later and according to what I read Hungarians are still doing this.

However, based on my experience, this is not true. All the Hungarians I have met happily clink beer glasses (and any other glasses of drink). Some Hungarians have moved on! To be safe, let the Hungarian company you are with take the lead.

3. Food

Hungarians are proud of Hungarian food as well as alcohol.

Typical Lunch

If you are invited over for lunch you can typically expect the following:

Starter: Thin chicken soup with little bits of pasta. Possibly one or 2 carrots.

Main course: Stew with lots of meat (type could vary, could be pork, chicken, beef or rabbit). Traditionally this is cooked over an open fire and flavoured with onions and lots of paprika. There may be one or two large peppers in it. Approach peppers with caution, usually they are mild but sometimes extremely hot and spicy peppers are used.

The "salad" will probably be either gherkins or cucumber.

Pudding: some sort of cake

If the party goes on till it is dark, you might get a skewer with a piece of pig's fat to hold over the fire. Wait until the pig's fat drips and then smear it on some bread, for a tasty snack. Tasty!

Typical Hungarian Food

More examples of popular Hungarian food and ingredients are; paprika, goulash (which is soup not a stew), fish soup (usually carp), stuffed meat in breadcrumbs, sour cream, walnuts, pancakes, cottage cheese, plums, cherries, poppy seeds, cream, anything sweet.

If you go to a traditional Hungarian restaurant expect to find all the options heavily based on meat. If you are a Vegetarian you may be limited to the cheese option.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Traditional cooking method for Hungarian stewThese red peppers are ground to make paprikaBreaded stuffed meat, a staple of traditional Hungarian restaurants.Dobos Torte, a traditional 5 layer Hungarian sponge cake coated with chocolate buttercream.
Traditional cooking method for Hungarian stew
Traditional cooking method for Hungarian stew
These red peppers are ground to make paprika
These red peppers are ground to make paprika
Breaded stuffed meat, a staple of traditional Hungarian restaurants.
Breaded stuffed meat, a staple of traditional Hungarian restaurants.
Dobos Torte, a traditional 5 layer Hungarian sponge cake coated with chocolate buttercream.
Dobos Torte, a traditional 5 layer Hungarian sponge cake coated with chocolate buttercream. | Source

4. Hungary is Not in Eastern Europe

As a Western European, I have always thought of Hungary as being in Eastern Europe, because it was behind the Iron Curtain, and geographically towards the East.

However, Hungarians don't think of themselves as "Eastern European", they classify themselves as "Central European". To Hungarians, Eastern Europe is Russia and countries closer to Russia like Ukraine and Belarus.

A
Hungary:

get directions

Hungary sits in a fairly central position in Europe.

5. Pessimism

Many Hungarians have a very pessimistic attitude to life.

My Hungarian partner once translated the conversation between the old man and woman chatting next to us in the open air swimming pool. They were talking about how terrible and stressful life is, how the town they lived in was a dump and it was all the fault of the mayor. This is a typical Hungarian conversation.

Now I don't know this couple, but they were sitting in a pool in the middle of a sunny day, so at that moment in time, their lives could not have been that stressful. The mayor may or may not be at fault for something, but the town they were discussing is definitely not a dump. Compared to the city in Western Europe I come from, this Hungarian town is much cleaner with far less rubbish on the streets. (Sometimes Hungarians assume everything is better in "the West" when it isn't).

Some Hungarians (particularly older Hungarians who have never left Hungary) will complain about how poor they are, how terrible life is and how there is nothing to do except wait until they die. Hungary is not a country without problems or hardship, but often the Hungarians who moan a lot are objectively not poor or struggling, but determined to complain and not be happy.

Historians have said this attitude is a result of Hungary's history of defeat and a sense that Hungarians are not the master of their own destiny.

History of Defeat

For most of its history Hungary has been an (often unwilling) part of various large empires, including the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Habsburg Empire.

The end of the First World War led to Hungary's independence from Austria, however Hungary lost much of its territory as borders across Europe were controversially redefined. The idea was to give different peoples or 'nations' the right to self determination. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon redefined Hungary's borders, leading to a land being lost to Romania, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (now Slovenia and Serbia).

For some Hungarians, this is still a source of incredible bitterness, and many of these countries have minority Hungarian populations to this day.

After the Second World War Hungary became a Communist country. Some Hungarians had positive experiences during these Communist times, so never assume everyone is glad these times ended. Hungary was one of the more liberal Communist states from the 1960s until 1989, after an uprising in 1958.

In the modern day, Hungarian politics are full of stories of corruption and a feeling that all politicians are out for what they can get. (This is not without evidence to back it up nor is it limited to any one political party or side).

There is a mindset in Hungary is that external forces are always conspiring against Hungarians.

Tips

If you have just met Hungarians, and don't know them well, it is best to avoid bringing up history or politics.

Also if a Hungarian tells you they are poor and have a really hard life, don't feel too sorry for them, until you have got to know them better.

Images from Hungary's History

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Many Hungarians look back to Hungary's history of success in battles throughout the medieval period. This painting shows the Huns led by the famous Attila the Hun invading Italy. In 1848 Hungary was defeated in its attempt to gain independence from the Austrian Habsburg Empire. This image shows the Battle of PákozdiMap showing the land Hungary lost after the Treaty of TrianonA destroyed tank in Budapest, 1956 during the Hungarian revolution.
Many Hungarians look back to Hungary's history of success in battles throughout the medieval period. This painting shows the Huns led by the famous Attila the Hun invading Italy.
Many Hungarians look back to Hungary's history of success in battles throughout the medieval period. This painting shows the Huns led by the famous Attila the Hun invading Italy. | Source
In 1848 Hungary was defeated in its attempt to gain independence from the Austrian Habsburg Empire. This image shows the Battle of Pákozdi
In 1848 Hungary was defeated in its attempt to gain independence from the Austrian Habsburg Empire. This image shows the Battle of Pákozdi | Source
Map showing the land Hungary lost after the Treaty of Trianon
Map showing the land Hungary lost after the Treaty of Trianon | Source
A destroyed tank in Budapest, 1956 during the Hungarian revolution.
A destroyed tank in Budapest, 1956 during the Hungarian revolution. | Source

6. Rich and Proud Culture

Hungarians are a very proud nation, despite their pessimism. Hungarians will tell you many facts about their proud history and culture.

Inventions

Hungarian inventions/discoveries include:

  • Rubik's Cube
  • Ballpoint pens, invented by László Bíró hence the name biro.
  • Thermographic cameras
  • Electric motors
  • Ford Model T
  • Nuclear bomb (Perhaps this is not one to be proud.)
  • Vitamin C
  • Holography
  • Colour television
  • Prezi
  • Telephone exchange/radio
  • Much more in the world of computing, radio, engineering and medicine.

Hungarians have won a total of 13 Nobel Prizes, which is good going for a small country.

Sports

Hungarians are also proud of their standing in sports. They are 8th in the world for medals at the Olympic games and 2nd per capita. Sports Hungarians particularly excel at include:

  • Swimming
  • Water polo
  • Fencing
  • Handball

The Arts

Hungary also has a rich artistic culture. In music, Franz Liszt is the most famous Hungarian composer, but Hungarian music has made many other contributions to the world.

Hungary has also produced much-renowned literature and poetry, although some of this has suffered from only being accessible outside of Hungary if it has been translated.

Hungarian Culture Photos

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Szent-Györgyi Albertet, winner of the Nobel Prize, 1937.Rubik's CubePainting of Liszt playing the pianoFerenc Ilyés, Hungarian Handball player blocked with foul by Polish player, 2010Hungarian folk dance
Szent-Györgyi Albertet, winner of the Nobel Prize, 1937.
Szent-Györgyi Albertet, winner of the Nobel Prize, 1937. | Source
Rubik's Cube
Rubik's Cube
Painting of Liszt playing the piano
Painting of Liszt playing the piano | Source
Ferenc Ilyés, Hungarian Handball player blocked with foul by Polish player, 2010
Ferenc Ilyés, Hungarian Handball player blocked with foul by Polish player, 2010 | Source
Hungarian folk dance
Hungarian folk dance | Source

7. Name Order

Hungarians order their names back to front compared to most of the world. If my name was John Smith, then in Hungarian I would introduce myself as Smith, John, or literally translated Kovács, János.

When a woman marries in Hungary she takes on her husband's name with -né at the end. So if a woman called Maria married Kovács, János, she becomes officially known as Kovács, Jánosné. In English this is equivalent to Mrs Johanna Smith. Her friends and family would still call her Maria.

8. Baths and swimming

If you go to Hungary make sure you bring your swimming stuff.

Hungary has natural thermal water and was once part of the Ottoman Empire, which means it has lots of thermal baths throughout the country. Hungary also has the second largest thermal lake in the world, and the largest you can safely swim in.

Despite being landlocked Hungary has several large lakes with beaches. The largest of these is the Balaton which is a holiday resort with many beaches. Many people go swimming in the Balaton.

The Importance of Water in Hungary

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Lake Heviz from the air. The second largest thermal lake in the world, and the largest you can swim in.Széchenyi bath in Budapest, 193010 July 1980, Hungary v. HollandCave at TapolcaAnna Thermal bath in Szeged
Lake Heviz from the air. The second largest thermal lake in the world, and the largest you can swim in.
Lake Heviz from the air. The second largest thermal lake in the world, and the largest you can swim in. | Source
Széchenyi bath in Budapest, 1930
Széchenyi bath in Budapest, 1930 | Source
10 July 1980, Hungary v. Holland
10 July 1980, Hungary v. Holland | Source
Cave at Tapolca
Cave at Tapolca | Source
Anna Thermal bath in Szeged
Anna Thermal bath in Szeged

9. Don't Expect Friendly Customer Service

If you are out and about in Hungary don't expect friendly customer service. The people that serve you will normally do their job efficiently. However expecting them to smile and seem happy to serve you, like you might in other parts of the world, is usually too much.

10. Hungarian Language

Most Hungarians will tell you their language is hard, so won't expect foreigners to speak it. However outside of the main tourist attractions and places visited by foreigners you cannot assume everyone will speak English. Younger people will often understand some English, but the generation that grew up in Communist times were not taught English at School, they usually learnt Russian and sometimes German.

The Hungarian language has a reputation as one of the most difficult European languages to learn. Like Finnish and Estonian it is in the Uralic family, but it is not that similar to them and is fairly unique.

There are lengthy debates about how hard Hungarian is to learn. Certainly, it is not the easiest language and it will take significant work to get close to being fluent. However it is easy to learn a few words of Hungarian. If you want to impress some Hungarians you should learn a few words, like how to introduce yourself, how to say thank you, and how to say your food is nagyon finom which means very delicious. Knowing bor for wine and sor (pronounced shor) for beer is also handy.

A Good Introductory Hungarian Lesson

Find Out More

The best way to learn about Hungarian culture is to go to Hungary, meet Hungarians, spend time with them.

However if you want to do some additional research a great book is "Hungary and the Hungarians: the Keywords" by Istvan Bart. I bought this randomly in a bookshop in Hungary and it is a fascinating dictionary of Hungarian words with the significance of each word in terms of Hungarian culture explained. It really gives you a sense of what is important to Hungarians, their history and psyche. I tested some entries on a couple of Hungarians and they laughed out loud at the truth of some of the entries.


© 2018 Marianne Sherret

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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      2 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      I've had dealings with a number of Hungarians in the past - one as recently as last Friday (18th May) who was employed selling property at City Island in London E14. They've got a strong sense of their history, and we (English) have an albeit tenuous link with Hungary in that the two sons of Eadmund 'Ironside' (son of Aethelred 'Unraed') made friends with the old King Stephen's son Andrew of Hungary in exile in Kiev. As a reward of helping him oust the emperor's nominee King Paul they were given land in the west of Hungary in the mid-11th Century. Eadward brought his family to England after his brother Eadmund died and Harold Godwinson brought them through Central Europe. Eadward's son Eadgar should've been king but Harold was chosen over him by the Witan on account of his lack of experience and young age (15 in 1066). His sister Margaret wedded King Maelcolm 'Canmore' and reorganised the Scottish church. Eadgar was given shelter by Maelcolm several times until William I forced the Treaty of Abernethy on him in 1074. So effectively England, Scotland and Hungary are tied together through Eadgar 'the aetheling'.

      History's a grand thing, ain't it.("The Lost King of England" by Gabriel Ronay, Boydell Press, ISBN 0-85115-785-8)

      Good, well-written article, Marianne, well illustrated and researched

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      5 months ago from UK

      I enjoyed reading this and feel like it has given me a real insight into Hungary. I was recently in the Czech Republic and recognised a few similarities.

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