10 Things You Should Know When Meeting Hungarians
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hungarians are proud of Hungarian food as well as alcohol.
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.
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.
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.
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 HistoryClick thumbnail to view full-size
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.
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
- Colour television
- 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.
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:
- Water polo
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 PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
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 HungaryClick thumbnail to view full-size
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 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. "Hungary and the Hungarians: the Keywords"
© 2018 Marianne Sherret