As a tourist in Romania, you may easily feel at home and forget that you are in a foreign country. But the welcoming and friendly spirit of the Romanian people will not help you over-bridge the cultural differences and understand their values. So in order to avoid a culture shock, there are some things you should know about Romanians before you travel to their country. Of course, Romanians are not all the same, but there are some cultural characteristics that most of them share.
Romanians eat three times a day and dinner is typically their biggest meal. They are used to eating very late at night, so ordering food after 10:00 p.m. in a restaurant is not uncommon. Romanians love dinner parties and they will use every opportunity to gather some friends around their table. If they invite you for dinner, you should expect a copious meal with many courses and delicious deserts. Each course is eaten with bread and is big enough to stuff an average stomach.
The host tries her best to impress you and expects to be complimented for her cooking. If you like the food she will always insist that you have second and even third helpings. Invoking a small stomach will not spear you the insistence. Many people may find this very annoying, but in Romania this is considered good manners.
You are expected to eat all you put on your plate. Romanians don’t like wasting food and leaving it on your plate may be perceived as a sign that you didn’t like the cooking. When offered food, the Romanians will first politely refuse. But don’t be fooled. The “no, thank you” only means that you’ll have to insist.
In Romania, punctuality is considered a strength when doing business, but when invited to a party time seems to have a totally different meaning. If you are told the party is at 7 you are not expected to show up exactly at 7 sharp. In fact, being right on time may be a little awkward and even inconvenient for the hosts who, at 7 o’clock may still be in the shower getting ready for the party. So if you are told 7 o’clock, you should plan on arriving more towards 7:30.
Romanians believe in God but are very little concerned with their religion. Instead, they care a lot about their religious traditions and are also very superstitious. Most of the Romanians practice Eastern Orthodoxy and as such participate in very elaborate customs and ceremonies, but they will flock the churches only two times a year: for Christmas and for Easter.
When greeting a stranger, Romanians may seem formal and reserved, but when they meet with friends will kiss and hug each other. When they kiss a friend they do it twice, on each cheek, from left to right. Doing it only once would seem cold and distant. It is not unusual to see a man kissing a woman’s hand when they meet, but that is not something expected from a foreigner.
Compared to the Western Europeans, Romanians are very talkative and outgoing. They will easily talk to strangers in the street, or on the bus, or in restaurants. And if encouraged, the conversation may soon become more than a general chit-chat. If you are in an airport, or waiting at the train station you may even be asked where you are going, where you are coming from, or even what you do for a living. What to some people may seem like an intimate conversation, they will consider just friendly talk.
Romanians complain frequently and about everything: politics, government, their economic conditions, or each other. Complaining is part of their every conversation, but is acceptable only among themselves. A similar negative remark coming from someone from another country would be interpreted as an offense.
In Romania you’ll be judged by the way you speak and by your level of education, rather than by your accent, or money. Romanians like to compare themselves with other nations, but they don’t think in terms of different, they think in terms of better and worse.
Romanians have a very keen sense of humor, rather similar to the English sense of humor: very ironic and directly unto the person. Becoming the subject of their jokes can be quite irritating, as they have no sense of political correctness. They enjoy poking fun even at themselves, especially as a nation and also have a lot of ethnic jokes about the different minorities living in Romania, like the Gypsies, Hungarians or Jews.
Romanians are extremely friendly and easy going people, but there are a couple of things that will surely ruffle their feathers and cause them to label you stupid and ignorant beyond redemption. One, is confusing them with Gypsies, an ethnic group that has been living on Romania’s territory for centuries, also called Roma or Romanies, hence the similarity with Romanians. Being a Gypsy in Romania is the worst social stigma and the relationship between Romanians and Gypsies is somewhat similar to the relationship between American whites and blacks. Although Gypsies have never been enslaved en masse, they always formed a permanent underclass throughout their history in Romania, living in poverty and illiteracy.
The second is confusing Bucharest with Budapest. In the beginning, when celebrities like Michael Jackson and other musicians playing in Romania’s capital come on stage shouting “how are you doing, Budapest?” locals were indulgently amused. But as the trend continued, they moved from amused to seriously pissed off. After all, Bucharest is the 6th largest city in the European Union and a fine cultural and artistic center. It doesn’t deserve to be confused with its neighbor just because it has a similar name.
I think almost everyone experiences culture shock when they travel to a new country. The culture shock doesn’t come from not knowing what to expect or how to do things in the new environment, but from not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate. I had my fair share of culture shock when I moved to America. Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime. What about your experience? I’d like to hear about it.