Studying abroad always has unique sets of challenges; one of these challenges is learning how to adapt to a different culture and mentality. Each Central European country has its quirks and differences, but they follow quite a few of the same patterns as a general rule. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you will study in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia or Hungary.
©from /What you should know about Central Europe: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia
This part is mainly for North American readers. The glossy service with a smile that you are accustomed to is not always found in Central Europe. You can and will have a customer service horror story. While the customer service in central European countries has improved a lot in the last twenty years, you will have an “Oh no, she didn’t!” moment. The best way to handle it is to just get over it and laugh. It’s nothing personal against you. The person might have had their rent or mortgage increase this week but have had the same wage for years. They might not understand you very well.
With the rise of globalisation and the use of the internet, customer service has improved drastically over the years. However, if you are one of those that always has a special order, wants consistent attention and five-star service when you are in a two-star place, you might be in for some disappointments. The sugar-coated fake niceness is not much of a thing here, which, after a while, can be refreshing. Many Americans, when they go back to the US, often find the service annoying and invasive.
A common misconception is that everyone speaks Russian in these countries above. That’s not true, especially in Slovenia, which was never part of the Warsaw Pact when it was part of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was one of the founding states of the nonaligned movement; it famously went in a different direction from NATO and the Warsaw pact. Because of this, Russian language education was not introduced into schools like it was in the other three.
In the other three countries, the Russian language has had almost no presence in the education system since the 1980s; the last people to have taken a few Russian lessons in school are pushing forty or older. Many older people have mixed opinions about speaking Russian. Many don’t remember it. Assuming someone in the Czech Republic or Slovakia speaks Russian is a lot like assuming some forty-five-year-old man in Kentucky can speak Spanish just because he had a couple of years of it in school.
All of the local languages, except Hungarian, are in the same language family as Russian, but they are still quite different. If you are a Russian speaker or speaker of another Slavic language, you will have the upper hand in learning the local language.
Central Europeans, aside from Slovenians, love their trams. They love it even more when people (tourists included) use the proper protocol when riding them. You wait for your turn to get on. Do not even think about getting on until everyone has gotten off. If you see someone handicapped or with a pram, you should immediately offer to help them. Pay attention to making sure you are not sitting on a crowded tram when there is someone else who needs the seat more than you. If you ride the trams around Prague and Budapest, you will notice how people immediately volunteer their seats. Sometimes this almost gets too problematic when people are prideful and get up for every person. It causes the aisle to overcrowd because everyone is too proud to take a seat. Older people sometimes get offended when you offer them a seat, but it is still a better idea to offer to anyone who looks like they need the seat more than you.
Public Transportation in all of these countries, except Slovenia again, is for the most part flawless. Public transportation in Slovenia is affordable; it’s just not as advanced as these other three. Trams got scrapped in the 1950s, and every Slovenian is unhappy about it. However, on the other hand, most Slovene cities are incredibly pedestrian-friendly. Slovenia is also notably much more bicycle-friendly than the other three countries, making up for its so-so transportation in different ways.
I went over the more negative things with the Central European mentality, but here is a positive thing. Despite the stereotype that old ladies in these countries are continually spying on people, nobody really cares what you are doing. As long as you are not super loud in your dorm or apartment after quiet hours, you are not likely to be hounded for anything else. Are you getting smashed in the beer garden? What about it? On the tram at 7 am coming home from a wild night? Who cares!
People are not inclined to be as nosey about your personal life as in other countries. All of these countries are relatively quite secular, in particular, the Czech Republic. They are often open about taboo subjects and can talk frankly about them without much judgement. However, if you bother them during quiet hours, this will be another story. They will either call the police or do loud housework at 7 or 8 am.
Central Europeans are often not the most outgoing and willing to just talk to anyone that comes within their direction. They are not always approachable. You probably will not get an invite to dinner upon meeting your neighbour or colleague. Again as with the customer service, it is nothing personal against you, nor is it really because they are xenophobic. It just takes people in this part of the world a little more time to get accustomed to new people.
Once you do become friends with a local, they are usually quite reliable friends. They will stay your friend for life. They will be there for you when you need it. They often do what they say they are going to do. You won’t find as many empty promises as you would in other places.
It also opens up an exciting realm of possibilities. They will invite you to all sorts of fun cultural activities once you do become friends. You could be invited to their cottage even. However, one thing to note, many of them prefer to meet people outdoors, and when they do receive guests, it is often on their balcony or summer garden rather than inside their homes.
The reliability factor expands into the professional and academic world as well. They are usually in sync with their Austrian and German counterparts. You won’t be surprised with as much. You won’t be let down as much. People there tend to do what they say they are going to do. Professors are often very fair.
A common similarity that people from all of these countries have is their infinite love for nature. Many of them skip town on the weekends to go to their cottages. Those who don’t have cottages often devote a day each weekend to hiking, kayaking, or foraging. Many Central Europeans devote one or two weekends each summer to go on a big rafting trip.
Small children often know more about flowers and trees than many adults from North America or Western Europe. Nature is a big part of childhood education and upbringing, and it stays with them for the rest of their life. It’s also a wonderful thing about them and very refreshing, even if you are a city person.
Most of the examples I posted are just a few general points that apply to all four countries. They each have their own particularities. For example, Czechs seem to have a darker sense of humour and reputation for coming across as a bit brash compared to their Hungarian, Slovak, and Slovene counterparts.
Slovenes are a little more adaptable than the rest. On average, they have the best language skills of any of the four. Although it is a small country, Slovenia is also a central connecting point of the different regions of Europe, so it has more influences from the Balkan countries and Italy than the others.
These are just a few general things to keep in mind. They do not apply to everyone in each of these countries. They are only a few things to consider when dealing with some cultural differences that you may not be used to. The best way to approach them is with an open mind and a sense of humour. This advice is applicable anywhere you decide to go in the world.
Heidi Koelle for 2TM