We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Greece
Greeks rate politeness with a person’s behavior and not their words. Furthermore, there is an air of informality; everybody is treated like a cousin. They use their hands to gesture a lot. Have fun with this. Sometimes over-emphasizing politeness in spoken language will only make the person dealing with you think you are pretentious. It’s nice to learn basic words like “thank you” : ef-khah-rees-TOH) or “please” : pah-rah-kah-LOH).
Greeks generally consider it proper etiquette to let the stranger make the first move. You may find that on entering a cafe or passing a group on the street you feel that you’re being ignored, but if you take the initiative by saying hello first, you’re likely to find that people suddenly turn friendly. Greeks take leisure very seriously; it is a work-to-live culture, not live-to-work. Don’t take perceived laziness or rudeness harshly.
They do it to everyone, locals and tourists alike. Rather than fight it, just go along with it and laugh at the situation. It can be very frustrating at times but also appreciate their “enjoy life” attitude. They do take politics and football very seriously. Dress codes for churches include covered shoulders for women and knees covered for both sexes.
This tends to be lightly enforced during the height of the summer tourist season, simply due to sheer volume! In any case, appropriate clothing is usually available at the entrance of churches and monasteries, especially the ones receiving most tourist traffic. Just pick it up going in and drop it off on the way out. Sensitive Topics Do not say that Greece is part of Eastern Europe; Greece was the only openly pro-Western country in a shore of Communist neighbors, both pro-Soviet and neutral.
It is not geographically correct either. Greeks dislike Greece to be labelled as a Balkan country, due to the negative image of the region, even though as the southernmost tip of the Balkan peninsula, Greece lies inside the Balkans. As Greece is part of Southern Europe, it is almost exclusively considered and described by Greeks and foreigners alike as a Southern European country anyway.
The Macedonian issue is considered a very sensitive topic: Greeks consider that the name “Macedonia” is stolen from them and used by Tito’s partisans in southern Yugoslavia to address the country created after World War II as a new constituent republic within Yugoslavia by Tito. The Greeks refer to it as “FYRoM” or the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” when dealing with foreigners and as Skopia (The Greek version of the Macedonian capital Skopje) among themselves. It’s always spectacular to see the most friendly people turning mad by the simple mention of “Macedonia(n)” instead of “FYRoM”, so pay attention to that whenever you are in the country.
Also, be very careful when talking about Ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire, which are the symbols of their national pride and splendor; however,most will say the polar opposite when talking about the military junta of the late 1960s-mid 1970s. Many Greeks– not just Communists and other left-wing groups– have suffered severe repression and view its leaders with utter resentment. Many Greeks take pride of their ancient history, since Ancient Greece is a well known civilization to first develop the concept of democracy and western philosophy, as well as its art, architecture, literature, theater and sciences which is regarded as the cradle of European civilization.
Likewise, be polite when asking about their relationship with the Turks, about the Ottoman Turkish rule and the Turkish occupation of the northern part of Cyprus since 1974, as these create passionate, sometimes aggressive, debates, given the past turmoil between the two nations. Relations have improved over recent years though. Rude gestures To “swear” at someone using their hands, Greeks put out their entire hand, palm open, five fingers extended out, like signalling someone to stop. This is called “mountza”. Sometimes they will do this by saying “na” (here) or they will do this with both palms to emphasize and will say “na, malaka” (here, jerk) when the offense is more serious.
It is basically telling someone to screw off or that they did something totally ridiculous. “Mountza” is known to come from a gesture used in the Byzantine era, where the guilty person were applied with ash on his/her face by the judge’s handto be ridiculed. Be careful when refusing something in Greece: when refusing the offer of a drink, it’s best to put your palm over your glass (or any other refusing gesture that limits the showing of the palm).
The ubiquitous middle finger salute will also be understood. There is some regional variation on the use of the ‘okay’ sign (thumb and index finger in a circle, the 3 other fingers up), as is signalling to a waiter by miming signing a receipt. Smoking Greeks smoke tremendously, and they see cigarettes as a birthright. While smoking is technically prohibited by law in all public places like restaurants and cafeterias by September 2010, however some establishments and most Greeks just ignore this, but nevertheless it is best to follow the smoking ban. Remember that Greece is subject to frequent forest fires during the dry summer season, so definitely avoid smoking in forested areas!
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Greece, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Greece food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Greece Please comment below.