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 Serbia
Serbs are a very friendly, polite and hospitable people, especially in the southern parts of the country. Home visits When you are invited into a Serbian home, make sure to bring them a gift if you are coming for the first time. Anything is fine from flowers to chocolate or alcoholic drinks and indeed something representative from your country.
If you are bringing flowers, make sure you bring an odd number of them, as an even number is usually brought to funerals. When inside the house, don’t ask for anything for they will surely offer it. If you are thirsty it is polite to ask for a glass of water.
The host probably forgot to offer you a drink and will do so. In public In public transportation it is considered polite to offer an elderly person or a pregnant woman a place to sit. Make sure to wait for everyone to exit the vehicle before you enter, as to avoid dirty looks. Conversation topic Since many Serbs feel nationally frustrated by the recent historical events in the Balkans, it is best to avoid discussion of the 1990s Yugoslavian Wars, the NATO bombing of Serbia. If someone brings the topic up, try to avoid giving any strong opinions until you can assess your acquaintance’s views. Do not mention support for Kosovo independence.
The US’s vocal support of Kosovar independence, in addition to the 1999 air strikes caused some ill-will directed towards the West, particularly towards the US (though unlikely on a personal level). However if you share the views of most Serbs some may be willing to discuss the subject and many will be happy speaking to a Westerner who shares their views.
On the other hand, talking about Socialist Yugoslavia and Tito will not raise as many eyebrows; as most will not hesitate in talking about it and some may even approach it with a strong degree of affection towards that more stable and peaceful era. But it is possible to approach strong anti-communist and nationalist attitude, especially among young people and some rural aereas, where old communist/nationalist divide from WWII is considered still alive.
Remember, Serbia does not recognize the independence of Kosovo but maintains relations with Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Serbia is a predominantly Christian Orthodox country, though secular, it is extremely rude to insult or mock some of its traditions, and ensure that you do not speak badly of the Christian religion. Similar to other ex-Yugoslavia countries, Serbs do not like their country to be described as part of “Eastern Europe”. Another common misconception is that Serbia was part of the Soviet Bloc (in fact, it was part of Yugoslavia that notoriously split with the Eastern bloc back in 1948).
While in other nations of Eastern Europe Russia remains unpopular due to its influence over those nations during the Cold War, in Serbia Russians were always seen as friendly brotherly people. People have no problems talking about the communist period or Tito and often become even nostalgic over it. When toasting in Serbia, as in the most of European countries, make sure you make eye contact. You may be invited to drink gallons but are expected to be able to hold your drink. Being obviously drunk is a sign of bad taste, lack of character, and worse. Be careful, “rakija”, a plum spirit (usually about 53% alcohol content), is stronger than expected, and will make you drunk fast! It is always nice to toast in your companion’s native tongue. Cheers is iveli in Serbian, egészségedre in Hungarian. Don’t point with your finger at someone. This is considered rude.
Socially, displays of affection among the younger generation are the same as Western European standards, but the older generation (over 65) still are quite conservative. The word molim (please) is key to polite conversation in Serbian. It basically means please, but also you’re welcome, an appropriate response when somebody thanks you (and says hvala).
It also means I beg your pardon. Just saying ta (What can sound rude. It may be said that the use of the word molim is similar to the use of bitte in German. Like most European languages, has the formal and informal way of saying you (Vi and ti).
Use the formal Vi version when addressing older people. People are normally not addressed or referred to by their first names, unless among friends or relatives. Parts of Russia#Respect also apply here (in particular Home Etiquette and Dining Etiquette).
For ease of reading the titles, we present comparative Serbian Cyrillic alphabet and (the Latin translation in brackets): (Aa), (Bb), (Vv), (Gg), (Dd), (Ee), (), (Zz), (Ii), (Kk), (Ll), (Mm), (Nn), (Oo), (Pp), (Rr), (Ss), (Tt), (Uu), (Ff), (Hh), (Cc), , or ch), (, or sh), and (j or Y), and (Lj lj), (Nj nj), or ch-soft), , (D d, or dz), -example:(Beograd), (Vrnjaka banja), (Slobodan), (Mihailo), (Crkva), (Ulica),(Pijaca),(Trg),(Kafana), (Grad),(Centar)… Serbian greetings are the following: Dobrodoao!(Serbian Cyrillic:!) = Welcome! Kako se zove(Serbian Cyrillic: =What’s your name Moje ime je Mihailo!(Serbian Cyrillic: =My name is Mihailo(Michael) Dobro jutro(Serbian Cyrillic: = Good morning Dobar dan(Serbian Cyrillic: = “Good day”, indeed to be used most of the day Dobro vee (Serbian Cyrillic: = Good evening Laku no (Serbian Cyrillic: = Good night (only when going to sleep, otherwise Dobro vee) Dovienja(Serbian Cyrillic: = Goodbye Zdravo (Serbian Cyrillic: = Hi, the most common informal greeting, used both when coming and leaving. Hvala!(Serbian Cyrillic:!)= hanks! Vidimo se, kasnije!(Serbian Cyrillic: , !)=See you, later! ao (Serbian Cyrillic: = Similar to “Zdravo”, even more informal (pronounced the same as in Italian, but with different accent). Used more commonly when leaving. Kako si: Dobro, a ti!(Serbian Cyrillic: : , !)= How are you : Good, and you! iveli!(Serbian Cyrillic:!)= Cheers! Izvinite!(Serbian Cyrillic:!)= Excuse me! Srean put! (Serbian Cyrillic: !)=Have a nice trip! Volim te! (Serbian Cyrillic: !)=I love you! Svia mi se!(Serbian Cyrillic: !)= I like you!
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Serbia, 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 Serbia food and drinks:
Local food you should try in Serbia and No miss drinks in Serbia.
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Serbia Please comment below.