Vol. 4, No. 4, Fall 1996, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe
From Da to Yes; Understanding East Europeans
Editor's Note: The following sampling of savvy cross-cultural insights and advice comes from the author of the highly regarded From Nyet to Da; Understanding the Russians. In addition to East Central Europe, From Da to Yes
covers the Baltic states, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Richmond's counsel is so telling, it is hoped that many readers will
become motivated to order From Da to Yes for themselves.
I. Tips on Crossing Cultures
II. Hospitality Plus
Language is often indirect and imprecise, and purposely so. Watch
for allusions and hidden meanings, and listen to what is not said as
well as what is said. Understatement is usually the rule.
East Europeans consider it impolite to say no directly.
First-time visitors to Eastern European countries should hire a
facilitator--someone on the ground who speaks the language, knows who
is who and is at home with customs of the country.
When using an interpreter, speak slowly, avoid complicated words,
repeat important ideas in a slightly different fashion to make sure you
are getting through, and look at the person being addressed, not the
English, the language of choice, is becoming the lingua franca
of Eastern Europe, the language Balts use to talk with Bosnians. Those
under thirty are likely to have studied English in school, as have
professionals who need it in their work--scholars, scientists, medical
doctors, teachers, business people, government officials, and media
personnel. Older people are more likely to know German or
French. And all of them will have studied Russian, although in
most countries they are reluctant to speak it.
Don't drink the water. Bottled water and soft drinks, both
domestic and imported, are available in hotels and stores. Tap
water should be boiled.
III. Friendships and Connections: A Means of Survival
Hospitality in Eastern Europe is legendary. Meals can last for hours,
with animated conversation, jokes, music, and singing, and guests are
expected to join in.
When invited to a home, guests always bring gifts. Flowers are always
appropriate. Odd numbers only though, and be careful about red
roses, which are considered a sign of affection.
In many homes it is customary to remove shoes when entering from a
dirty street, especially in winter, and guests may be offered
slippers. Foreign guests may be told that it is not necessary to
remove their shoes, but hosts will welcome it if they do.
By tradition, toasts are not made with nonalcoholic drinks or
water. However, American teetotalers have been known to raise
their glasses in a toast, and East Europeans will accept this as
another strange custom of the visitors from across the Atlantic.
IV. History's Long Shadow over the Present
During the communist years, family and friends became even more important because no one else could be trusted.
Rather than going through official channels to get something done, East
Europeans will first network their families, friends, and personal
contacts who owe them a favor. Do a favor for someone and receive
a favor in return.
Transactions between people are made on a personal basis after
credibility and trust have been established. That requires time
and explains why it takes weeks, months, and sometimes years to get
Friendship in Eastern Europe is not to be taken lightly.
Americans are accustomed to meeting someone and in the next breath
describing that person as a friend. In Eastern Europe, such a
newly met person would be called an acquaintance rather than a friend,
and there are indeed different words for the two in their languages.
Eastern Europe is run by networks of personal contacts. Knowing
the right people can mean the difference between success and failure.
In Eastern Europe people are accustomed to doing business, not by fax
or E-mail or Internet or even phone, but by face-to-face meetings, and
that is not likely to change quickly.
From Da to Yes; Understanding the East Europeans by Yale
Richmond (1995) may be ordered from the publisher, Intercultural Press,
Box 700, Yarmouth, ME 04096; tel: 800-370-2665; fax:
207-846-5181; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excerpt reprinted with permission.
East Europeans have a sharp sense of history, and foreign visitors who
do not know something of that history will be found wanting.
Progress in casting off the communist past varies from country to
country, but many of the attitudes shaped by forty-five years of
communist rule still prevail.
Success in business is regarded by the popular cultures in some
countries as unethical. With the exception of the Czech Republic,
the lack of a democratic tradition handicaps the transition to
East Europeans have a tendency to blame others for their
misfortunes. There is, of course, some historic reason to do
so. All of these nations were under foreign rule for much of
their history and were not masters within their own borders. And
after World War II, a victorious Soviet Union imposed communist regimes
and ruled through local parties. The practice of blaming others,
however, continues today. Slovaks blame Czechs for having failed
to provide full equality within the Czechoslovak Republic.
Romanians and Hungarians blame each other for their troubles in
Transylvania. Ukrainians and Poles blame Russians for centuries
of oppression. Lithuanians blame Poles for treating them as
second-class citizens during the interwar period. Croats and
Serbs blame each other for their long history of animosity, and Muslims
blame Christian Serbs for their fratricidal war. All blame
the Soviets for having imposed communism, and whatever blame is left
over is heaped upon Gypsies and Jews.
Yale Richmond, "From Da to Yes; Understanding East Europeans," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 4 (Fall 1996), 10-11.
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© 1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
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