At the end of the 9th century, the Hungarians went through the Carpathian mountain passes to settle the Central Danube basin. There they established an empire that lasted 1,000 years, ruling what is now Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Transylvania, Western Ukraine and parts of Serbia and Austria. During this period they were devastated by the Mongols in the 13th century and endured 150 years of Ottoman rule in the 16th and 17th centuries.
In a national sense, Hungary is somewhat claustrophobic. It is a severely truncated state, compared with lands it once ruled. These territories, taken away after military defeats, are still inhabited by Hungarians: two million Hungarians live in Romania alone, while another million inhabit Slovakia and Serbia.
Here are some guidelines for effective interaction with Hungarians:
1. Be prepared for a Latin approach to space and time
Hungarians, like Latins, sit and stand close to each other. There is plenty of physical contact and handshaking is a must. Buses and trains tend to be packed, and extended families living under one roof are common. Although they are punctual in arriving for appointments they often lose all sense of time once animated conversation starts. Like Latins, they operate on people-time rather than clock-time. Eye contact is strong.
2. Be gallant and courteous
Ladies tend to be idealized in an old-fashioned manner, though this not does necessarily preclude them being prominent in business. Hand-kissing is common and men walk to the left of women (to protect them with their sword.) Women precede men into theatres, cinemas and private homes, but follow them into potentially rougher places such as bars and cafes. A Hungarian male once said ‘We like to think of ourselves as romantic horsemen, sweeping ladies out of danger onto the back of our steeds….
3. Join them in their coffee-houses for a gossip
The Hungarian is a bon vivant, preferring wine to beer and frequenting traditional coffee-houses where timeless conversation and bittersweet Turkish coffee remind you of the Ottoman occupation. Conversation is lively and they love to exchange confidences and gossip over rich food and cakes. Enter into this spirit and eat, drink and socialize with them regularly.
4. Understand their complex communication patterns and listening habits
Charming, charismatic, easy-going and good at small talk, they will start off with some humour and make excellent raconteurs. But Anglo-Saxons and Nordics may soon begin to lose their way as rationality gives way to emotion and logic for rhetoric. Conversation, as fluent as the Danube, may contain rocks under the surface. Hyperbole, flamboyance and flattery can quickly switch to criticism, complaints and pessimism. Everyone may talk at once, so choose your entry point carefully. As listeners they can switch on and off. Make your points brief, challenging, lively, and with charisma and humour.
5. Be ready for thorough analysis
Like Germanic cultures, Hungarians will tend to go into far deeper analysis than the British, Americans and Nordics may be used to. And like their long-distant cousins, the Finns, they may paint a negative picture of situations, though alternate this with optimistic forecasts of deals to be done. They may elaborate on problems without suggesting solutions. Listen to them, but try to avoid adding your own complaints.
6. Accommodate to their strong sense of pride
A proud people, especially when with representatives of more powerful nations, Hungarians have an initial preoccupation with honour. Praise some of the contributions great Hungarians such as Liszt, Bartok, Soros and Rubik – amongst dozens more – have made to the worlds of music, art, theatre and film.
7. Be careful not to offend their sensitive nature
Like the Spaniards, Hungarians can be sensitive and touchy. You have to be more careful than with most cultures not to upset them. Read up on the magnificent history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and dwell in conversation on the beauty of Budapest – one of Europe’s most stunning capital cities.
8. Show your individuality
Hungarians are rather cynical, for ancient historical reasons, about leaders. The Soviet rule did nothing to change this attitude. But you will gain respect if you can show your individuality and expertise in a particular field, especially if it is intellectual, scientific or artistic. Intelligence, energy, shrewdness and a quick wit are admired. But remain generous-spirited and friendly.
9. Respect high achievement and competitiveness
They are eager to demonstrate that they can recover from the communist era faster than anyone else, and that they have been progressive (such as in having been early candidates for the EU.) They have an obsession to achieve and to show the fruits of their success in the form of status symbols like plush offices, cars and good clothes. It will do you no harm to do the same, if you can.
10. Choose the countries you talk about carefully
It will not help your case to overly praise Romania or Slovakia, or to talk about ethnic minorities unless you are well informed. The same goes for the communist period in general. You are on very safe ground asking about their difficult language and their linguistic and racial ties to the Finns, whom they admire. Always refer to Hungary as being part of Central Europe, not Eastern.