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With its mix of Hungarian and European cultures, as well as a cosmopolitan feel in the big cities, expats will most likely experience little culture shock in Hungary. The key cultural differences that expats come across tend to be the cuisine and language.
Hungary has a unique culture and history. The population is largely homogenous, with Hungarians making up the majority. Of the minority groups, Roma and Germans are the largest. Christianity is the predominant religion, but Hungary also has a significant Jewish population – Budapest is home to Europe’s largest synagogue. Hungarians are generally friendly people who enjoy socialising and sharing their country and culture with visitors.
Meeting and greeting in Hungary
Handshakes are a common way of greeting in Hungary. Eye contact is important and should be maintained during handshakes; avoiding eye contact may be interpreted as being evasive or having something to hide. When greeting a woman, male expats should wait for her to initiate the handshake. Meanwhile, close friends may greet one another with a kiss on each cheek.
Language barrier in Hungary
Hungarian, or Magyar, is the official language in Hungary. It is spoken throughout the country and is the language on signs and notices. Although it may help to memorise a few key phrases, Hungarian is a notoriously difficult language to learn and expats will generally be forgiven for not being able to speak it.
English is also spoken in parts of Hungary, especially in large cities such as Budapest, as well as popular tourist regions such as the Danube Bend and Lake Balaton. English is an important language of business in Hungary and, as such, expats working in Hungary should have no trouble communicating in a business setting.
Relationships and communication in Hungary
The Hungarian communication style is direct, and it’s not unusual for Hungarians to ask very personal questions and share intimate details about their own lives. This may be something expats aren't used to, but it is in no way meant to offend, and is rather considered a part of getting to know one another.
Family is the centre of social structures in Hungary. Family members look after one another and it’s not uncommon for extended families to all live together. Women and elders are highly respected in Hungary.
Food in Hungary
Hungarian food is quite distinct and has particular tastes. Hungarians are famous for their hearty meals, the most popular of which is goulash, a thick soup made with meat, vegetables and paprika. Some expats may find the use of paprika (not hot, just spicy) difficult to stomach. Western foods are available in supermarkets and restaurants, particularly in Budapest. Nonetheless, most expats will find that they take to Hungarian gastronomy quite quickly.
Coffee culture is incredibly popular in Budapest. Hungarians also enjoy drinking, and it goes without saying that beer is very popular. Hungarian wines have also gained prominence in recent years, something that Hungarians are quite proud of.
Folk culture and the arts in Hungary
From Roman ruins to Turkish baths and Gothic churches, Hungary’s architecture is a unique blend of the different nations that have occupied the country over the centuries. Budapest, sitting on either side of the Danube River, is often cited as the most beautiful city in Europe, and there is plenty in terms of arts and cultural activities to keep expats occupied.
Hungarians are immensely proud of their culture and the country has a rich folk tradition, with dancing, music and decorative arts, such as colourful embroideries and potteries.
►For a breakdown of what to expect to pay for basic goods and services in Hungary, see Cost of Living in Hungary
►For more on social and business etiquette in Hungary, see Doing Business in Hungary
"The language is a big adjustment. My Hungarian is decent but some situations go over my head. Years ago, when I first visited Hungary, a lot of things came as a surprise: how much people smoke, the low salaries and food like kocsonya (aspic), which is a meat-stock jelly. I was 21 the first time I visited and, coming from California, Hungary felt like a different planet. Now I’m 33, I’ve travelled much more and have spent a lot of time in Hungary. Most things that initially shocked me seem pretty normal now."
Read more about Irish-American expat Colm Fitzgerald's experiences in Hungary.
Are you an expat living in Hungary?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Hungary. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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