Balkans business culture: lessons from 5 neighboring countries

Balkans business culture: punctuality, taboos and more

Business culture plays a major role in international business. A good knowledge of foreign business culture is very important in establishing initial business contacts. It also helps students looking for placements and internship opportunities in European countries to integrate faster into working and social life.

One of the main tasks of the Passport to Trade 2.0 (#P2T2) project was the development of European Mobility Framework (EMF) website content related to the cultural and business environment of five European neighboring countries from the Balkans region – Bulgaria, Romania, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Turkey, and Croatia. Country specific research and the preparation of the EMF proved a lot of business culture similarities among the countries in the region.

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Balkans punctuality in business meetings

Time keeping in business has always been an important issue. Punctuality for meetings is taken seriously as it indicates respect for your meeting partner and shows that you value their time. Generally, up to 10 minutes late is acceptable, over 10 minutes late necessitates a phone call to your meeting partners to let them know that you are on your way. If you are over half an hour late it is probably worth re-scheduling the meeting. In the private sphere of life people in these countries have a more relaxed perspective on time, where a 15-20 minutes delay is to be expected and not unusual; in part this is also due to infrastructure issues – buses and trains tend to rarely run on time.

Balkans business dress code

Business representatives pay meticulous attention to their appearance. Therefore formal dress code should be adhered to and is not to be taken lightly. Formal for men would mean a jacket with shirt and tie or a suit and for ladies, a formal dress or also a suit. Business people in the Balkan region like to show their business counterparts that they value the chance to meet with one another face-to-face to develop business relationships.

Balkans taboo discussion subjects

While the number of taboos in the five countries is decreasing, business people should pay attention to some issues that are considered inappropriate and should be avoided. In Turkey family is considered sacred and should not be disrespected. In Croatia it is advisable not to talk about money or personal problems since it is viewed as a sign of weak character. The Romanians believe strongly in fate, chance and luck. Respect their habit to wish themselves luck in any action undertaken – even seemingly mundane actions like sneezing and hiccupping can take on a superstitious meaning. (when selling, buying, hiccuping, drinking, sneezing and even instead of “good morning”). In FYROM,if you have been invited to a business meal your host will continue to give you food and drink and insist on paying for you; it is considered impolite to refuse this hospitality.

Body language in the Balkans

The non-verbal language has also a lot of cultural resemblances.  Quite often people in the region stand close to business partners during a conversation. An arm’s length is generally considered an appropriate amount of personal space when speaking, particularly when interacting with colleagues and acquaintances. Compared to other people in the region the Bulgarians have different head gestures to indicate “no” and “yes.”  Shaking your head from side to side signifies “yes” and an up and down movement means “no”. In Turkey people tend to greet each other with a two-handed handshake or by a kiss on both cheeks.

Balkans customs of gift giving

Gift giving is generally not practiced. Small presents like souvenir representing the business partner’s country are acceptable. A gift that relates to the home country is preferred in the regional business etiquette.  In the five countries the first meeting is more social than business related. Business partners need two or three meetings before they are able to decide if they are going to do business or not. Establishment of personal relations with a client is very important before doing business. Business lunches and dinners are considered more of a social occasion and a good way to develop relationships. Meals are generally very rich. The hosts in the region will often put more food on the table than can be eaten. They are proud of their cuisine and like to show off.

In general, people in the region are very hospitable, friendly and helpful. If a foreign partner wins their trust, they can rely on successful long-term business cooperation.