A Brief Intro to Romanian Etiquette

27 aprilie 2007

Well I’ve got a little time on my hands this morning and I’ve been "back" in Romania a while now so I thought I’d scribble a little guide to basic Romanian etiquette.

Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive list but it’s a few things to keep in mind when visiting or living in Romania.

1) Whenever anyone who is not a total stranger eats some kind of food in front of you, or eats with you or eats within range of your vision, wish them either "pofta mare" or "pofta buna".

Literally this phrase means "big appetite" or "large appetite", the same as "bon appetit" in English/French. And anytime you eat in front of someone else, they will wish you the same. The standard response is "multumesc" or "mersi" (thank you).

Romanians almost never say "grace" or conduct any other rituals before eating other than the mutual wishing of "bon appetit".

2) When you shake someone’s hand, always, always, always do it with the right hand. If you’re holding something in your right hand, set it down and shake hands. If your right hand is wet, dry it off. Do whatever you have to do but use the right hand only.

3) When you are introduced to someone, it is generally the custom (with some exceptions – see below) to shake hands. Whether you shake hands or not, when you’re directly looking at the person you spontaneously state your first name. You don’t need to do the American style, "Hi my name is [name], how do you do?" just say your first name only.

4) Whenever you shake someone’s hand at any time, it’s a one time grasp of the fingers in the "normal" style and without any pumping or excessive squeezing of any kind.

If you’re a man and you’re being introduced to someone and they’re within shaking hands range, shake the person’s hand. Don’t squeeze it super hard in a display of machoism, just shake it neutrally. If you’re a man shaking a woman’s hand, shake it very, very gently.

If you’re a woman and you’re being introduced to someone, you can shake hands or not but it’s more common if you’re meeting a man. Shake hands as limply and weakly as possible, basically hold your hand out to be briefly grasped.

If you’re a man and you’re encountering another man you know, it’s a sign of respect to shake hands. The easiest way to learn when this is appropriate is wait for the Romanian person to stick their hand out and then you know you’re on a "shake and greet" basis.

If you’re a man and you’re encountering another woman you know, skip the handshakes forevermore. If you know them only a little, you nod your head slightly and that’s it. If you know them better or you haven’t seen them in a while, you kiss them on each cheek one time. If you’re not sure what to do, skip the cheek kissing and nobody will be offended.

If you’re a woman and you’re encountering another man you know very well, then move in for the one kiss on each cheek. Otherwise do nothing but say hello . If you’re not sure what to do, do nothing and nobody will be offended.

If you’re a woman and you’re encountering another woman you know very well, you’ll do the one kiss on each cheek thing. If you’re unsure whether you’re at that level yet, wait until the other woman initiates the cheek kissing thing and then you’ll know.

Therefore the rule of thumb is shake someone’s hand loosely (with the right hand) one time and state your name when being introduced. After that, go by what others are doing and if you’re unsure what to do, do nothing.

5) There are four ways to say the English phrase "excuse me" in Romanian:

When you didn’t hear or understand what someone says, say "poftim?" whether it’s a friend or stranger. Saying "ce?" in some circumstances is okay with friends but "ce cu tine?" means "what’s the matter with you?" and therefore "ce" alone can be misconstrued.

When you’re making your way through a crowd and want to say "excuse me" say "pardon".

When you accidentally bump into someone or want to apologize for some kind of mistake you’ve made, say "ma scuzati" (mah skoozats).

If you stop a stranger to ask for directions or something else, begin by saying "sa nu va suparati" (sah new vah super ats) or "sa nu va deranjati" (dare ahn jats) which means "Please don’t be angry/upset".

6) If you’re a woman, don’t smoke on the street. You can smoke anywhere else, including in a bar with a window to the street or even at a terrace that’s half on the street. Just don’t walk down the street and smoke as it’s considered "whorish" behavior for some reason although nobody will ever tell you this (but me).

7) You can wear whatever kind of clothes you want, including some pretty outlandish or odd stuff, but it must always be clean (free of stains especially) and without wrinkles. Always. If your shoes or pantlegs are dirty, change as soon as you possibly can.

8) Whenever you leave any kind of store or business whatsoever, from food market to restaurant to large department store , say "la revedere" (goodbye) to the clerk or person you interacted with. Even if you come in and just browse and don’t buy, it’s best to say "la revedere" when you leave. If you shop there every day of your life for 10 years, still say "la revedere" when you leave.

It seems incredibly odd to do this at first, especially because it literally means "see you later" and you might never be in that store again in your life, but it’s not America, is it? :)

Basically you must say "goodbye" in some fashion whenever you leave someone and "la revedere" is used for all occasions except people you are very close with. With them you can say either "pa" (bye) or "ciao" (chow).

9) If you ever serve anyone some food or drinks, do it from the person’s right. If you are being served, be aware that they’re gonna set down your dishes from the right so make a space accordingly if you need to.

10) There are several ways to say "hello" and it is sometimes (semi)obligatory.

When answering the phone, say "Alo"

From the early morning hours until about 8:00 or 9:00am say "Buna dimineata" (boonah deemeenatsa)

All day long say "buna ziua" (boonah zeewah)

Starting either when it gets dark (winter) or about 6:00 or 7:00 pm, say "buna seara" (boona sara).

If you are very familiar with someone it is possible to say just "buna" as it is. Saying "noapte buna" (goodnight) is reserved only for when you or the other person is heading off to bed to go to sleep.

If you vaguely know anyone whatsoever, always say "hello". Always. This includes: neighbors in your apartment building, store clerks where you shop regularly and any work or school colleagues you’ve spoken to ever before in your life. If you’re in a small town or village or any rural setting, say "hello" to every single person you encounter no matter what.

If it is a close friend or acquaintance you can either say "ciao" or "servus" (Transylvania only) and you’ll know when this is appropriate because they will do it to you.

Special note: Starting on easter Sunday and continuing for a few days afterwards, people greet each other with "Hristos a inviat" (Christ has risen) instead of or before saying "hello". The response to this must be "adverat a inviat" (truly he has risen) and if that’s too much of a mouthful for you just say "adeverat".

11) Regardless of your religious beliefs and regardless of how little someone you’re talking to appears to be religious, be aware that loose talk or "blasphemous" speech about Christianity is not very well tolerated at all. Don’t ridicule religious (especially Romanian Orthodox) customs or traditions even in an attempt to make a light-hearted joke of some kind.

Romanian speech doesn’t have any of the swear words that English does such as "God damnit" which use religious phrases to connote anything unpleasant so don’t do so yourself.

Romanians assume everyone is a Christian on some level or another so anything other than that (from Judaism to agnosticism to atheism) is almost incomprehensible and is not worth bringing up unless you really need to.

Even if someone appears to not be much of a believer, basically it’s never a good idea to attack or be overly critical of Christian beliefs. Save the theological debates for only your very closest friends.

12) Throwing garbage on the street is rude but commonplace and tolerated. However don’t spit or "hawk a loogie" on the street. Burping is slightly crass but is generally tolerated without comment especially when done by a man and is not such a major faux pas as it is in America.

13) Romanians dislike air currents or air movement of any kind ("curent" in Romanian language) and believe it causes sickness. Therefore don’t turn on a fan, air conditioner or open a window when around Romanians unless it is extremely hot or you see others do it first.

Romanians believe sickness enters the body through the ears primarily and also via an unprotected neck/throat area. Therefore you will often see people with scarves or mufflers over their ears or wads of cotton jammed in their eardrums.

14) If you are not using a public bathroom (toilet) and there is any kind of identifiable leavings or traces on the bowl after you flush (I’m speaking delicately here), you must use the brush to remove these immediately. I’m telling you this for your own good!

15) Whenever you enter any kind of store, use the shopping cart or handbasket that’s provided no matter what. If you’re buying a single candy bar, get the basket, place the candy bar in the basket and proceed to the checkout.

16) With extremely few exceptions, no stores will provide plastic or paper bags for your purchases. Therefore bring your own from home or (in some cases) buy them at the store.

17) Romanian stores often "mysteriously" run out of smaller change (less than 1 leu/10,000 old lei – the green bill) and will make a long, sad face about how they wish they could give you your change but can’t. They will often instead give you a piece of candy or other oddities (like a single creamer for coffee) in lieu of change.

Whatever you do, you can’t spend that candy or coffee creamer the next time you go shopping so you’re just out of luck. The best thing to do is save your coins from shopping at larger stores and then you won’t get caught out with a pocketful of candy you don’t want.

18) " Cafea naturala " means real coffee and "Ness" means instant coffee. If you order real coffee, it is usually served black with two packets of sugar and a small spoon on the side. If you want milk you have to ask for it and it costs extra (often 50 bani or 5000 old lei) and is usually a single creamer and not real milk.

If you order "Ness" it’s going to come automatically with a tremendous dose of sugar added in there for you. Therefore if you want something different (less or no sugar) with Ness or more sugar with real coffee, you have to ask.

19) If you order tea (ceai), you’ll almost never get real tea. Most Romanians only drink herbal or fruit teas and so if tea is your thing, buy it at the grocery store and bring it with you.

20) No matter who you are, after you order at a Romanian restaurant, the waiter/ waitress will snatch it away from you. If you’re obviously a foreigner (and sometimes if you’re a local), the final bill might have been slightly "adjusted" upwards.

If you’re ever suspicious that the prices are too high or the bill isn’t correct, ask for or get the menu back and carefully examine your bill. The waiter/waitress will make a large hue and cry about how "sorry" they are for the "mistake" but it’s your money so stand up for it.

The good news is that this happens a lot less often now than in the past. Usually if you get a machine printed bill or receipt, everything’s fine. It’s the handwritten ones you need to examine more carefully.

21) If you’re in a taxi anywhere in the country, 99% of the time they’ll start the meter (called the "ceas" or clock in Romanian) and the total price is completely legitimate. Only a small "rounding up" tip is necessary or expected.

In Bucharest however the taxi drivers are often aggressive and surly and will query you before you even get in about where you want to go. They will often not turn the meter on and so be very careful when negotiating a price with these lunatics.

22) City buses stop only at pre-determined stops which are often quite far apart. In the middle of the day, the bus will stop at every stop automatically. Sometimes however during the night or when it’s not very crowded, you will need to press the button to request the stop.

Bus tickets (and tickets for the tramvai (tram) and subway in Bucharest) are never bought while on board. You have to use your magical homing skills to find a small dilapidated shack (kiosk) where these are sold at differing, sometimes odd hours.

The tickets change color at the beginning of each month so don’t hoard tickets at the end of the month. The tickets are valid until you board the bus (or tramvai etc) and then you have to find some kind of machine to "validate" the ticket.

If you’re lucky, there’s a nice modern machine where you insert your ticket and some kind of information is printed on it. If you’re on an ancient bus in Cluj for example, then you have to look for a round metal button that punches an octagonal hole in the end of your ticket using mechanical means.

Most cities sell either single-use tickets (more rare) or double-use tickets (more common). Therefore be careful not to "validate" your ticket on both ends if it’s a double-use ticket.

The bus driver will never interact with the passengers. Sometimes a ticket inspector will board the vehicle (often in civilian clothes) and will then do a spontaneous check to see who has a validated ticket. If you’re caught riding without one, there is a large fine and it’s a major hassle if you don’t speak fluent Romanian.

If you want to avoid even any long conversation with the inspector, just hold your validated ticket in plain sight while you’re on board and then he will just pass you by without saying anything.

23) The expression to ask someone what time it is in Romanian is "cat e ceasul" (cut eh chasool). You might be too timid to ask someone but I’m telling you this because you will get asked yourself.

Romanians tell time in the "British" style, meaning they say the hour and the minute up to 29 minutes (for example: it’s 1:12 or 4:29), and say "minus" for the other half of the hour (for example: it’s six minus 25 or 4 minus 14). You can just say the hour and the number no matter what (it’s four fifty-four) if you want but be aware people will tell you odd mathematical subtraction equations if you ask them what time it is.

24) In general, Romanians are usually on time especially for business or professional meetings. With friends and acquaintances it’s ok to run a little late without it offending anyone (up to about an hour in most circumstances).

Sometimes, Romanians have an odd fixation with exact measurements of time. For example if you order a pizza or call for a taxi, they’ll tell you something like "it’ll be there in six minutes". They may be right and they may be wrong but that’s what they say.

25) On the other hand, "imediat" in Romanian sounds like the English word "immediately". Be aware that "imediat" means anywhere from a minute to 15 minutes.

"Acuma" (now) sometimes means now but often means anywhere from 1-5 minutes. "Chiar acuma" (right now) means 1-3 minutes.

26) Feel free to blast your music as loud as you want to from about 10am to 1pm and 4pm to 8pm. If you don’t wish to do this, be aware that your neighbors will unless you live in a cave in the mountains and then you don’t have any neighbors, do you?

27) An otherwise intelligent and rational Romanian will almost always have contempt or an extreme dislike for Gypsies (Rroma). Any compliments or favorable comments about Gypsies will not be received very well and you won’t win any friends by saying anything nice about Gypsies.

In some parts of the country, Gypsy women wear colorful skirts and headscarves and again, saying something nice about this won’t be well received. All Romanians have long-winded, boring "grudges" against Gypsies concerning some tedious incident in their past so just don’t bring up the subject except to complain about them.

Romanians consider Gypsies to be thieves and "tricksters" of the first order and yet will routinely do business with them and deal with them in a polite but reserved manner. In other words, despite all the contempt and dislike for Gypsies, there’s very little actual hatred or physical acts of prejudice.

28) If someone sneezes, say "noroc" (luck) or "sanatate" (health).

29) When drinking an alcoholic beverage with someone (or a group), say "noroc" (for "cheers") and clink glasses before taking the first sip.

30) In Romanian, as in most languages, there are two forms of address – the informal (tu) and the formal (dumnevoastra).

Use the formal mode of address with:

Anyone you don’t know (clerk, person on the street, etc)
Anyone visibly older than you by 10 years or more (and especially the elderly)
Anyone you work for
The parents of your friends or someone you’re dating (or married to)

Use the informal mode of address with:

A small child, even a total stranger
Your closest friends and buddies
The close friends of YOUR close friends, even when meeting them for the first time
Someone who has directly told you to use the informal mode

Romanians aren’t sticklers for the informal like say, Germans are, but it’s just generally good practice to always use the formal mode when you’re not sure.

If you are a foreigner and use the informal mode of address when you should be using the formal, people will rarely get visibly upset but it’s just bad taste to do so.

That should get you started!

Pax



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