It has been my experience that the average American’s reputation among Eastern Europeans is not good. Oddly enough, this has little to do with politics, wars or economics. It has more to do with smiling, optimism and naivety. Of course, I am exaggerating a little bit, but only to a certain extent. Anyone who has spent time east of Germany in the Slavic world or in Hungary, Romania and the Balkans will notice that people in those countries rarely smile at strangers. They are not overtly friendly or outgoing (Romanians at times being a notable exception). As an American I find this fascinating. A multitude of experiences has led me to develop some theories about public introversion among Eastern Europeans.
Frowned Upon – Smiles Will Get You Nowhere
One reason for this lack of superficial friendliness likely has to do with the legacy of totalitarian rule. This is especially true among the older generations. Strangers were and still are not to be trusted in many Eastern European societies. For good reason, as a stranger might just work for the state and report on you for something. As ridiculous as this sounds, no American can imagine what it must have been like to live in a Stalinist society. Suspicion of everyone, including family and close friends was endemic to the system. Then there is the hard reality that Eastern Europeans have been conditioned by 20th century history not to have much to smile about. Two World Wars, multiple occupations, radical ideological impositions and corrupt governance are enough to make anyone mind their own business. Americans have been conditioned by history to have the opposite attitude, one of openness and optimism. The future is not to be dreaded because it is filled with promise.
Many Eastern Europeans I have talked to find the American sense of optimism irritating. Coupled with the smiling and lack of formality, this has led to a reputation for naivety. Some will go farther and tell you it is a sign of stupidity. One might think that this would lead to Americans getting taken advantage of when they visit the region, but I believe Eastern Europeans are so disconcerted by this behavior that they would rather run the other way. Perhaps, they believe that Americans are looking to take advantage of them through some sort of veiled trickery. Something gets lost in translation. Eastern Europeans understand Americans, about as much as Americans understand Eastern Europeans, in other words not very well. Americans are stereotyped as wealthy, big headed and self-interested. I have now had multiple Eastern Europeans tell me that the problem with Americans is that they are nice to your face, but friendship is totally on the surface. Americans are friendly to them not because they care. On the contrary they could care less.
Deeply Personal – The Unvarnished Truth
I have made the mistake on several occasions of asking a Hungarian, “How are you?” This pleasant American conversation starter can turn bad real fast. To a Hungarian the question signals that you really want to know how they are feeling and that you care. They will then proceed to tell you the unvarnished truth, which can sometimes descend into a litany of complaints about almost anything that has been troubling them or gone wrong. Listening to the usual spew of pessimism can be off-putting to say the least. Than again, I was the one who asked how they were doing, so they told me. In other words, don’t ask unless you are prepared for the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This experience has dissuaded me from asking Hungarians how they are doing or feeling unless I know them well. I know the answer will not be what I was expecting. Conversely, such a question from a total stranger was not what they were expecting either.
One of the main gripes about Americans that I have heard voiced on numerous occasions is that they are superficial in their friendship. Personal relationships stay on the surface and do not know go any deeper. Americans are more interested in being liked and heard, than they are in being a true friend. In my opinion, this is based upon a misunderstanding. To an American being nice and outgoing is a social norm. Most Americans think this has little to do with true friendship. It is more like shaking hands, something most respectful people do upon meeting someone new. Friendliness is on a professional, rather than a personal level. Such hospitality is certainly good for business, but not for intimacy. Nonetheless, I must admit there is a fair amount of truth to the belief that Americans are more superficial in their personal relationships. I have noticed that friendships tend to be more intimate and personal in Eastern Europe. Conversations tend to go deeper, filled with emotion and sensitivity. The same goes for hospitality, once the ice is broken, the people want to give you the best experience possible. They feel compelled to take care of your every need.
Living Proof – Hospitality Slovenian Style
I mention this because that is exactly what happened to me in Slovenia. I found myself standing in Ljubljana’s Preseren Square waiting to meet my Slovenian friend. The one who I had first met when she spent a summer in a forlorn frontier town on the Great Plains in South Dakota. It was now four years later, she was eight months pregnant, feeling sick and suffering physically. Sure enough, at the appointed time she showed up with a smile beaming from her face. She trudged up to Ljubljana Castle with me, showed me around the Old Town and apologized that she was not feeling better. She had promised to take me to Lake Bled, later that day but in her current state there was no way it was going to happen. Then she came up with another option. Her partner could pick me up later that day and drive me to Bled. This despite a weather forecast calling for torrential downpours later that day. I told her that he did not have to do this. She insisted that I go with him. In addition, she promised to be better tomorrow. Her and her sister-in-law would drive me out to Kobarid several hours from Ljubljana to look at the World War I museum and battlefield there. All because she knew I was interested in this history.
I was stunned. When she was in America I took her around a little bit to see a few National Parks in the area, but it was really no problem for me. I did not expect reciprocal treatment especially from someone on the verge of having a baby. This Slovene’s idea of friendship and hospitality was incredible. It was the not first or last time I would experience the same thing in Eastern Europe. These people who walked around keeping to themselves were disguising the most wonderful inclinations. It would really be a stretch in the United States to find someone you had not seen in years who was willing to do whatever was necessary to provide the best experience possible. Friendship in Slovenia, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, was very different from that in America. It was much better. The next day and a half would provide proof of that.