Hungary is a new member of the European Union and the business etiquette in this country is undergoing radical changes. It is advisable to study the canon of business culture as well as to prepare for slightly different behaviour in every-day situations. Understanding and using the rules of business etiquette is viewed as a great value, but you should not be surprised or offended if/when some of your business partners display unawareness of the newly introduced rules.
Although people in Hungary are very hospitable and open-hearted, you might find it surprising that they are also unreliable. In business matters it is advised to discuss and write down everything carefully, as well as clarify the expectations in order to avoid misinterpretations or misunderstandings of agreements.
Hungarian language belongs to the Finn-Ugric languages and originates form Asia. Apart from Finnish it is unrelated to any other European language. The morphemes in Hungarian are joined together, which results in one long passage of speech quite difficult to understand. Nevertheless, you might find some basic greetings useful in breaking the ice and in increasing your chances of holding a successful meeting. So do not forget to greet your Hungarian colleagues with:
Jó reggelt! [yo reget] “Good Morning!”- in the morning
Jó napot! [yo nu pot] “Good day!” - during the day and
Jó estét! [yo esh tate] “Good Evening!” - in the evening
Viszontlátásra! [vece ont latt ash ra] “Goodbye!” – when leaving
Jó éjszakát! [yo ace a cat] “Good Night!”.- late in the evening
And of course remember the three magic words:
Köszönöm [kus u nume] “Thank you”
Kérem [key rem] “Please”
Elnézést kérek [l neigh zesh t] “Excuse me”
If you want to impress your business partners, you might want to quote one of the longest words in their language:
TöredezettségmentesítõtleníttethetetlenségtelenítÅ‘tlenkedhetnétek – literally, “you [plural] could constantly mention the lack [of a thing] that makes it impossible to make someone make something defragmenter-free”
Hungarian is very descriptive, so expect your business partners to express themselves in few sentences and in a very complicated way. It might take a few introductory sentences to get to the point of your conversation. The scope of their speech is usually larger at the beginning and narrows down to the main meaning by the end of it. It is almost a ritual.
In Hungary business people dress in an elegant manner. They avoid bright colours, and find red clothing provoking, so do not wear it when going to a meeting or during negotiations. You might find women wearing white blouses and a black suit, which for years has been the model of elegant clothing. Since the temperatures in summer are quite high, people find it natural to wear tops with short sleeves or boob tubes, but even then under an elegant jacket.
For men there is one cardinal sin in the new business etiquette: white socks! We do not advise you to wear them at any occasion, apart maybe from an invitation for a morning jogging on Margit Island with your business partner. Here again do not be surprised seeing Hungarian men wearing white socks sometimes and do not take it as an offensive act – for years it has not been an issue, so not everybody is aware of this mistake.
Body language is quite similar to the standard British one. People do not like to keep the constant and disturbing for Europeans eye-contact, but looking at other business partners during your speech signifies your respect towards them. When listening to a presentation or a lecture try to keep eye-contact to show your interest, but try not to disturb the spokesman too much. Making notes might not only be helpful but is also seen as a sign of interest and seriousness, even if you are not going to ask questions afterwards.
Although shaking hands is used in business life, in every-day life it is usually used only during the first introduction. Kissing women's hands is old-fashioned, not tactless but quite often disturbing. Wearing a hat obligates you to take it off whenever you meet a new business partner, eat or sit by the table. Wearing gloves also obligates you to take them off every time you shake hands. If you are a woman you don't have to take them off during cold winter days or evenings, but if you do take them off before shaking a man's hand you show great respect and deserve a compliment for doing so.
Business behaviour is strongly influenced by the cultural awareness and traditions of Hungarian nation. You have to remember that throughout history they have been an isolated nation in this part of Europe, due to their Asian origins. This isolation had a strong influence on their customs. It is also the reason why you can always feel free to ask about something you find strange or surprising – Hungarians will happily explain it with additional historical and social background. For example, if you are to go for a dinner in a restaurant you might notice that men enter it first, which is not offending for women at all, the reason being that in the Middle Ages, when pubs were less peaceful and cultural, men used to enter first and check if the atmosphere is proper for their lady companion (Hungarians would say “No knives or beer mugs flying in the air!”).
A number of rules of business conduct are observed during all types of meetings.
Firstly, arriving at the meeting is expected to happen on time. The traditional standards require not more than 5 minutes of earlier arrival. Sadly, this rule is very often broken and being late for the meeting has become so common that even managers do not excuse themselves for lateness. There have also been cases of chairmen who failed to arrive in time for the first day of negotiations and “forgot” to mention the reasons for their absence. All cases of disorder must be accepted politely with a nod, and any sign of disapproval might be taken as overreacting if not an offence.
Secondly, once you arrive to the meeting you should not choose our place yourself. An appointed person or the manager would show you to your chair. The official distance between negotiating parties in Hungary is 1.50 meters. Usually if the meeting takes place in an office you can expect small treat, but the things most often served are drinks such as coffee, tea, juices and mineral water (one of the best natural resources of Hungary! Try it!). Drinking coffee is a small ritual according to the standard etiquette, so make sure to put sugar in your cup with the spoon provided and to stir the coffee in a slow and elegant way. You might have to ask for milk separately, since black coffee is quite popular. Remember that tea will be served without milk as well.
Thirdly, using mobile phones during a meeting is considered extremely rude, although, in practice, it does happen very often. You might also notice the manager asking to turn the mobiles to “silent” mode, while forgetting t do the same himself and even answering his phone. Hungary is a mobile phone-orientated country, so you should get used to it.
Finally, you should also become accustomed to the fact that some Hungarians, even those occupying a high social position, speak very poor English. Try to be patient and polite even if you hardly understand the presentation being given at the meeting. Avoid making comments on the grammatical mistakes and try not to ask too many questions, if possible. In case of basic lack of communication, it is advised to ask for an interpreter.
Do not expect gifts. They are very rare in Hungarian business life, although according to the traditional standards, you are advised to give gifts. If you are indeed making a present, then you are advised to give it at the end of the meeting. Items such as sweets and flowers are suitable for women, and bottles of good (Hungarian) wine are appropriate presents for men.
Eating customs in Hungary is quite a large topic, but remember that you can freely ask your colleagues about it and they will be happy to explain to you everything. What you have to remember though, is the strong culture of drinking wine. Hungary is a wine country, so if invited for a dinner, try to taste some of their national specialties. When served, a bottle of wine will be opened in front of you and a small amount of it poured to your glass for tasting. The waiter will wait for your approval and only then pour the wine for other guests. It is also a custom to discuss the type, origin and taste of the wine while tasting it.
You might expect to be invited by your Hungarian colleagues for a traditional Hungarian meal in a traditional Hungarian restaurant, so feel free to ask about the decoration, the music (quite often folk Gipsy music) and the served dishes. You can expect heavy, very filling food, so avoid eating too much before the meeting. Hungarian food is also full of onions, garlic and peppers. It might be spicy, so your Hungarian colleagues should ask you first if you like spicy food and advise you on ordering a suitable meal. Do not be surprised if you have to look for salads and fresh vegetables – Hungarians do not fancy them so much. Ask for salads separately. Desserts are also very filling and delicious. Most of those served today in Budapest were originally ordered from Hungary by the Austrian court, so you might expect an imperial treat!
Religion is not an issue in Hungarian business life, since most of Hungarians are Catholics or Protestants. In fact they still learn to remember, that some nations and religions require special treatment, so feel free to remind them of your expectations in the field.
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