“When in Rome…”

“…do as the Romans do.” I’m not quite sure what the origins of this expression are but the message is a very powerful one: respect the culture you’re in. Perhaps it comes from the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians who adopted the cultures of the people he was trying to reach for the Lord:

“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
1 Corinthians 9:19-23

The words “customs” and “culture” can be bandied about and often used interchangeably without much care over the meaning of the words. So let’s start with the definitions:

cus·tom
/ˈkəstəm/
noun
plural noun: customs
a traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society, place, or time.
cul·ture
/ˈkəlCHər/
noun
noun: culture
the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.

Growing up in a particular country will embed in you certain norms regarding customs and culture. Ilir grew up here in Gjakovë and I grew up in England so our understanding of what is a normal way of behaving can sometimes be quite different. For example when we go to someone else’s house in England you might (depending on your own family traditions) greet people in the order that you see them regardless of age or gender. In Kosova, which is a male dominated society, you greet people from the oldest to the youngest and men before women. It doesn’t sound too complicated when you put it like that but when I first moved here I was terrified that I would accidentally insult someone by assuming they’re older than they are.

Some cultural norms in Kosova have now become second nature to me, like taking your shoes of before you go into your own or someone else’s house, but some things still feel a little unnatural to me. For example children growing up in the UK are always taught “Mind your Ps and Qs” and quite often not given what they want unless those little words “please” and “thank you” are uttered. In fact a large proportion of a book I once bought for Ilir is dedicated to the British obsession with manners.

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I remember another foreigner once commented to me that they thought Kosovars could be quite rude when asking for something. A little taken aback (and slightly defensively of my adopted nation) I questioned then on what they meant. They explained that that Kosovars very rarely say “please” (ju lutem) when they ask for something. I asked a Kosovar about this and they explained that it is implied in the verb “to want”, so the “please” isn’t necessary. It can still grate a little when you’re waiting for the please that rarely comes but it’s just something you have to accept even if you don’t fully understand why it’s not there.

Probably some Kosovars would wonder why I’m writing all this, but some things I’ve learned since being here are just not normal to us Brits. Here’s just some of the customs and cultural norms that I’ve learned from living in Kosova overt the past two years:

  • Always take your shoes off before you go into someone’s house.
  • Greet people by seniority i.e. oldest first, children last, men before women, guests before everyone else. And always shake hands, it’s rude if you don’t.
  • Serve people by seniority (as above)
  • It’s not considered rude to talk about money e.g. asking someone how much they paid for something (this one I still find very difficult)
  • It’s polite to offer to pay when you’re having coffee or a drink with friends even if you don’t have the means to pay.
  • In the winter, offer guests the seats closest to the fire, it’s a sign of respect.
  • It could be considered rude if you are a guest and you refuse a drink or food when it is offered to you, even if you don’t really want it. Hospitality is very important, in fact you might be offered the same thing 3 times before your host will accept that you don’t want it.
  • It is perfectly normal for people to talk over one another or for several conversations to be taking place at once, with the television on in the background. Families are large and noise is normal.
  • Expect to be asked the same few questions any time you meet people: “are you well?”, “is your husband/wife well?” (even if your husband/wife is standing next to you), “how is your work?”, “how is your family?” or sometimes “is your mum well?” “is your dad well?” (particularly if your family are overseas). It’s also considered polite to ask similar questions.
  • It’s not necessarily offensive for someone to negatively comment on your appearance. People here are very honest, sometimes painfully so.

I’ve thought of a whole list of things that Kosovars find strange about the British, inspired by Things that we do that Kosovars consider odd from a blog written by an American Peace Corps volunteer.

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