I am meeting someone for the first time and I want to make a good impression. What would be good discussion topics?
The best opening when meeting someone for the first time is to smile and be approachable. First impressions are very important to Serbians, and they may last for a long time after the initial conversation. Serbians are usually very helpful to foreigners and are intrigued about their origin and personal style. If the foreigner is from an affluent western culture, Serbians are likely to respect them simply because the westerners are economically better off and because friendship with a westerner can be valuable.
The local population will love to speak about their Serbian/ Montenegrin culture, give directions, point to nice places one can visit, recommend good food, travel and tourist spots, and the like. They will also ask many personal questions (eg: origin, education, lifestyle at the home country, children, etc). This type of discussion may carry on for a long time. Serbians are very personable and like to make friends, especially those that are talkative and have good sense of humour. A tasteful joke is a very appropriate and successful opening of a dialogue and puts Serbians at ease. It is important that they do not perceive a foreigner as someone who acts superior in any sense (by being aloof, for instance).
Politics is a free topic to explore, as long as you avoid praising those nations that Serbians do not trust or towards which they might feel some animosity. These may include Americans (due to the bombing of Serbia in the 1999 Kosovo war), Croats and Muslim Bosnians (due to the 1991- 1995 war that triggered the break up of Yugoslavia), and Germans (who were perceived to be explicitly against Serbia in the 1991-1995 war). These negative sentiments are generally directed at the politics and foreign policies of these nations, and people usually do not give a hard time to the visitors from these countries. Nevertheless, when it comes to politics, it is better to listen to the complaints that Serbians and Montenegrins might have rather than give your own strong opinions.
Serbians are perceived as aggressors in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (except in Republika Srpska, the Serb dominated entity in the latter country). Serbs are very resentful of this perception and feel it is very unjust. Serbs feel that the western world has received a very biased media representation of the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo (they feel much more strongly about Kosovo because they see it as Serbian land). They are eager to explain their side of the story when given a chance. A peaceful, inclusive and tolerant approach to world cultures would be appropriate and acceptable.
It is common to hear Serbians and Montenegrins make joke at one another’s expense. Montenegrins enjoy a traditional patriotic society, where males are regarded as superior to women and it is not uncommon that some women are shunned for having a sexual experience before marriage. Serbians are much more liberal, especially in the big cities. However, they still have taboo topics, such as male homosexuality (gay pride events have been the target of attacks and intimidation in the past).
Family is a good discussion topic. Be wary of discussing politics.
Humour is essential but in measured amounts. Otherwise, people will think you are just a joker not to be taken seriously. Better to demonstrate competence before displaying humour.
What do I need to know about verbal and non-verbal communications?
Serbians tend to stand closer to each other than Canadians. At the first meeting, they may be more sensitive to personal space, but that space will gradually shrink the longer you know someone. Hand shaking is essential, when you just meet someone and each time you see the person again. A handshake should be firm and friendly. Males usually do not kiss on the cheek unless they are relatives. Three kisses on the cheeks are very common among women or between a female and a male, although especially among younger people and non-relatives, it is fashionable to kiss only once. If you are a female, you would not be expected to kiss your colleagues every time you meet; kissing is usually common among very good friends or relatives, but not at work.
Eye contact should be maintained, otherwise Serbians and Montenegrins may perceive you as untrustworthy or deceitful. Hand gestures are very common when speaking and people are very entertaining and will joke frequently. They may touch you during conversation (or just because they are happy to see you) by patting you on the back (among males), giving you a side hug, or placing their hand on your back or arm.
The tone of voice is similar to that in Canada, maybe slightly louder. It is very easy to notice if the other person is happy, sad, or angry. They will always show their feelings in their facial expression, even if they do not know you well. It is important not to take these expressions personally (except if you are sure that they are directed at you) because frustration is very common in Serbia and people do not hide it well. Serbs are temperamental people and years of sanctions (1991-2000), influx of refugees, and poor economic situation have all contributed to the flaring of short tempers. In these situations, it is best to stand your ground.
Distance when speaking is similar to Canada. Eye contact is integral. Failure to do so in some instances, such as a toast, is taken is an insult. Also, it is highly impolite to ever turn your back on someone. Direct speech is appreciated.
Are public displays of affection, anger or other emotions acceptable?
Men and women will freely show affection on the street in Serbia. In Montenegro, people are much more conservative and men perceive public display of affection to be disgraceful.
Couples often kiss in designated public places and many people hold hands. Many people are not reluctant to loudly express their discontent when it arises. You will often hear Serbs say, "don’t be embarrassed."
What should I know about the workplace environment (deadlines, dress, formality, etc.)?
Serbians and Montenegrins dress fashionably. At work, women are less likely to wear traditional suits and prefer modern, European type clothing. Depending on where you work, men usually wear suits or simply pants and shirts without a formal jacket. Dressing is also a matter of your own personal style and that is how Serbians and Montenegrins perceive it. If you are the only one wearing a suit—you will probably be respected for it; overdressing is not a mistake, but under-dressing will be secretly frowned upon. Summers are usually much warmer in Serbia and Montenegro than in Canada so dressing appropriately for the climate is a good idea.
In Serbian language, superiors are addressed with a respectful pronoun (in French, it would be "vous" instead of "tu"). There is a respectful, professional, but friendly relationship between superiors and employees. It is common for management to share jokes and laugh with their staff. When addressing your superiors, you refer simply to their professional title rather than to Mr./Mrs/Ms.. For example, if you are addressing your director, you would say: "Director, would you please sign this form". All other colleagues you address by their first name. In formal correspondence or when you refer to a business partner in conversation, you should use Mr., Mrs. or Ms. before the last name of the person. Informally, people usually use clients’ or customers’ last names without titles.
Serbians tend to be very ambitious and like to climb the corporate ladder. Generally, they are quite forceful, assertive and willing to work longer hours (where instructed) if they expect a promotion, for example.
Serbians are usually punctual at work. They may not like receiving work at the last moment and may wait a day until the deadline to start working on a task.
Serbians and Montenegrins will expect to get a few days off if their child (or other family member) is sick. They also expect to have their annual vacation time. Vacation is traditionally very important for people in this country and they take it every year without a miss, although generally people are flexible about dates.
Business people are accorded respect in accordance with their dress.
It is good to be on time, but Balkan time means that you shouldn’t be surprised if no one else shows up on time.
If you miss a deadline, people lose respect for you, but don’t expect the same courtesy to be returned.
High-level executives start early (7 am) and generally finish early (2 pm).
What qualities are most highly regarded in a local superior/manager? How will I know how my staff view me?
Serbians and Montenegrins have great respect for learned people, experts, and resourceful and well-informed individuals. Higher education and an ability to speak a foreign languages are highly regarded. Serbians and Montenegrins will find it embarrassing if you as a manager do not posses general knowledge of geography, history, biology, etc. They may feel differently for a manager from abroad than a manager of local origin because they perceive foreigners with more regard. Foreigners are usually those that bring in foreign investments, create employment and are less likely to be corrupt. The locals may trust them more when it comes to the management’s good intentions and local people’s economic well-being.
A superior must show industriousness and open-mindedness if he/she expects the employees to follow his/her example. It is important that the manager clearly show leadership qualities and firm direction; fair and even delegation of duties is also appreciated. A personable approach is likely to be better received than a more distant, professional approach.
Serbians and Montenegrins will readily express their unhappiness with problems at work should there be something that bothers them. You will recognize this by their facial expression or their unenthusiastic response to your direction. When delegating duties or introducing changes or new working methods, look for those facial expressions. Do not try too much to please everyone, because Serbs and Montenegrins in general will always find something to complain about. They will challenge you, regardless of your expertise.
Decisive leadership is the most highly regarded quality. People are more open to new ideas when told this is how it is done in the West.
If your staff are comfortable enough to insult you, they probably like you.
In the workplace, how are decisions taken and by whom? Is it acceptable to go to my immediate supervisor for answers or feedback?
Major decisions in Serbia and Montenegro are made by the management. Under Communism, employees had open meetings but they had little influence. Unfortunately, this is still the case, even with foreign investors and firms. Idea-sharing and brain storming are not very common, except in the new, locally-launched and pilot-type initiatives, in such areas as alternative press and radio, creative art, non-governmental organizations, and the like.
Serbians and Montenegrins follow the chain of command in any corporate-type structure, just like Canadians do. Your immediate supervisors will answer all your questions and give you feedback. Depending on where you work, supervisors higher up may also be available, but it is not common that you skip the levels to go speak to them, unless you have a problem that cannot be resolved with your immediate supervisor.
Decisions are made by the top or not all; the same applies for ideas.
Don’t be shy to press people for feedback; otherwise you might not get any.
Briefly describe the local culture’s attitudes regarding the following: Gender, Class, Religion and Ethnicity. What impact would the above attitudes have on the workplace?
Gender: Gender differences are not so pronounced in Serbia. Women have the right (de jure) to equal opportunities. However, it is customary that women stay at home and raise children or care for the sick relative, especially in Montenegro. Men also tend to have more control over resources, but Serbian women are quite assertive and persistent in meeting their needs, especially in big cities. Montenegrin women are more subservient.
Gender discourse is not very prominent in Serbia, and people usually treat it as a non-problem. At work, women are not regarded as having the same abilities as men and are not trusted with certain duties perceived to be unwomanly (i.e. defence and military matters). In politics, there are far fewer women than men, and quotas put in place to address gender representation are usually very difficult to fulfill. In Montenegro, the business owners are almost all male, while in Serbia has a substantial share of women in business. This women’s lack of interest in getting involved in non-traditional female occupations may be one of the main reasons why women are not equally represented in society.
Religion: The majority of Serbians and Montenegrins are orthodox Christians. Serbia and Montenegro was communist before 1990 and religion never played a significant factor in the professional lives of people. Since the break up of Yugoslavia, religious customs have become more important and religious holidays are now observed at work.
Other religions/ethnic groups present include Muslims (mostly inhabiting Kosovo, usually ethnic Albanians, although there are also non Kosovar Muslims living in Serbia and Montenegro), Roman Catholics, Hungarians (who are also Catholics, living mostly in the north of Serbia), Slovaks, Roma, and smaller proportions of others. Problems with ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are very pronounced, because these Muslims want to separate completely from Serbia. Hungarians also express their wish to separate from time to time, but these threats do not appear to be too serious, especially after Belgrade granted them more autonomy. Roma (as a nation without a homeland) are discriminated against a great deal in all of Eastern Europe, but this relates to their lifestyle rather than their religion.
Class: There are no class issues in Serbia and Montenegro.
Ethnicity: At work, ethnicity does not pose a problem given that the majority population is of a one religion. In circumstances where ethnic Albanians and Serbs may work together, there could potentially be some mutual resentment. Roma are so under-represented in public and private institutions and usually hold no official employment so it is rare to find cases of Serbians/ Montenegrins and Roma to work side by side. There are no specific work-related problems between Hungarians and Serbians.
Gender: Women, however under represented in the executive ranks, are seen as being as capable as men, but they are still expected to cook after work.
Tolerance towards homosexuality is not high.
Religion: Most people will take pains to show the tolerance in this respect. I found wearing my Star of David was an asset, even though the main religion is Orthodox Christian.
Class: Thanks to communists, it is not much of a class society.
Ethnicity: Contrary to what one would expect, this is not much of a problem for Canadian foreigner, except there are lingering stereotypes that people of colour face.
For all of the above, I would say there is not much impact on the workplace, so long as the person does the job well.
How important is it to establish a personal relationship with a colleague or client before getting to business?
Usually, clients and business partners dine together after they have had an initial formal introduction. This may be used as an opportunity to negotiate business. It is customary for directors or management of companies to invite their partners or clients to the office and to welcome them with alcoholic beverages and snacks. Thus, it is not important to establish a relationship before getting to business, but it is very valuable to establish a good working relationship after formal business has been discussed to show good will and build trust.
It is indeed important to establish a relationship. Many meetings begin by a toast with alcohol. Don’t be shy to partake.
Would a colleague or employee expect special privileges or considerations given our personal relationship or friendship
In Serbian and Montenegrin culture, granting certain privileges is definitely expected if you are friendlier with some of your partners, colleagues and clients, as this indicates that they have something more special than simply a superior-employee relationship. If they come for a favour or help (i.e. consideration of some of his friends and relatives for employment), and you are in a position to do something, it will be expected that you do it. However, that does not mean that you have to grant them a favour if you are unable to or think it inappropriate. If you explain that special favours are inappropriate and that you can give their friend an opportunity for an interview just like everyone else, this should be a sufficient explanation. If things do not work out, your friendship may strain after this, but as long as you explain what they can realistically expect than you can avoid misunderstandings.
Colleagues that are also your friends may expect you to keep them in mind for a promotion, but pay increase without the credentials will never be expected in Serbia (it might be in Montenegro). Never give a pay raise without a valid reason; this could strain your relationships with other employees. During this period of democratization transition, I recommend you adopt good practices both in the public and private sectors.
The society largely runs on connections, so count on any and all to be leveraged whenever possible. Firmness is respected, but inconsistency is frowned upon and will make enemies.
I have a work-related problem with a colleague. Do I confront him or her directly? Privately or publicly?
If you have a problem with a colleague (and almost surely you will), you can and should discuss it with them privately and try to see each other’s point of view. Also, keep in mind that the problems of contention will usually involve details and misunderstandings, so things can usually be straightened out by frank conversation.
It is not guaranteed that your Serbian and Montenegrin counterpart will forget the matter. Whatever happens, hold your ground and defend yourself. If you have a problem with a performance of a collective (especially if it involves pulling weight in a team-type work), discuss it in a team meeting.
If you offend someone inadvertently, you will almost definitely notice it in his/her behaviour. The person may give you a cold shoulder, talk less or not at all, or be very direct and serious. Some people may also lash out if they have a fiery temper.
Never confront someone publicly; always do so privately. If the colleague does not joke with you or seems "fake", you can take that as a bad sign.
What motivates my local colleagues to perform well on the job?
This is difficult to answer, because Serbians and Montenegrins are not uniform and motivational styles are individual. That said, all employees react very well to praise and positive reinforcement. Make them feel special for a specific task that they have performed well and point out why their contribution was valuable. Single out something they do extremely well and better than the others.
Another great motivator would be an opportunity for a promotion and possibly a bonus. Serbians and Montenegrins will not work well if you push them hard while maintaining a strict demeanour and never praising their contributions. Show them respect and ask for their opinion, so that they feel they are doing something important and their input matters.
Deadlines motivate. Holding celebrations on completion of work also works well.
To help me learn more about the local culture(s), please recommend: books, films, television shows, foods and web sites.
Books: Anything by Ivo Andric, including The Bridge on the Drina, The Days of the Consuls, and The Damned Yard; Blago Cara Radovana by Jovan Ducic; Migrations by Milos Crnjanski and Gorski vijenac by Petar Petrovic Njegos.
Films: White Cat-Black Cat and Underground (or anything else) by Emir Kusturica—you can find these at Blockbuster Video. There is a wide array of TV comedy shows like Bolji zivot, Indeksovo radio pozoriste, Radovan III, etc.
Web-sites: www.krstarica.co.yu (search engine on Serbia and Montenegro), www.serbiancafe.com (entertainment), and www.b92.net (independent news source).
Books: Brian Hall, Impossible Country to give an idea of how things unravelled in early 90s.
Films: Black Cat White Cat.
When in this country, I want to learn more about the culture(s) and people. What activities can you recommend?
Places to Visit: Kalemegdan—A great Belgrade fortress; Petrovaradin—A great fortress of Novi Sad (city on the north); Zidine proklete Jerine—Smederovo city; Djavolja varos—near Prokuplje town, Cele kula—in Nis city; Lovcen—the mountain above Cetinje in Montenegro; Sveti Stefan—an island near Budva on Montenegro coast; Manastir Ostrog—the Monastery in Montenegro; Kopaonik, Zlatibor, Durmitor, Fruska gora, etc.—mountains; and The River Tara—rafting.
You can also visit Belgrade People’s Theatre (Beogradsko narodno pozoriste) and Zvezdara Theatre (Zvezdara teatar) for daily shows; numerous cinemas, radio and TV channels; Plato (a café and a book store); and many others.
Food: gibanica—pastry filled with cheese, burek s mesom—pastry filled with minced meat, cevapi, raznjici, Karadjordjeca snicla—meat dishes, ajvar, pinjur, kajmak—bread spreads, strudla s makom—poppy seed cake, baklava, and sljivovica and other similar alcoholic beverages made with fruit.
People live in cafes. Accept your colleagues’ offers to go to a café.
Places to visit: Local piazzas; colleague’s villages and the Skardarlija restaurant area in Belgrade.
Who are this country's national heroes?
Historic heroes: Karadjordje, Milos Obilic—leaders of the Serbian people uprising against the Ottoman Empire; the Obrenovic and Karadjordjevic dynasties—Serbian royal families—and the dynasty of the Petrovics in Montenegro; Vuk Stefanovic Karadjic—a reformer of the Serbian language; Petar Petrovic Njegos—an author and a diplomat; and Nikola Pasic—a politician during the old Yugoslavia. Finally, there’s Josip Broz Tito—the communist leader during the 1945-1980 until his death. He was a great national hero who led the communists in the battle against the Nazis and local pro-Nazi organizations. However, after the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1990, many blamed Tito for re-tailoring borders between the republics, shrinking Serbian territory, giving autonomy to its two provinces, and for leading the anti-Serbian politics in general (according to the view of some Serbs).
Many people hearken back to 1389 when Serbian National hero, Prince Lazar was defeated by the Turks. It seems Serbs like to celebrate their defeats. Sports stars such as basketball players Danilovic and Vlade Divac are popular. The two main sport clubs in Belgrade are Red Star and Partisan. Supporters’ identification with their favourite club runs thick.
Are there shared historical events between this country and Canada that could affect work or social relations?
None in particular.
Not that I am aware of. Christmas is the first week of January. They celebrate Orthodox New Year (Jan. 14) and regular New Year. December is a write-off for work as everyone is partying all month. Slavas (days celebrating Saints) are quite popular and frequent.
What stereotypes do Canadians have about the local culture that might be harmful to effective relations?
There are no particular stereotypes. Serbians and Montenegrins are aware that Canada was a partner to the US in the bombing campaign of the 1999 Kosovo war, but they are more likely to blame Americans for it. They generally perceive Canada as a wealthy and cold country.
The most common perception is that Serbs are hostile. In person, on home turf, they are among the most hospitable nations in Europe.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Gjakova, Kosova as the second child. Raised in Gjakova until the age of 19, she then moved to Prishtina to start her studies in medicine. In 1999, the war prevented her from graduating and she moved to Canada as a refugee. She worked as a assistant teacher for blind kids and is now looking into doing social work. Your cultural interpreter has returned 3 times since leaving Kosovo. She lives with her parents. She is not married and has no children.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Ottawa, Ontario, the youngest of four children. She was raised in the Aylmer, Quebec. Her background is in Information Technology. In 2001, she accompanied her spouse to Pristina, Kosovo and began working at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a Data Information Officer. Still in Kosovo, she then worked for the International Federation of Red Cross as a Database Manager and the United Nation's as Secretary to the Principal International Officer of the Ministry of Agriculture. Your cultural interpreter is now living in Canada. She is married and has no children.
Country Insights - Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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