By Andrea Pisac
You are an expat in a new country and don’t speak the local lingo? Croatia Week’s new guest blogger Andrea Pisac, star of Zagreb Honestly, shares her tips on getting by making chit-chat in Croatia as a foreigner…
I’m a very shy person. Mingling with people at social events used to make my palms sweat. I’d feel isolated, wondering what on Earth was wrong with me. Then I moved to London. From the first interaction I had at my University I felt a sudden change. People asked me questions, strangers introduced me to more strangers – all of them smiling and interested in what life was like where I came from. ‘You’re a published writer, how amazing’ was the line I enjoyed most. I was in heaven. There was nothing wrong with me after all.
Small talk – big gain
Small talk is THE most important element of social life. Everywhere you go, you’ll notice that chatting and jabbering are the glue that keeps people together: it reflects their cultural values, it reproduces their social norms and it gives their participants a sense of shared reality. Basically, if you know how to engage in everyday small talk, you feel accepted: you belong.
What small talk does for you might be the same worldwide, but how small talk is done varies a great deal. Why did I feel out of place at Croatian social events? Because I wasn’t aware of the rules of Croatian small talk. Not until I experienced small talk in London. This taught me that every culture ‘talks’ differently. And that to really become part of a place, I should learn the ropes of small talk. You can do the same, and without speaking the language.
Croatian small talk: the most valuable asset for a foreign traveller (and shy locals)
If you’re a foreign traveller in Croatia, you probably want to connect with local people. Many tourists feel sad for not being able to make friends in Zagreb. Time might be too short and my guess is you’re not YET proficient in Croatian small talk. Keep reading and I’ll teach you the basics.
The structure of storytelling
Think of small talk as a story. There’s the plot, characters, general mood and the main message. I’ll walk you through them – backwards.
1. Croatian small talk allows people to bond.
They’ll sit for hours in a coffee shop and talk about different things with no particular conclusion. They’re not necessarily sharing important information (in fact they might go over the same old stuff for the hundredth of time) and they’re certainly not solving a problem. The main message of every story they say to each other is this: we’re all in this together.
This is why it’s crucial you tune into the story’s mood. So you’re in this together as well.
2. Pick any topic you like, the overwhelming mood in Croatian small talk is complaining.
If you’re coming from a Protestant background, your solution-oriented mind will go into overdrive. All you’ll hear is problems, problems, problems… All you’ll want to do is offer solutions, solutions, solutions… Please DON’T! Complaining mood is a culturally specific mode of expression – not a call for action.
Croats use complaining merely to cover everyday topics: from personal ‘my husband came late last night’, to environmental ‘look what they’re doing to our coast’ to universal ‘life sucks and there’s nothing we can do about it’. When you hear your new Croatian friend complain, offering practical help might confuse them or send them into a defence mode. You stop belonging then. Instead, you should feel happy for being offered a way in: just be a careful listener, nod and offer similar complaints from your own life.
3. Every story has a hero and a villain.
A hero is not always a brave winner nor is a villain always a jerk. Literary studies have proved that some cultures feel more comfortable identifying with winners and some with victims. How weird! Croatian small talk abounds with heroes who are victimised in more than one way. Which, of course doesn’t stop them from being utterly likeable. You’ll hear these common figures of victimisation:
NATURE VS NURTURE
Croats think their country is the most beautiful in the world. Croatia is also a cradle of worlds’ top geniuses: think of sportsmen like Goran Ivanisevic and Drazen Petrovic, or scientists like Nikola Tesla BUT…
Nothing works in Croatia because of the people who run it. Infrastructure is shit, unemployment is through the roof, there’s no work ethics, corruption is everywhere. So all the natural beauty will either be left undiscovered or ruined; great talents and educated minds will leave Croatia and find prosperity abroad. Don’t try to contradict the storyteller, offer a similar shitty story from your country.
IT’S EASY FOR THEM
If you mention an isolated example of something actually going right in Croatia (a natural talent succeeding in spite of shitty conditions), you’ll probably hear another type of complaint: it’s easy for them, they… a) have political connections; b) have a rich uncle in America… c) don’t have to raise 3 children. The excuses are countless and can be very imaginative. What the storyteller wants is to remain in the victim role. Don’t try to fix them, just bond with them.
YOU’RE SO HORRIBLE BUT WE LOVE YOU ANYWAY
Gossiping about other people is a building block of Croatian small talk. It might shock you to hear personal stories about someone you don’t know. Who sleeps with whom (jerk!), how much someone earns (bitch!), awful things someone’s mother-in-law said or did (cow!). You assume your storyteller is talking about their worst enemy. When only moments later, you realise it’s their best friend. Will they gossip about me in the same way, you wonder. They probably will. But don’t fret, really. Croats gossip most about the people they care about. Or people they envy most. In either case, it’s an expression of love and closeness. So don’t tell them it’s not nice to gossip.
4. The plot of the story is what keeps you engaged.
But just like in literature, everyday conversations have trends that change over time. It’s almost like knowing what are the most influential hashtags on Facebook or Twitter. So how will you know for sure what’s trending in Croatian small talk? Easy – let your local storyteller speak first. You’ll soon realise which topics are hot. And one thing you can be sure about: it’s not ‘how we survived the homeland war’. Nowadays, Croats are concerned either about their personal problems, leisure activities (travel, food, sports) or global economic and political events.
Croatian small talk is an answer-lead storytelling. This means that your storyteller will enjoy answering your questions about their country, family or work. If you’re coming from an Anglophone tradition, this will feel like a natural match. Just don’t expect them to reciprocate, or at least not to the same extent. If by the end of your coffee you’re still asking and not answering questions, don’t assume your new Croatian friends aren’t interested in you. They just small talk in a different way. Also, don’t be offended if they don’t introduce you to a new person who has just joined your table. To them it doesn’t look strange that you’re sitting together without being involved in the conversation.
If you lasted 2-3 hours over coffee, or sailed through a party without being left in the corner – congratulations! You’re an expert in Croatian small talk. And you didn’t even have to learn a single word of the language.
About Andrea Pisac
My surname Pisac says it all – Pisac means a writer in Croatian. Born in Croatia, I’m a fiction writer and an anthropologist. By default I look at ordinary things, places and events from unusual perspectives. I lived in London for 10 years where I finished a PhD in anthropology. Learning about new people and places is my passion and profession. I spent a lot of time exploring Central Europe, its literary past and present and especially the questions of free speech expression. When I returned to Zagreb, I found myself in a unique position – I become both an insider and an outsider. I get to question basic things even more! Seeing my native city with a new set of eyes is a great asset for being a perfect Zagreb host. I know Zagreb’s nook and crannies but I also show my guests ordinary things from extraordinary perspectives. It helps them make the most of their stay in Croatia.