For outsiders, the Balkans are about as confusing as advanced calculus, what women truly want, and particle physics taken together. For a region, mostly remembered for the heartbreaking wars that tore it not 30 years ago, it’s good that foreigners are even trying to figure Bosnian culture out.
But fear not, this is thankfully a peaceful place now, and one that is so worth visiting. So why go to Bosnia and Herzegovina? Well for one, it is a treasure trove of undiscovered beauty. There is mesmerizing nature (the mountain-scapes!), history, gorgeous architecture and a vibrant art and party scene.
What’s not to love?
Yes, and the people!
Bosnians are known around the Balkans as warm, hospitable, and extremely friendly. Still, there are some cultural particularities, that you should mind when you go out making friends (or more than friends) in the country. And this is your ultimate guide to them.
There are three main ethnic groups in the country. The Serbs, the Croats, and the Bosniaks. Unsurprisingly, Bosniaks are the largest group, but they only make up about a half of the population.
A fun fact is that Bosnia and Herzegovina does not actually have an official language. The Agreement of Peace in the country came in Bosnian, Serb, Croat and English so some people argue that all three languages have practically the same status. In reality, though, those are not three extremely different languages. In fact, they were once known as Serbo-Croatian. Even if you have only learned a few basic phrases, you will notice that it feels like it’s the same language.
Don’t make the mistake of saying that to a local. In Bosnian culture, different ethnic groups insist that they have their own unique language. That’s why it would be wiser to steer clear from the language topic altogether and if does come up to acknowledge that those are three different languages.
Believe me, it is something that people hold very dear.
As for religion, the majority of the Bosnian people are Muslim. Those are usually the Bosniaks, while Serbs and Croatians are traditionally Christian. Much like language, religion is closely knitted with ethnicity. People are not necessarily fundamentalist or even that big of believers. They do however respect religion a lot and expect the same. Try to dress somewhat modest if you plan on visiting mosques and generally be kind and considerate (obvious tips 101).
With Islam as a prevailing religion and a society with quite traditional values, you can expect some backward views. For instance, gender roles in Bosnia are what they were in the US in the 60s — as traditional as they come. This is especially true in Muslim households. Women in Bosnia are often very preoccupied with maintaining their honor, so this is hardly the place to find quick hookups (go here instead). Clinging onto traditions is the people’s way of coping with the ethnic tensions that still exist.
Ok, so we established that this is a country that was deeply scarred from all the fighting, the hatred and the atrocious crimes committed during the war. But what do Bosnians do for fun?
The answer is often coffee.
They drink obscene amounts of strong ‘Turkish’ coffee and are capable of spending entire afternoons at a sidewalk café with a cup of hot java in hand.
Well, they are much more than ‘shops’. This is not the Starbucks around the corner where you grab a frappuccino and run off to work. Actually, scratch that, most people that get frappuccinos don’t work. Because they’re usually 12.
But anyways, it is extremely uncommon for people to get a coffee to go. Cafés are places to socialize, to spend quality time with friends and to have long, almost unending conversations. It is mostly tourists in Sarajevo that ask for the WiFi password — locals could not care less. In that sense, Bosnian culture is wonderfully ‘backward’. It truly feels like you landed in a different era with all the Turkish-style stone buildings, the cobbled streets and the crowded sidewalk cafés, buzzing with talk and laughter.
A word of warning about the coffee itself. To say it nicely, a cappuccino is for babies.
You don’t add milk to coffee, you drink it straight, hot and dark, although plenty of sugar is also added to the traditional Turkish coffee.
A walk down the promenade is a chance to spend time outside, enjoying the sun, but it is also a sort of social catwalk. Women especially get very well dressed, to the point where it’s sometimes a bit absurd (sky-high heels during the day, or heavy makeup). This, of course, is not exactly the case for Muslim people. They usually go out as a family — a big and loud group of parents, grandparents, children, cousins etc. making their way down the street. Walks like this usually end at a café.
Yup, I did tell you cafés are important.
Another common way of socializing is inviting people over. This is no simple affair — the hosts will prepare as best as they can, especially considering the fact that they are welcoming a foreigner into their home (i.e. they feel they represent their country in the way they treat you). As mentioned already, people here are really very hospitable.
Don’t be surprised, however, if it turns out that a dinner invitation means you have to meet a big part of the extended family. In Bosnian culture, grandparents often live with their grown-up children’s families. Most of the kids in Bosnia are being raised by their grandparents and there are not a lot of day care centers around. However, even if the grandfather/mother can’t do much due to illness or simply old age, they are rarely sent to live outside the home. Sending your parents over to a retirement home is perceived as shameful and a lack of respect towards the elderly. Families usually take the elderly in if they can’t live independently anymore.
Respect toward the elderly is incredibly important to the people of Bosnia. You will be met with a lot of indignation (voiced or in the form of disapproving looks) if you fail to give up your bus seat to an older person. It’s often even more subtle than that. Even in the workplace, small gestures of respect are expected from the younger colleagues. Within the home, not only are grandfathers/grandmothers the head of the family, but even older siblings have authority over the younger kids.
As a foreigner, you would probably not have to deal with all of that. Social norms are generally more forgiving towards visitors. Still, make sure you are extra polite toward the elderly.
The first thing that will surprise you, will, of course, be the shoes. Off they come. Your host will provide house slippers, so you don’t have to worry about cold feet. Generally, only worry about being too well taken care of, since hospitality can reach a certain extreme.
You will be served a snack and refreshments regardless of the time of the day. If you’ve been invited over for a meal, expect ginormous portions and plenty of dishes. Hosts (women especially) take guest visits as an opportunity to show off their cooking skills. Also, it will be very hard to decline food. Even if you say you’re not hungry, you will be given more. When it comes to coffee, tea, and fizzy drinks, they won’t even ask you.
Kiss your diet goodbye.
While we’re at it, the national cuisine is positively amazing and you better spare an ‘Ooh!’ or two for your hosts. Compliments are often received with (somewhat false) modesty at first, but they are very much appreciated. Another thing you should make sure to bring is a small gift plus a little something for the kids. If it is a Muslim household, wine and other alcoholic beverages are obviously not good to bring, even if the family doesn’t fully adhere to all the rules of Islam.
It probably doesn’t sound like it, from what I just wrote, but this is a 21st-century European country and one that is increasingly modern and democratic.
The younger generation has suffered the atrocities of war (children were often the target of snipers during the conflict; that is what those young adults have survived) but Bosnian culture overall is becoming more open as fear begins to subside.
This is very easily illustrated with marriages — even though there is still hatred between the ethnic groups, about half of marriages these days are mixed. So in conclusion, while old customs and traditions are still a part of Bosnian culture, the society is growing out of the shell that war shoved it into.
We hope you consider giving Bosnia a look the next time you’re looking to travel throughout the Balkans.
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