Croatia is used to visitors. With it’s stunning Adriatic coast, tiny, romantic towns and historical places, with music festivals, wine, beautiful traditions and beautiful women, it is no wonder that nearly a fifth of the country’s GDP comes from tourism.
Locals love visitors because your interest in their country delights them and they also realize how important tourists are to the economy. In that sense, Croatian culture is very forgiving to foreigners. However, there are still a few things to be aware of (and hence do/avoid) that will come in handy during your trip to Croatia, even if it is simply by helping you not be a stereotypical, annoying tourist.
1. Show respect to the country
In general, travelers and locals alike hate that guy who always complains (‘Nobody speaks English around here’, ‘Ugh, could it get any hotter!’, ‘The Wi-Fi is sooo slow everywhere’). This is especially true in Croatia.
People here are extremely patriotic, borderline nationalists and they are very proud of everything their homeland has to offer. This patriotic sense has been reinforced by the various foreign invasions that Croats have suffered through the ages, and it becomes obvious within the very first minutes of talking to a local.
All that is Croatian is amazing and they will almost expect you to go wow at every single thing they show you. On the upside, this means they are very eager to show you around (a.k.a. show off) and you should take full advantage of that. Even if you have little to no knowledge of the local language, try chatting up friendly-looking locals.
They always give the best travel advice.
2. Don’t talk about the war
The Yugoslav Wars are still fresh in the memory of most Croatians you will meet. Not 30 years ago, this was a country torn by conflicts and you can see the impact to this day. As already mentioned, Croats are very patriotic and there is still some hatred toward Serbs (who once occupied the country).
This is further complicated by the presence of a Serb minority in Croatia whose members may or may not have an entirely different perspective toward the war. For that reason, as well as out of respect for the victims of this fairly recent conflict, avoid discussing it with locals and keep your tone very neutral if they bring up the topic.
3. Use your index, middle and ring finger when buying or ordering three items
This one also has to do with the war. You see, there is a sign known as the three-finger salute, used to express belonging or sympathizing with the Serbian nation. The three-finger salute is done by extending your thumb, index and middle finder.
The trouble, of course, is that many foreigners are used to doing that gesture when ordering three beers at a bar, for instance. In Croatia, however, avoid that at all costs. During the Yugoslav wars, it was used by Serb soldiers as a sign of victory and it still has a Serb nationalist connotation.
For that reason, just avoid doing it, because being pro-Serb is a serious offense in the eyes of locals and it might even get you into some dangerous situations. Bear in mind, that Croats hate it so that in 2015 they removed a mural on a school wall that depicted a hand counting, due to likeness to the three-finger salute.
4. Avoid speaking of Serbia (even if it’s next on your travel list)
Of course, it’s a little far-fetched to think that Croats will beat you up at very mentioning Serbia, but you are better off on the safe side. By now I have hammered into your head that Serbs and Croats are not exactly besties, right? Well, that is why you should avoid making any comparisons between the two countries and the two people.
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Even if you have Serbia next on your list of Balkan destinations (which you totally should, there is plenty of cool things to see and do there), maybe don’t bring it up. If they ask you where you’re going to next, try answering with something more neutral: “I’m continuing my trip around the Balkans.”
5. Dress to impress
Or in other words, when in Croatia, do as the Croats do. And Croats tend to give a lot of importance to the way they dress. Clothes and accessories are very much about asserting social status, as well as expressing respect.
Even if you are sightseeing under the blazing August sun, it is worth spending a few extra minutes on composing a stylish outfit. This will be especially useful if you plan on visiting churches and other religious places since those usually require you to be covered up and in at least a bit smarter clothes (flip-flops, for instance, are a no-no). Museums and other public spaces are usually not that strict about dress code, but you will be perceived better if you dress better.
6. PDA is ok, but still be moderate
Croats are usually friendly and open-minded people. Public display of affection, especially among young lovers is not something that would bother them too much. Even elderly people would rarely voice their disapproval and in general, kissing and hugging are even liked.
7. Personal space is probably not what you are used to
Call it a consequence of Croatia’s proximity to Italy or say that it’s because those are people of the south, but personal space might not be as big as you are used to. People like to hug upon meeting, they use a lot of hand gestures, they would often touch lightly or even put their arms around each other when speaking.
Of course, at first they will observe an arm’s length of personal space, but they might start invading that sooner than you’re ready. Elderly people, especially, have even less regard for that and you might be surprised to see that old man you chatted up has put his arm on your shoulder while giving you directions. This is simply a friendly gesture, try not to be too uncomfortable about it.
As mentioned, hugs are common as a greeting, especially among females. Between two guys, it’s usually a handshake, a smile and plenty of eye-contact. Make your handshake strong (of course not to the point of squishing the other person’s hand) and a tad longer if you are greeting somebody you have met before.
8. Speak up
Croats sometimes come across as arrogant and even somewhat aggressive, because they are very straightforward and they speak quite loudly. During a conversation, even if there is no discussion or conflict taking place, they would raise their voices quite a lot. That group of youngsters that seem to be shouting at each other in the middle of the street?
They might also be having a simple friendly chat.
You should also try to speak in a loud and clear voice. Your waiter/the sales lady/the girl you are trying to impress are used to people speaking like that and also, they might not have an awesome English level, so if they can’t hear you well it will become annoying. What’s more, soft-spoken people are often seen as too shy and sometimes even made fun of.
So speak up!
9. Know what topics are safe
OK, so you followed all the advice up to here, you might have even learned some Croatian language for your trip and you’re ready to make local friends and meet Croatian girls. Or you are off to a business trip and wonder how to build relationships with your Croat colleagues.
There are a few topics Croats love to discuss. One is family, but only the good stuff. Discussing personal issues makes them uneasy and it’s rarely done, even among close friends. Telling others about your family and friends and asking them about theirs is a great conversation starter.
However, be prepared to sit through a few stories of the school successes of your Croat friend’s son. For younger people, sports are a big thing. Especially men are almost expected to be knowledgeable about soccer, tennis, basketball etc. Dining, cuisine and good wine are two other much-loved topics.
Croats can spend hours discussing this great place they had dinner in last Friday or that cool new recipe they recently tried out. It’s even true for men, although women are those usually more interested in cooking (again, conservative values). Some other safe topics would be celebrities, music, movies, and recent political affairs (but be careful not to offend their patriotic sense).
Have a fun trip to Croatia and don’t worry too much about breaking local social etiquette. As long as you are being respectful and considerate (and leave generous tips), you are safe.
And while we’re at it, have you checked our article on top things to do in Croatia?