Bosnia and Herzegovina cultural insights
The following cultural insights 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. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
People of Bosnia and Herzegovina are very sociable and hospitable. Curiosity often makes them overly straight-forward when encountering newcomers. It is culturally appropriate to ask more personal questions such as "Where are you from?", "Are you married?", "Do you have children?", "What do you do for living?" etc.
It is worthwhile to allocate extra time to establish good communication with your language interpreter. Keep in mind that language interpreting only became an occupation as of 1992. Get to know your interpreter well. He/she is going to be the best indicator of what is currently socially acceptable. This will pay off later on when talking to others.
The power of the collective spirit is still omnipresent. People easily open conversations and you can find yourself involved in a lengthy discussion over something you never thought about before (e.g. historical events dating back 2000 years).
Family, work, sports, music, entertainment, children, local cultural events, good restaurants, and the weather are always good topics when meeting someone on a private basis. Business contacts are more formal.
Humour is always welcome, but it will depend on the person you meet. When meeting someone for the first time, never use topics about religion or nationality. It may offend other people. Humour about marriage, mother-in-laws or politicians socially acceptable.
In overall there are no "forbidden" topics, but it would be recommended to refrain from discussing about military or political events that occurred during the 1992-1996 period. When paying a compliment to a middle-aged man it is advisable to refrain from commenting on his physical appearance. Statements to a man that go against the image of masculinity are definitely offensive and inappropriate.
Tenant and landlord relations are not structured like in Canada. It is recommended that the relationship start on the right foot. It is customary for landlords to come by any time he/she feels like it just to have a social chat.
When visiting someone privately, in a home setting, it is customary to accept coffee, tea, juice, a meal or as offered. Rejection might be seen as a lack of respect for a host.
Family and work, in that order, are relatively good topics of conversation. Be careful though, because BiH (Bosnia-Herzogovina) went through a difficult war and family members may have died or emigrated. However, in general, people seem to want to talk about this. It is perhaps therapeutic for them. The topic of work can also be sensitive due to high unemployment, and people losing their jobs during or following the war, perhaps simply because they were of the wrong ethnicity.
Where someone is from can also stir up difficult associations as people were displaced during the war and may still not be able to return to their former place of residence. This may be due to ethnic intolerance, which would result in them not being able to get jobs, or have access to any existing social services, such as schools for their children. It may also be due to the fact that their houses were destroyed during the war.
Cars and sports are generally safe topics amongst men. Food is a popular thing to discuss. History is a topic in which most people are well versed but it is also a topic that can fill many hours of animated discussion, at least on the part of the citizens of BiH. This topic too will usually lead to current politics, which is a loaded issue. It is best perhaps to listen for a while if one is new to the country, before engaging in such a conversation.
Since the country has three official languages (Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian) it is best to refer to the language of the country as the "local" language. It is offensive to attach the language of another ethnicity to someone who is not of that ethnicity.
It is better not to compliment someone on a piece of jewellery, or on a similar type of possession, as the person owning it may choose to give it to the admirer.
Humour is pretty much the same as in the Western world.
People of Bosnia and Herzegovina do not pay too much attention to personal space. The means of public transportation are usually overcrowded and probably the best place to see what the meaning of personal space is all about. Too much personal space can be viewed as distrust or an authoritarian way of dealing with people.
Eye contact is important and implies honesty and good intentions. At times, you might find it difficult to maintain regular eye contact, as "stereo" talking is common (two or three people talking at the same time).
Touching is very uncommon when meeting someone for the first time. However, shaking hands with both men and women when greeting the person is customary. Men generally do not touch other men unless they know each other very well, or are relatives. Friends are more likely to hug each other and kiss each other on the cheek (Bosniacs and Croats kiss twice, Serbs three times). When it comes to men touching women, a certain level of distance should be kept in the beginning.
Facial expressions are very important and it is customary to have friendly face all the time. There is a proverb "Smile opens a golden gate" that is very appreciated in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"First three fingers erect" should be avoided at all times within Bosniac and Croat Federation territory; it is a sign of victory welcomed only within Serbian territories. Also the middle finger erect, waiving a pointed index finger and pointing at someone is considered as extremely rude and irresponsible.
Voice is normal, definitely not loud.
Some people tend to have a slightly smaller space bubble than is common in the West. Especially as a person gets to know someone better and feels more comfortable, s/he will possibly be much closer and may also physically touch the person with whom s/he is speaking.
Eye contact is generally similar to the customs in the West. It is especially important to meet someone’s eyes when raising a drink for a toast. It may now be the case that eye contact between men and women in a Muslim-majority area may be less direct but this was not noticeable up to the end of 2000.
People tend to speak to each other at a louder decibel than is common in North America. This does not necessarily imply anger. It is more likely the result of the speaker being very much engaged in the topic or having strong feelings about it. Boisterous discussions in which people disagree with each other openly are common, and seldom lead to fisticuffs.
It is possible that people will respond with the answer that they think the person asking is looking for, even though that may not be the correct answer. On the other hand, if a person does not know the answer, s/he may well go out of her/his way to find out.
It may be considered impolite to beckon someone with an upwardly turned hand as is done in Canada. It is preferable to turn the palm down and move all four fingers in a waving motion.
If someone has wet or dirty hands at the time when they would normally greet someone with a handshake, s/he will offer her/his wrist to the outstretched hand. This can be somewhat unnerving the first time that one encounters it but it is totally acceptable in BiH culture.
Display of emotion
It is culturally appropriate and socially acceptable to express strong emotions when amongst people you know. It is very uncommon and not welcomed to express any "heated" emotions amongst people you do not know.
Public displays of affection are common amongst young people who may be seen cuddling on park benches for example. As well, older men and women may be seen holding hands. It is also common for women to walk arm in arm with each other. Sometimes men may also be seen holding hands, or arm in arm.
Anger is not uncommon but usually if it is expressed, the matter is resolved and life continues as before, provided of course that it was simply a verbal argument, which is usually the case. Showing happiness or sadness through tears is treated much the same as it would be in Canada. The Serbs will often celebrate a big event such as winning an important soccer game, with "happy shooting" which is firing guns into the air.
Dress, punctuality & formality
People tend to judge others based on their dress. It will highly depend on the part of the country you are in. In the urban areas it is more informal whereas in the countryside it will give the entire picture about you.
Dress code is very casual for staff members, and workplaces are more insistent on business attire for management. Your appearance is expected to be clean (especially shoes). During summer months women tend to dress more fashionably and, during winter months, more conservatively and practically.
Communication with staff is welcomed on a first name basis. However, higher management expects to be addressed at the first occasion by using Mr. or Mrs. with the last name until told otherwise. The closer to staff/management you are, it is more common to use first name in everyday communication.
Initially it is best to err more on the formal than the casual side when it comes to dress outside of the house. For example, certain clothing is really only meant to be worn in one’s home, such as shorts, sweat suits, etc. On the other hand, for women it appears to be acceptable to wear fairly skimpy tops in the summertime because of the heat.
A polite way to address colleagues, at least until asked to do otherwise, is with Mr./Mrs/Miss and then their first name. It may be best however to verify if this is the local custom.
People in BiH do tend to leave things to the last minute and so it can be challenging to get them to adhere to a deadline. Lots of coaxing may be needed in this regard. Punctuality too can slip a bit but not by a huge amount of time, at least not in the workplace. Absenteeism is not usually a problem but if it is, it is important to find out if there are some extenuating circumstances that may have caused the problem. This may be a sensitive matter, and as such is best addressed privately. Productivity in a local workplace is likely to differ from that in an international organization. It is simply important to set expectations, or to find out what they are.
Preferred managerial qualities
Knowledge, experience, hard work, and dependability are the most highly regarded qualities. Ability to organize, to conduct meetings in a timely manner, and get participants focussed on the agenda are the key measures for quality in the eyes of personnel. An expat would be seen as a role model and judged every step by his/her peers.
If you see that your team members are ready to go the ’extra mile’ to meet assigned tasks, then you know you are welcomed. Leadership is also important, and it can be especially useful to introduce daily briefings.
New ideas are welcomed but not as important. Education gives additional weight to an already established relationship, but alone it does not mean a lot (if other qualities are missing).
Education and experience, which indirectly implies being older, definitely carry a lot of weight in terms of being respected. This forms initial impressions. After that, it is important for a non-local to show that the presence and the opinions of the local staff matter to the success of the task at hand. A willingness on the part of the non-local to learn about his/her new environment will probably help significantly. This can be demonstrated by asking questions. Often, too, citizens of BiH are curious to hear about how it might be done in the manager’s home country. This will also help them understand where the boss is coming from.
In most cases, the manager/supervisor can probably find at least one person amongst the local staff who will give him/her feedback as to how s/he is doing. What is important is for the expat to listen to the response. It is probably best to not single out just one staff member for this as it might put him/her in an uncomfortable position with his/her peers. Prompt cooperation is probably another way of knowing if the managerial role is being accepted. When staff does not respond in a timely manner, it may well mean that the task has not really been understood and needs further clarification.
Hierarchy and decision-making
All decisions are made by management. Ideas may be generated from various resources (management, other staff), but are carried out by management. Responsibility is usually taken by management, but sometimes they try to share responsibility for bad decisions or failures.
Brainstorming, lateral thinking or "war rooming" methods are not yet common in the public sector. Things are changing slowly inside the private sector.
It is okay to go to your immediate supervisor. Effectiveness of those visits is directly linked to: how often you do that, do you have a good reason or not? It is advisable to keep this to a minimum. It is important to establish yourself as a reliable staff. Very often a staff member will try to resolve everything on his/her own or to discuss issue with your peers. In general "the open door policy" is not yet part of the organizational structure and climate of workforce of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Decisions are usually taken by the person in charge. This may or may not include consulting the staff for their input although in general people in BiH are not used to being asked what they think about an issue. However, with the large presence of the international community over the last six years, this is changing. Younger people especially, and even more so if they have worked with internationals for a while, may now expect to be consulted on matters that concern them. It is probably expected that employees go to their immediate supervisors first, and not go over their heads.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
It is a man’s world with full respect for a successful woman. Generally speaking, it is harder for a woman to build a career. Women residing within cities have a better status than ones within villages.
It did not have importance prior to the war. It is probably very important now, especially within rural areas. However, it is less important in mixed areas (areas of mixed ethnicity).
No clear distinction between classes, but it does matter who is who. Antagonism between urban and rural areas is widespread as is prejudice and bias from urban population towards rural. Someone coming from more individually oriented society might find surprising the importance and significance of societal milieu and prestige.
Ethnicity was always seen like a religion and it is linked to the geographical location and what entity you belong to (ie: Serbian, Croat, Muslim). It is important nowadays more than ever as people are still adjusting to and digesting the outcomes of events during the 1992-1996 period, although it is less important in mixed areas.
Following the main agreements on the establishment of Bosnia and Herzegovina, people generally accept the requirements of ethnically balanced government and its agencies. However the private sector might adhere less to these agreements. Signs of distrust vary from entity to entity and are still visible.
Because of the international presence over the last six years there has been more attention paid to the concept of gender equality. However, for the most part, it is still the woman who looks after running a household. There seems to be some tendency though to share the task of raising children. Women may work outside of the home as well, but many unemployed men are often seen sitting around all day in coffee bars.
Many foreigners think that this is the issue that caused the war. However, it is simply more of a concrete indicator of how the three ethnicities differ. It seems that religion is of most importance to Croats (Catholics), then Bosniaks (Muslims) and finally to Serbs (Orthodox Christians).
Class distinction seems to be mostly urban versus rural people, or educated versus uneducated. There is still a certain amount of illiteracy in BiH, mostly in the rural areas. Urban people do not hide their disdain for village people.
This is the most dominant issue in BiH since the war and is an underlying factor in almost all interactions. People know from people’s names what ethnicity they are. This can effect whether someone gets a job, whether s/he is accepted in a community, is eligible for benefits, etc.
The most relevant factors in the work place are ethnicity, level of education (class) and then gender. Religion is tied in with ethnicity, which is the overall determinant of a person’s acceptability in the workplace, and this even in an international organization. However, usually in that environment the different ethnic groups get along because their salaries depend upon it. Economics is the factor that crosses the ethnic divides.
It is very important to establish friendly relationships with colleagues. That does not necessarily mean personal relationships. It is more a question of mutual trust and respect (e.g. talking about your employment history, projects and company).
To establish a good relationship, a good starting point would be to show knowledge about your work, reliability and dependability as well as a deep interest in the educational background of your colleagues. A good starting point would be an invitation for lunch or coffee. A personal relationship is welcomed if you and the other person are on the same wavelength and understand each other.
It is very helpful to make an effort to get to know someone if one wants to enter a business relationship with him/her. Even in policy discussions or meetings, it is best not to start off right away with the topic at hand. Some pleasantries exchanged first are expected. It helps to warm people up. It is very common for a beverage to be offered at the beginning of a meeting. This is a simple way to defer the substantive issues at least until coffee or juice has been served. Conversely, it is important that if the foreigner is hosting the meeting, beverages are offered as it would be considered impolite to hold a meeting without offering some kind of refreshment. Alcohol, such as local schnapps (rakija), may well be offered, even if it is in the morning. It is not necessary to accept this but it should not come as a surprise. Taking time to have coffee or a drink with people is an easy way to show a willingness to get to know the local people. This is practically a national pass-time and so easy to engage in.
Privileges and favouritism
It is customary to expect ’special’ treatment if personal relationship/friendship is present. Usually it is expected to have his/her family member to be hired even within the same office. Unfortunately this became a practice of many international NGOs offices and this has reinforced the acceptability of this practice.
It is common, both in the private and public sectors, that those hiring will give special consideration to people they know who are in need. This is particularly true where no obvious qualified applicants are available. It is also more frequent within smaller cities than in main centres.
It is definitely the case, that locals will suggest their family and friends as possible employees. It is good then for there to be a policy that only one member of a family may be employed in one organization. While it may be advantageous to hire someone related to an official on whom one depends outside the place of employment, it is very important that one can justify that the skills that person brings to the workplace are exemplary, and are needed. As an international, it is best perhaps not to succumb to nepotistic practices and to set a fair employment policy.
Conflicts in the workplace
Personal interactions inside the workforce follow the principles of communist ideology. Work related problems of big scale are sorted out by the principles of a worker’s union’s philosophy unless one of the workers had a relative or friend higher up to step in and help resolve the conflict.
The majority of people apply a strategy of compromise. Colleagues typically confront each other directly, spelling out the issue immediately.
It would be best not to confront the person publicly if it can be avoided. It is very important in BiH culture not to lose face. Depending on the situation, it is probably best to confront theperson directly, although sometimes it may be necessary to use an interpreter for this. It is recommended anyway that someone else be present during the discussion, to confirm what was said. There may be some people who will not interpret the conversation in the same way in which it was intended.
Motivating local colleagues
Nowadays, one would be considered quite successful to have a well paying job in Bosnia and Herzegovina. People no longer believe so much in commitment to their organization since the break-up of the Former Yugoslavia.
Recognition for a job well done is definitely important and seen as a good motivator; especially if it comes from a foreigner.
In terms of knowing when a colleague might be offended, it may be best at the beginning to set a tone that invites colleagues to help the newcomer in understanding the new environment. It could also be possible to establish some kind of regular briefing, at least initially, to get started on the right foot. Flexibility is something that is highly valued in the BiH culture, and it is enthusiastically welcomed. It is also not a bad idea to let it be known by the foreigner, that s/he is aware that s/he may make mistakes along the way, and recognizes the need for locals to help him/her out in this regard.
Recommended books, films & foods
Perfect Circle by Ademir Kenovic; the first post-war feature; a multi-award winner; No Man’s Land by Denis Tanovic; pre-eminent a Bosnian movie; Walter Defends Sarajevo by Hajrudin Krvavac - traditional action thriller extolling wartime (WWII) resistance; When Father Was Away on Business by Emir Kusturica and Tito’s Break with Stalin. Finally, The Scent of Quinces by Mirza Idrizovic—the story of close-knit Muslim family in the early days of the World War Two.
Stone Sleeper, the poetry of Mak Dizdar about the Bosnian landscape, history, unique and mysterious mediaeval tombstones that lie scattered across the Bosnian countryside; As Long as Sarajevo Exists by Kemal Kurspahic, the memoir by the editor-in-chief of Oslobodjenje from 1991 to 1995 presenting survival of an operative civil society in Sarajevo under siege; and Balkan Babel by Sabrina Ramet, describing political developments of the 1980s, the press, rock music, the Catholic and Serbian Orthodox Churches, Islam, the run-up to war in Croatia, the emergence of an independent Slovenia and Macedonia, the Bosnian war and international responses to it.
Also, Bosnia: a Short History by Noel Malcolm, covers the whole history of Bosnia, from the end of the Roman Empire to the Dayton Accords. Likewise, Bosnia: A Cultural History by Ivan Lovrenovic, foreword by Ammiel Alcalay, a brief survey of the cultural history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Finally, The Death of Yugoslavia by Laura Silber and Allan Little; covers the period 1986 to 1995; written to accompany a BBC TV series and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West, who writes about the history, politics and culture of the region.
Ivan Kalcina, famous guitar player; Kemal Monteno, a singer whose lirics and music best describe Sarajevo in his song "Sarajevo-Ljubavi moja" during the Winter Olympic Games.
Useful internet links
www.bosnia.org.uk; www.saray.net; www.osce.org; www.bhembassy.org; www.fbihvlada.gov.ba; www.utic.net.ba
The recent film "No Man’s Land" is highly recommended. An older film is "Underground" about Yugoslavia’s role in the Second World War, and war in general. As well, the BBC production of "The Death of Yugoslavia" is supposed to be a good documentary.
Black Lamb Grey Falcon by Rebecca West: a very large text, best used as a reference. Also, Bridge over the Drina by Ivo Andric: historical fiction which has possibly the most gruesome scene ever encountered in a novel.
Jemal Moreno from Sarajevo, Zdravko Covic from Sarajevo, Gorgi Balasevic from Serbiaa balladeer who is loved by all ages of people, and all ethnicities, in BiHOliver Dragojevic from Split—like a Yugoslav Frank Sinatra—and Doris, an energetic pop singer.
Useful internet links
www.osce.org and then go to their programming in BiH.
Before starting any trip to any locations in ex-Yugoslavia, you must always remember the two main dangers in Bosnia and Herzegovina: the roads and the mines.
The winter season is a good opportunity to explore the repertoire of six theatres in downtown Sarajevo. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit museums, such as the National Museum in Sarajevo and its two Millennium long expositions. Take a walk in the old town (stari grad) Bascarsija. It is very interesting with its small and narrow streets and bazaars with religious buildings all located within a short distance. Also good for food.
You may discover famous or less well-known lakes such as the Jablanicko, Boracko, Ramsko, to name only few. In fact, each municipality has its own lovely lake. All are beautiful in every season, and some are equipped for fishing, canoeing, sailing, or even water skiing and jet-skiing (preferably in summer).
Bridges are also very important part of Bosnian & Herzegovinian culture. They were built for crossing the rivers or to expand the cities. Some of those bridges are renowned, such as the Visegrad, one on the Drina River, or the one in Sarajevo where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914. There is also the Arskanagic Bridge over the Trebisnjica River. Some are very ancient, as the Rimski Most (Roman Bridge) south of Sarajevo and the most famous of all, the Mostar’s ’Stari Most’ (Old Bridge) that was destroyed, unfortunately, during the war. It is now in the process of reconstruction.
There are in total 38 restaurants in Sarajevo mostly located in downtown. There are a lot of delicious Balkan specialities, halfway between the Occidental and Middle Eastern cooking. There are two Chinese restaurants and Taj Mahal as well. Don’t miss ’cevapcici’, ’burek’, ’dolmes’, ’bamia’ and all sorts of oriental pastries.
The best vineyards are located in the Herzegovina region, where southern sunshine allows for perfect grape ripening.
Newspapers, weekly magazines, TV, café-bars are good things to start with, of course with the assistance of your language assistant. Usually your peers and or your staff will give you a good source of information assuming that you share the same interest (you work in the same field or expertise).
The best place to learn about the culture of BiH is to spend time in the coffee bars.
"Pita" which is a savory pastry eaten as a snack, or substantial breakfast in the middle of the morning. It is phyllo pastry filled with meat, cheese, spinach, or potato. Meat roasted on the spit. "Kifle" which are croissant-like buns, fresh and always available everywhere. "Rakija" is locally brewed alcohol, often made from plums.
Really hard to tell. Historically, they are mostly heroes from one of many wars we have had. Others would be our renowned artists, scientists, and politicians. In every day life, sports idols are very popular and important.
The most obvious hero that comes to mind is Tito, the benevolent dictator that ruled the former Yugoslavia for almost forty years. He was apparently well loved by most people. The reason for this seems to be that all ethnicities lived together in peace during that time, and were supposedly economically comfortable.
Shared historical events with Canada
To the best of my knowledge, Canadians are seen as the ’better’ part of North America.
One thing that comes to mind is the fact that Sarajevo hosted the winter Olympics in 1984, four years before Calgary hosted them. This is a positive connection, as is the fact that several people from BiH now live in Canada.
On a more serious note is the fact that Canada was on the side of the allies in the Second World War. The Serbs supported the Russians while the Croats supported the Germans. This may sometimes be remembered, especially in Herzegovina, which has a Croat majority.
Canadians are in overall seen as friendly and easy going people.
Canadians may think of citizens of BiH like other eastern Europeans and/or former communists. While BiH is like Eastern Europe, people there aspire towards the West. As for formerly being communists, again it was a different sort of communism under Tito, not so rigid or so controlled as one might think of Russian communism for example.
Another possibility is to view the people of BiH as being primarily Muslim. Only around 40% are Muslim but they tend to consider themselves as "modern" Muslims, or European Muslims, which to them means that they are more liberal. This is gradually changing with the influence of donor Arab states, which bring with them the more traditional interpretation of Islam.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina the youngest of seven children. She was raised in this town of Zenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina until the age of 18 and then she moved to Sarajevo to continue her studies. She graduated with Bachelors of Arts in Sociology from the University of Sarajevo. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter immigrated to Canada to live in Ottawa. She is currently living in Victoria, BC and is married with one child.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Toronto, Canada, the oldest of four children and was raised in Calgary, Alberta. She studied foreign languages (French, Italian and Norwegian) in Toronto and Edmonton at the Universities of Toronto and Edmonton respectively. Her work sent her abroad for the first time in 1970, to Norway, where she lived and worked with a family on their farm. She later studied secondary education at the University of Calgary, where she received a teacher's certificate in English as a second language. Several years later, after travelling and working in many other countries on five continents, your cultural interpreter went to Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), where she lived for almost four years. While she maintains her home in Ottawa, she is currently living in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia where she has been for the last eight months. She works in democratic development, in particular, organizing elections in post-conflict environments. She is single and has no children.
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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