Bulgaria should not offer a significant culture shock to any seasoned traveler.
Visitors form the Balkans, Turkey and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East will feel quite at home and will be able easily read body language and social situations, even without understanding what’s being said.
Travellers from Europe should also feel within their comfort zone, though some small differences do exists. Most commonly, foreigners misinterpret loud, angry-sounding conversations as signs of aggression; often it is just excitement or mild disapproval.
The good news is that most Bulgarians are quite accepting to the way foreigners behave and will not judge.
However, it will show respect if you take the time to learn about a few local customs.
Here are some tips regarding local etiquette and culture in Bulgaria:
Striking casual conversations with strangers in a bar is not particularly unacceptable but very uncommon. Bulgarians go out in large groups and tend to socialize within those groups.
If you feel chatty, do not shy away from approaching people. Bulgarians are happy (and curious) to talk to foreigners and will accommodate.
ASKING FOR DIRECTIONS
Most people will be more than happy to help out with directions and recommendations if stopped on the street.
IF INVITED TO A BULGARIAN HOME
When visiting a Bulgarian home, never show up empty handed! It is a sign of good taste to bring flowers to the hostess (always an odd number!) and a box of candy and/or a bottle of wine.
If visiting a home with a small child, make sure to bring a small present for the child.
You will be asked to take your shoes off and, even if you are not asked, do it anyway. You will be given slippers in the winter.
Expect to be asked to take your shoes off and, even if you are not asked, do it anyway. You will be given slippers in the winter.
Compliment the home and the food, and make an effort to eat the bigger portion of what was put on the plate in front of you.
Expect to be offered food several times even after you have said you are full.
A word of warning: Your glass will most likely be filled to the rim at all times, as an empty glass is considered a shame to the host. It is your responsibility to pace your alcohol intake. The best strategy is to stop drinking early, eat plenty of food, leave your glass full and battle the frequent “nazdrave’s (cheers!) with taking small sips. If the above doesn’t work out, don’t worry. There is nothing more endearing to a Bulgarian host than getting a guest drunk.
You will see many people hugging and kissing on the cheek (although never between two men). This is a somewhat new habit most popular in big cities. If unsure, just shake hands. However, do not shake hands over the doorstep as it is considered bad luck.
Birthdays, name days, anniversaries and national holidays in Bulgaria follow a strict set of rules.
The person having a birthday is expected to offer a treat (a cake) or pay the bill if in a restaurant. Presents are, of course, the responsibility of the guests.
Do bring flowers and presents even if the celebration takes place in a restaurant.
Celebrating the day of the year associated with one's given name or the so called name day is an exceptionally big deal in Bulgaria.
Name days are widely celebrated with congratulatory phone calls, presents and treats.
According to custom, the person with the name day is expected to stay at home and receive guests who, on this day, have the right to show up uninvited, but not empty-handed.
A bottle of wine or a small present are appropriate offerings for the occasion.
Maria / name day on August 15 / is the most popular female name in the country, while Georgi /name day on May 6/ is the name of approx 5% of all Bulgarian males.
“Here, Have Some Candy”
Spend a few days among Bulgarians and, chances are, you will be approached by person with a box of candy.
Offering sweets to everyone around is an ancient custom of celebrating special occasions like birthdays, name days, weddings and births in the family. Do take the candy, eat it and offer your congratulations. The act of eating the gift is a form of well-wishing and refusing it is very rude and offensive. And no, being on a diet is not a valid excuse.
PAYING THE BILL
Bulgarians will often take turns paying the bill or split it in half. Calculating to the cent can be viewed as a sign of stinginess. It will make a good impression to offer to pay the whole bill and offer several times. In many cases, a small “argument” over who pays the bill is also part of the custom.
ACCEPTABLE CONVERSATION TOPICS
Complaining about the country is, many joke, a national sport in Bulgaria. Foreigners are expected to play devil’s advocate and point out the positives.
Like everywhere in Eastern Europe, racist statements can be heard at the dinner tables, even in the homes of the educated and the well-to-do. While it is your personal choice how to react, bear in mind that the country has managed to exist free of overt ethnic conflicts for many years.
Be on time for business meetings but don’t be surprised if the other party arrives 5 to 15 minutes late. The Bulgarian punctuality allows for about 15 minutes leeway.
If invited to a business dinner, most likely the person inviting will pay the bill. It will make a good impression to offer to pay anyway and offer several times.
GATHER AROUND THE TABLE
Bulgarians love big, long tables as much as they love going out in large groups. A big company of friends will always insist on sitting at the same table, and will quickly rearrange the interior of any restaurant in order to do so.
Astrological signs and their compatibility is a favorite conversation topic of Bulgarian women and a well-accepted ice breaker conversation. Do take it seriously, or at least pretend.
Expect to be asked about your sign and to listen through a detailed explanation of its good and bad characteristics.