Bulgarian culture is very practical and well developed with regard to personal behavior, communication, and manners. Here are some useful notes to help foreigners get along.
Mannerisms and other Behavior
Bulgarians famously shake their head side to side for “yes” and up and down for “no.” This unconventional mannerism is confusing for foreigners and often results in miscommunication between parties, especially when a foreigner is asking a question. Even people living in the country for a long time can be caught out by their subliminal expectations, leading to amusing and sometimes embarrassing results.
Bulgarians, and Europeans in general, are quiet or soft spoken in public places. Speaking loudly, singing, or causing other commotion is considered rude behavior and a dead giveaway that you are a foreigner. Americans in particular often stand out, in a bad way, for their loud voices in public spaces.
Concerning Floors and Cleanliness
Bulgarians are sensitive about floors. The ground is usually considered dirty, which leads to several important pieces of advice:
- Do not put your feet up on tables or chairs. If the floor is considered dirty, your feet will transfer the dirt wherever you rest them.
- Do not put your towel on the floor if you expect to use it again. A towel placed on the floor is no longer useful for drying the human body. This is particularly important at public pools and fitness centers. Bulgarians will lecture you openly about this breach of cleanliness.
- Do not put your bag, purse, backpack or other belongings on the floor. Find an open chair, pull it near you, and place your belongings on the chair. If there are no free chairs around, ask to share with someone else who has their belongings on a chair. Bulgarians are very polite and generous to share with foreigners in this way.
- Do not sit on the floor or expect Bulgarians to sit on the floor. This can be overcome by providing a mat, rug, or other item to sit on instead of a bare floor.
Giving Flowers in Bulgaria
Bulgarians like to give flowers for all kinds of occasions:
- When greeting a guest arriving at the airport, bus station, or train.
- To teachers on the first and last day of school.
- On birthdays or other special personal occasions.
- When visiting a friend for a meal at their home.
- When thanking an employee or volunteer for a job well done.
- When celebrating the birth of a child.
- When mourning the death of a relative or friend.
Flowers are always given in odd numbers for happy occasions, usually one or three at a time for personal events and larger odd number bouquets for formal occasions and awards. This can be confusing for westerners used to sending gestures like a dozen roses. Avoid embarrassment by always asking for eleven roses in your romantic bouquet.
Even number arrangements are only used for funerals and other expressions of mourning. Two or four flowers in a somber arrangement is an appropriate gesture to be brought to a funeral for leaving on the casket.
Decorative bouquets and other arrangements are readily available at flower shops and stands all around Bulgaria.
Visiting a Private Home
Always remove your shoes upon entry. Your host will almost always provide slippers for your use. Bulgarians are generous to foreigners and will insist that it is not necessary, but the polite visitor will remove their shoes anyway. Your host will appreciate your sensitivity.
If invited for a meal, it is customary to bring one or more of the following as a gift for your host: Flowers (in an odd number arrangement), chocolates, or a bottle of wine.
When a toast is made, always make eye contact with everyone at the table before lifting your glass to your lips.
Bulgarians are generous and take pride in entertaining guests, so do not be offended if they ask you repeatedly if you want more.
Always leave a little bit of food on your plate to indicate you are finished. Clearing your plate completely means you are still hungry, and more food will be served.
Visiting a Bulgarian Orthodox Church
Bulgarians expect conservative dress in church. Long pants for men are expected, and often required. Women should wear sensible length skirts and have covered shoulders.
Orthodox worshipers are expected to stand. Seats along the walls are reserved for the old and infirm.