Enrich your life in Croatia: Get to know Croatians

people sitting at the square
Croatians hanging out and drinking coffee in Pula

PUBLISHED: 24.4.2023.

It’s a sound I love. You can hear my neighbor Ivo’s voice above all others and that is saying something. Everyone is talking at the same time. Loudly. The way Croats do. Ivo has already dropped by, telling me I won’t get grapes this year because I pruned my vines so badly. He’s been telling me this for the last six years. And now he and his daughter Sanja are sitting on the terrace of our neighbors, Vlado and Vesna, drinking rakija.

That’s Croatia for you. One neighbor visits another, and before you know it, there is a little gathering. I don’t join them because I want to write this post. But I could invite them all for a meal this week. Hmmm. What should I cook?

Croatians are part of the rich Croatian experience. They are your fast-lane introduction to the best of life here. And they make loyal neighbors and friends. Above all, they are great for a good complaint and a hearty laugh.

In this article, we cover:

Enrich your life as an expat: Get to know Croatians

Why is it good to get to know the Croatians?

If you live in Croatia, get to know the Croatians because:

  • Croatians are open to foreigners
  • They make great friends
  • They can introduce you to the rich Croatian lifestyle: traditions, foods, festivals, best places to shop and to go on adventures
  • It will make you feel like a local and not a foreigner
  • Many are well-connected to every authority you may need
  • They can recommend the best builders, artisans, and dentists
  • The Croatian café culture is great at taking the edge off loneliness

[Read: 5 hidden garden bars in Zagreb]

What are Croatians (their personalities) like?

#1 Open personality

Croatians are famously open, friendly, warm, and tolerant of foreigners.

When we first arrived in our small village, we were the first foreigners ever to buy a house there. Later, I asked our neighbor how it was to have us “invading”. “It was refreshing!” he said. And the villagers did everything to make us feel at home.

#2 Community-oriented

Croatians are community-minded. Community is everything!

If there is a disaster in Croatia, such as the recent earthquakes in Zagreb, volunteer networks to send food, clothes or help grow overnight. It isn’t an act of “kindness”, just absolutely natural.

#3 True friendships

Do things right and you’ll have friends for life.

I would not survive here without my friends Draga, Zel, and Mara. We cook together. Console each other when the going gets rough. Eat out together. Talk about the difficulties of settling somewhere new – they too were expats, typical Croatians who have lived all over the world and returned. We talk about how our children do not have a real home. It is neither the place of their birth nor where we as a family now live. We would die for each other.

The same is true of Ivo and Sanja. I got up in the middle of the night when there was a medical emergency to drive them to the hospital. And they bring me pots of food when I am laid up in bed with my dratted Ischias.

#4 Crossing the line

Get it wrong, however, and you can have an enemy for life. In Croatia, once you cross a certain line, there’s no going back. And mostly, you won’t know what that line is. Even if you do, no amount of saying sorry will help. I don’t think I am the only expat (or even Croatian) to whom this has happened!

I got super angry when my neighbor cut down my plum tree, which I loved. He had cared for it before we bought the house, so I suppose he thought he had this right. The more I and two others tried to stop him, the angrier he became. That was the end of 10 years of good relations, even though I apologized for my overreaction!

To learn more about Croatian culture, view:

What do you need to be aware of to get it right?

#1 Learn to read the signals

In every culture, there are things that foreigners will not understand. This can lead to misunderstandings and even conflict. So your first lesson is to listen out for the signals that will tell you whether you are stepping on Croatian toes or winning their trust. Here are examples.

You suggest to someone you hardly know that you go for a coffee. They say they don’t think they can because they’re busy. If they don’t give a reason for being busy, this is a way of showing they don’t want to develop the contact. Because no Croatian in their right mind will give up a chance to have coffee!

You ask a Croatian for a favor. They say they will help you. Nothing happens. Have you remembered to bring them a gift to thank them? There is no such thing as a one-way street in Croatia. It’s all about give and take.

[Read: How to give a gift to a Croatian on different occasions]

If you mix with locals, you will pick up some of these signals over time. But signals can be very subtle. In fact, expats can go on misreading signals for decades. So you need to learn about them. (We go more into this below.)

#2 Sharpen your intercultural skills

Just because you do things differently, does not mean your way is right. It is just different. Understanding this is the key to intercultural communication.

This is why: We all grow up being rewarded for fitting in with our society’s values and punished for not doing so. So when we come across a culture that does things our society finds wrong, we judge them. And that can be very emotional. (It often causes war!)

So understanding how these differences can affect your relations with Croats is essential. And it is a two-way street. They will not want you to force your values on them. But equally, they will judge you for doing things differently.

Here are some examples. In our village things turned sour when the foreigners began planting hedges for privacy. “You don’t want to see us,” the Croats said. Two ways of seeing things.

As a South African, I was brought up to talk about my achievements. We don’t have social welfare in South Africa, so we have to be competitive to survive. But in Croatia, what counts is who you are, not what you do. Croatians actually dislike the success of others! So I wasn’t doing myself a favor by being so South African here!

How to solve the problem? This article should help in giving some tips :)

How to get connected to Croatians

Starting a friendship with a Croatian

It’s easy to start a friendship with a Croatian because Croatians are very open.

Here are some tips:

  • You have met a Croatian you like. Invite them to go for coffee. This is where friendships begin and cement themselves. Drink your coffee slowly. You are here to talk and relax, not to hurry! Offer to pay the first time, but thereafter, you take turns to pay.
  • Start up a conversation anytime, anywhere with a Croatian. Who knows where it may lead? In fact, Croatians often make friends with foreigners this way. I know locals who regularly travel to Italy, Austria, or Germany to stay with tourists they met in a caffe bar or through a holiday rental.
  • Nurture that friendship! Croatians will be offended if you do not regularly call or make an effort to see them.

Joining the local community in Croatia

Become part of the local community the Croatian way:

  • Find out whether any of your skills are useful to initiatives in your local community, for example, tourism, cultural and arts development, and offer your services.
  • Find out if there are any associations you can join. For example, you could join the local holiday rentals association if you rent out holiday accommodation. Or you can volunteer for a local non-profit organization. You can view more information on volunteering in Croatia here.
  • Identify the best grocery store, food market stall, chemist, butcher, etc., for you, and then always get the same attendant to help you. Get to know them. Ask them how they are. Ask them about their family. Complain about anything. (Very bonding in Croatia!). Develop a relationship. Some Croatians will follow staff from one shop to another, even traveling miles to keep that relationship going! It is part of the Croatian way of building a community feeling. And you will be surprised at how much you will learn about how to live successfully in Croatia through these local contacts!

How do Croatians bond?

Croatians often come across as disinterested or cold. Break through that barrier by showing your human side. “Oh I am so disorganized!” or “I can’t buy that, I’m on diet!” Ask them about themselves. Get personal. Suddenly, the frostiness will go and you will be rewarded with classic Croatian warmth!

In this way, you can always have someone to talk to, laugh with. They need not become friends, but it is so rewarding to feel connected. Recently, a Telekom man was waiting for his mates to come and fix the wires. I stuck my head out the window and said “Dobar dan!” Before long we had talked about the Ukrainian war, the massive development of homes in the area, his health, my health, the ambitions of his children, and of course, the wonderful weather.

Croatians love to complain. Complain too. This is a form of bonding. Never, however, should you give advice. You can say how you solved your similar problem but don’t tell them how to solve theirs.

Gossiping. It is the oil of conversation and is mostly not malicious. Croatians will complain about everyone they know, even their own mother. But God forbid you say something bad about those they love. So listen but don’t agree!

Gifting is essential in Croatia. If you visit a friend or they do you a favor, give them something — home cooked or bought. You will immediately get something back. It seems like an endless cycle of giving and receiving. But it has a function. If your friend or neighbor is in your “debt”, then you can ask favors and visa versa. If you have not given gifts, and ask for a favor and there is no response, then know it is because you are not playing by the rules.

Be generous but never give something of more value than you know your friend can give back. Giving too much can be seen as one-upmanship. Or, it can humiliate someone who is unable to repay in kind.

More resources about the Croatian way of doing things

Read sites written by expats, which often include useful lessons. Here are some of them:

View our other posts on Croatian culture

Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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