by KMW ©2010
The Greeks are justly proud of their cultural heritage and their contribution to world civilization so never underestimate the knowledge they often possess. The names of ancient philosophers are taught to them from an early age and any Greek school is always heavy on Greek cultural heritage. In fact, a formal ethnic study concluded that Greek citizens pride in just being Greek was greater than all other European countries. Testimony to this pride and sense of cultural importance is underpinned by the staging of ancient Greek dramas and comedies in the same surviving theatres for which they were originally written for. The panoply of Greek literature, poetry, drama, philosophy, history, travelogues and musical heritage stretches right back to thousands of years BC. Add to this the historically resonant Greek cuisine, national character and the whole cohesive myriad of geographical, mythical, historical ruins, and the astonishing beauty of a country that is easily Europe’s most extraordinary and interesting country, and you have something of the reason why Greeks are so proud of their homeland.
Religion in Greece
The Greek Orthodox Church is of course the beloved national religion and is practised by the majority of the population, for whom it is a treasured part of their everyday life. Never believe that most Greeks are anything but religiously committed. Every feast day and celebration often has some kind of religious significance. This commitment, which shows no sign of dimming, has a distant historical relevance as when the pagan gods were also once elaborately worshipped, prior to the people’s gradual conversion to Christianity during the AD periods.
It’s true that many younger folk do not share the same magnitude of religious commitment as the older generations; however, they invariably respect family traditions and so usually attend any religious gathering that comes up. Christmas in Greece is low key – its Easter that is the most important and you will discover that Greeks take the Easter celebrations very seriously – and without any of the commercial claptrap of Northern Europe.
Finally, it is a fact of life in Greece that the Church still plays an active and relatively powerful role in political, civic and national governance. Other more secular countries may express disapproval, but for Greeks there is no conflict. It’s the status quo – simple as that. Yes, gay rights campaigners have been pushing for a sea change in attitudes and maybe there has been some progress under European directives, but the Church’s influence was clearly exercised when the first gay marriages conducted (on Tilos Island, actually) were declared illegal and duly annulled by the reacting Greek government.
Greek Family Values
Family life in Greece is paramount – absolutely and vitally important. It is the social cohesion that supports the social structures, checks and balances. It’s powerful influence even has a direct effect on crime levels, to a degree, although it can lead to the vehement closing of family ranks when there is a threat or a tax demand too much.
The family structure protects, nourishes, emotionally supports and financially supplements its members. That is an intrinsic and powerful dynamic to which outsiders doff their caps in profound admiration. There is no getting away from the fact that in Greece’s matriarchal society, family is king. Oh, and in Greece, property is passed via the female line - not the male.
This includes an often labyrinthine patchwork of extended family ties, and these usually extend into business, marital and personal issues. Family members are often forthright and want to know what everyone is up to. It’s not actually gossip or interference they are after – it’s just that intelligence is what their society breathes with. So it’s important for a Greek mother or father to know what is going on in their immediate and extended family.
Nepotism is not considered a sin in Greece – it’s the norm. To a Greek, with disarming honesty, they will tell you that looking after the family in whatever way possible is considered acceptable – and not just an afterthought. However, if a member commits a serious crime, the dishonour is felt with often crushing intensity and affects the whole family. Family honour is everything to a Greek and if anyone disrespects this they will receive a no uncertain rebuke.
General Etiquette & Customs in Greece
Greeks are naturally friendly and take greetings seriously by outwardly showing their hospitable nature. When you meet a Greek and you want to be either a business or social friend you should shake hands firmly then make a quick show of direct eye contact – but don’t overdo the eye contact; general eye contact is best after the initial greeting. Greeks don’t like people to stare into their eyes too much and find it disconcerting (see the Good Tourist page).
If you have become good friends then don’t hesitate to exhibit affection by embracing and even kissing on each cheek is considered perfectly acceptable and enjoyable. By doing so you are showing that you have totally accepted them – heartening for any Greek. Also, males tend to gently but firmly slap or tap each other on the shoulder just above the arm - a sort of affectionate confirmation of friendship. Quick squeezes of the flesh are fine – but never smack or pinch their rumps as this is considered too intimate.
Most Greeks are either named after a saint or have it as their middle name. Each saints day particular to their saint’s name is a gift day. To honour the saint and the friend, you give them a small gift. It is rare for an actual ‘birth’ day to be celebrated – the saint day is preeminent.
If you do buy a gift never feel it needs to be expensive – indeed expense is not considered appropriate and gifts should be small and sweet. Since gifts are generally reciprocated, giving something of great value could put a burden on the recipient since they would feel obligated to give you something of equivalent value. It is sometimes considered bad form.
If you should ever receive a dinner invitation always take a small gift. Fruit and chocolate or flowers are ideal, although a small keepsake is also good as long as it is not a costly item. Flowers need to be sent to arrive the day before the event and gifts must always be carefully wrapped so that the formal opening ceremony can be enjoyed after you have arrived.
Always dress smartly – smart casual, especially when it’s hot, is fine but men must wear long trousers and shoes and women must always wear a dress and stockings with the dress or two piece covering up her breasts and arms. This confers respect towards the host and shows you honour the Greek traditions. Also, saying a greeting in Greek is a nice touch.
But don’t think it’s rude to insist you help them prepare or get the table ready and then to help afterwards. Assume that they want help and just ask them directly what you can do to help. They will really appreciate this act as a sign you are a good soul – not lazy or disrespectful. Often though this is enough for them and they may well politely treat you royally by waiting on you in the manner Greeks are famed for. Remember, they take pride in their hospitality and this can be traced right back to the pagan times when Zeus was said to take the form of a travelling mortal in order to test his subjects honour. If they did not welcome Zeus, complete with effective disguise, they were punished ruthlessly.
Finally, always make a positive comment about their property – not too much just the odd statement of delight here and there is OK.
Never ever sit down until formally asked to do so and wait for the hosts to show you which particular seat you can sit in. Cutlery needs to be held as in the usual way – knife in the right or left hand.
At table the eldest is always honoured by being served first and eating should never commence until the host gives the sign to do so. Keep elbows away from the table – this is considered rude and never put your hands under the table – keep them above at all times. For some reason this is not good.
Asking for a second helping of the main dish is a compliment to the host, so do so if you can.
During the meal Greeks love to discuss stuff – sometimes in Greek or a mix, or just in English. Socializing at the table is a Greek national pastime and so you should expect to be asked lots of questions. Greeks are good at harmlessly gathering information since it helps them to become accustomed to their new friends.
Bread eaten at a table is a sacred part of the dining experience and mopping up gravy with lumps of bread is accepted as quite normal – so do it with gusto. It is also OK to share food with others from your or someone else’s plate. However, it is not good to leave any food uneaten – if you accepted it, eat it. Greeks have a cultural respect for food and hate waste informed by a history of hand to mouth economics in difficult conditions.
When you have finished eating neatly place your used napkin next to your plate to indicate you have finally stopped. Knife and fork or spoons should be placed together on the plate with the handles pointing to the right – much as you would in your own country, probably.
The host should always give the first toast and then later on (no fixed point), the honoured guest must reciprocate by toasting the hosts with the word "stinygiasou” - ‘to your health’ (or you could say in your own language ‘I would like to wish health and happiness to my hosts for providing such a delicious meal’, although ‘Yammas!’ is an OK form in an informal setting). However, "eis igían sas" at formal functions is usually used.