Cultural Differences – Bulgaria

When initiating business in Bulgaria, you should invest a good amount of time in developing the personal side of this new relationship. Aside from business meetings, this may include extensive business meals, cocktail parties and sometimes even participation in family reunions, where personal topics may be talked about. In Bulgaria, the highest priority is given to the quality of the personal contact between the business partners involved. Bulgarians want to convince themselves first-hand of their new business partner’s honest intentions and their interest in a long-term business relationship. After all, it is also a matter of integrating the new business partners into their own network of close personal contacts. Without good connections, very little gets done in the Bulgarian business world.

Cultural differences in communication

Communication in Bulgaria is essentially indirect. Allusions and hints are common and must be interpreted by the listener in order to create a complete picture. It is therefore important to always listen carefully and to read between the lines. In general, Bulgarian is a very descriptive language and can come across as somewhat “flowery” when translated into English. Foreign business people often do not take these vivid descriptions seriously or have difficulties in correctly discerning the factual information they contain. Conversely, foreign business partners must also be aware that their Bulgarian interlocutors might assume more in their statements than they actually are saying.

It should be mentioned in particular that in Bulgaria shaking one’s head means consent, i.e. “yes”! On the other hand, nodding twice means “no”! Even more misunderstandings between Bulgarians and their international business partners can arise if one or both of the interlocutors have already adapted to the other! Generally, Bulgarians gesticulate in a very lively way. You may notice though, particularly in discussions, that the initially so quiet Bulgarians can suddenly become loud and quite spirited.

Criticism should only be voiced very carefully in talks with Bulgarians. In general, Bulgarians are well trained to avoid confrontation. If a question or statement is skipped, you can be sure that they simply don’t want to explore the subject any further. However, Bulgarians will usually give feedback to their counterparts on suggestions or presentations. This is not necessarily their full opinion. Much is simply held back out of pure striving for harmony. Only when the personal relationship between the business partners is absolutely solid will they openly express their opinions. Until then foreign managers will have to come to terms with the fact that in Bulgaria everything is often “no problem”, even though problems may be noticeable or even obvious.

Meetings and negotiations

As Bulgarians tend to avoid conflict, they can compromise easily in meetings or negotiations. They keep an eye on the interests of both parties in a very fair and constructive way, so that a solid negotiation result can be achieved. Negotiations with Bulgarians generally take quite some time. However, there is a constant sense of progress. Slowly but surely you will reach your objectives.

The greatest source of misunderstandings are indirectly expressed requests which the foreign party often simply does not understand. Rather than simply heading more clearly and directly to the point, Bulgarians prefer to draw another negotiating loop until they have skillfully brought their demands back to the negotiating table. The other side might think “Why not just like that from the beginning,” , but, from the Bulgarian point of view, this extra round was only necessary because the negotiating partners had simply not picked up on their initial requests.

Bulgarians are also truly talented multitaskers. It is therefore quite normal for them to do several things at the same time in joint meetings and negotiations. Interruptions are the order of the day; telephone calls are made, and emails sent during the meeting. This means that meetings can easily run longer than planned. One should not view this behavior as disrespect or discourtesy but should simply acknowledge that Bulgarian negotiating partners are polychronistically doing several things at the same time.

Hierarchies in Bulgarian companies

Even if there is a tendency to delegate more and more responsibility to well-trained teams, the decision-making power in generally highly hierarchical Bulgarian companies still usually lies with the company owner. Specialist experts are consulted by the management – albeit very extensively – for advice only, but rarely included in the decision-making process. In negotiations and in binational project work, foreign executives must therefore always ensure that they are communicating with the right contacts. Conversely, it is a matter of courtesy to connect Bulgarian top managers only with foreign managers of the same level.

The time factor in joint project management

Deadlines or dates that are in the distant future are rarely met by Bulgarians who take a relaxed and prudent approach to their work. “Why put your shoulder to the wheel in May when delivery is not due until December? So much could happen in the meantime.” The more precise timetables drawn up by many foreign partners, which often even include a Plan B in the event of difficulties, are rather meaningless to many Bulgarians. They are, however, masters at improvising. When something needs to be done quickly, all available resources inside and outside the company will be mobilized. Using their creative ingenuity, Bulgarians will then deliver a finished project in the desired time – much to the surprise and satisfaction of the foreign partners, who were biting their nails with worry that the project was not going to be completed in time.

International business people in Bulgaria would therefore be well advised to set plenty of intermediate goals rather than to set up an all-encompassing timetable. They would also do well to rely on the know-how of their Bulgarian partners instead of trying to control them with deadlines. After all, the personal relationship level is more important than any plan. Regular friendly communication will be the best bet in getting a Bulgarian project to fruition.

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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