Cultural Differences – Croatia

About 90 percent of Croatia’s population are ethnic Croats, catholic, and speak Croatian. Four to five percent are Serbs who belong to the Orthodox Church and speak Serbian. Another five percent are of different ethnic origin, such as Bosnians, Hungarians, Slovenes, Czechs and Roma.

Since the disintegration of the multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia and the independence of Croatia in 1991, Croats, Serbs and Bosnians have attached great importance to the subtle differences of their otherwise very similar languages and are generally very proud of their respective cultures, ethnic origins and religions. In today’s Croatian society, ethnicity often determines the status of a person, with well-known Croatian surnames, urban origins and education being the most respected.

As a foreigner in contact with Croats, Serbs or Bosnians in Croatia, you must take these cultural differences into account. Avoid imprecise or incorrect terms, such as “Yugoslavia” instead of “Croatia”, and do not confuse Bosnians and Serbs. Croats and Bosnians have a more harmonious relationship than Croats and Serbs. Comparisons with Serbia or Bosnia will not be taken well, any more than the more general term “Balkans”. Avoid any issues that could offend the national sentiment of either Croats or other local ethnic groups and keep in mind that each ethnic group takes a different view at the Yugoslavian war and its history. At the very least, make sure that you are well informed before you comment on a critical topic.

Greeting, introduction and forms of address

At a first business meeting, Croats tend to be somewhat formal and distant. A handshake with eye contact is the usual form of greeting, accompanied by a friendly “Dobro jutro” (Good morning) or “Dobar dan” (Good day). At later meetings, people will also shake hands, but a simple “Zdravo” (Hello) will often suffice, with “Bok” (Hello) being a more informal greeting.

In principle, younger people greet older people first, which is due to the seniority principle in Croatia; this is to be understood as an expression of respect. When people are introduced to each other, women’s names are given first, then men’s names in descending order of age.

When addressing each other, academic as well as professional titles (doctor, engineer, etc.) and surnames are used. If the person has no title, you can simply say “Gospodin Jones” (Mr Jones), “Gospođa Jones” ( Mrs Jones) or “Gospođice Jones” ( Miss Jones). The use of first names is restricted to close friends and colleagues, although young or internationally active companies frequently make an exception.

Collectivist relationship orientation

Croats have a high degree of relationship and group orientation, which is expressed primarily in absolute loyalty to family, friends and other close contacts. People place their trust in their own group, be it blood relatives or long-standing contacts within their own network.

The best example of this is the filling of vacancies: it is not uncommon for job advertisements to be passed on first to friends and acquaintances of the employer before they are published in newspapers and online portals. Similarly, candidates are more likely to look around their “internal” job market before applying for an officially advertised position, which has often already been advertised in other ways. The same can be applied to many situations such as when contracts are awarded.

Therefore, if you want to initiate business in Croatia as an “outsider”, you will first have to prove yourself to be trustworthy. Croats want to know who they are dealing with before they get down to business. Getting to know who they are dealing with involves a lot of meetings, which are by no means just about business but frequently involve talking about personal matters. Croats are particularly focused on achieving a good, relaxed atmosphere with their business partners. Only when they feel comfortable with their new associates will they be ready to consider joint projects.

However, be careful not to get too personal during meetings, as this could impair mutual respect, which is equally important in business life. For example, talk about your family, but never about family problems. Even a too buddy-like behavior will not be appreciated and is contrary to Croatian expectations of a professional demeanor.

Meetings with a loose agenda

First meetings with Croatian business partners are therefore usually longer, as the meeting is mainly used to get to know each other better in personal conversations. Croatian company directors will frequently entrust this task to a representative of middle management and will not be present until the latter gives the go-ahead. Even if the business relationship is already more advanced and the decision-makers are sitting at the table, Croats will not miss the opportunity to create the right atmosphere for conversation with a little small talk. In Croatian business culture, it is considered impolite to speak about business matters straightaway.

Croats draw up an agenda before important meetings, but they won’t really follow it. Not later than the second agenda item, topics will arise spontaneously and be discussed in a meeting. Therefore, you should only consider an agenda to be a rough guideline and plan sufficient buffer time for a meeting.

Decisions regarding new project ideas or plans may be made both spontaneously at the meeting and later behind closed doors if Croatian decision-makers wish to involve their team first.

Strong leadership with an effort to achieve consensus

The fact that many younger companies tend to strive for consensus can also be attributed to Croatia’s strong group orientation. Here, too, there are usually multi-level hierarchies according to which everyone receives their workplace with a precisely defined field of activity. However, bosses will not simply ignore their qualified employees or middle-level managers and insist on pushing their will through. Despite hierarchies, equality and solidarity are important in Croatia, so the manager will seek different opinions and try to reach a consensus.

The ideal boss in Croatia is the charismatic, benevolent autocrat, who leads their employees well, protects them, always has an open ear and treats everyone respectfully. Their status as boss and authority person is due to their knowledge and many years of experience. Therefore, it does not harm their reputation if they communicate with their employees.

Nevertheless, Croatian employees are not that participative and therefore don’t expect much leeway in making decisions and taking action. Four decades of totalitarian rule and the armed conflicts of the 1990s have led to a gradual emergence of an independent way of thinking and acting. People prefer to rely on precise work instructions and do their job without attracting too much attention. On the other hand, however, Croatian culture is firmly rooted in the constant pursuit of independence and freedom, so that Croatian employees are likely to be open to innovations in leadership styles that give them more independence.

A strong focus on rules and regulations

Another characteristic of Croatian culture, which goes hand in hand with a strong group orientation, is a strong focus on rules. Rules are valued and therefore adhered to as far as possible. Social standards are highly developed to protect the harmony and well-being of the group.

As a consequence, Croats show a high level of professionalism and reliability in their business dealings with each other. You can rely, for example, on the fact that any contracts concluded will be complied with as far as possible.

Lively communication

Croatia is a high-context culture, i.e. the whole context as well as non-verbal signals are part of communication, while verbal statements are considered less important. Croats thus speak less straightforwardly, but express themselves more diplomatically or, depending on the situation, may just make cautious suggestions. It is therefore very important to pay attention to facial expressions and gestures and also to read between the lines.

Apart from that, Croats like to talk a lot and in a very expressive way. It is not considered impolite to interrupt each other. Everyone should have the opportunity to be heard. Things are discussed animatedly, sometimes even loudly, because this is the only way to reach consensus. Conflicts are also settled by ultimately trying, after an emotional discussion, to reach a compromise that everyone can work with. In general, Croats will express their opinion, but always in a rather diplomatic way so as not to offend their counterparts as that would go against their relationship and group orientation.

However, to be too reserved in conversations or discussions will not necessarily be appreciated by Croats, but rather interpreted as a lack of self-confidence or disinterest.

Criticism will quickly cause damage

Direct criticism, which from a Croatian point of view ultimately only causes damage and ruins mutual respect, which is so important in business life, is just as bad. Criticism may be expressed, but more in the form of a positively formulated proposal or advice. Another good way to voice criticism indirectly is to ask politely how things stand or whether the other person also thinks that something is not going so well. Other than that, many Croats are very proud and will not be willing to accept criticism.

Positive attitude during negotiations

It is also true for important negotiations that a harmonious atmosphere of trust should always be maintained with a view to reaching a final agreement. As a result, negotiations in Croatia tend to be informal and friendly. Both sides should primarily aim for a win-win situation. Anything less would strain the personal relationship and consequently have a negative impact on any long-term business plans.

Watch out for non-verbal misunderstandings!

Although Croats communicate in a spirited manner, they avoid touching each other while talking. A distance of approximately an arm’s length is kept between conversation partners. Croats will gesticulate animatedly – particularly in the south of the country – but not too close to each other.

It can be difficult to recognize whether Croats are being serious or not; they are masters of dark humor and tend to keep a poker face when making these jokes. Foreigners often miss the joke.

Caution should also be exercised when using hand gestures for numbers! Stretching up your thumb, index finger and middle finger, for example for the number three, corresponds to the Serbian three-finger greeting, also called the Serbian oath, and is perceived by Croats as a gross insult. Holding up the index and middle fingers, as with the Victory sign, is again the gesture of the Croatian nationalists. It is best not to use hand gestures to reproduce numbers.

Flexibility and precision

Croats work in a flexible and highly professional way. People continuously adapt to the ever changing conditions. It all depends on the situation. And even if the situation is difficult, Croats will show a great deal of perseverance in order to achieve results by the deadline. The Croatian motto is “Relax, we still have time.” People remain calm and pragmatic, but do not compromise on quality, precision or goal achievement.

However, Croats are often not too keen on organization, planning and structure, as these factors hinder the Croatian’s flexibility and talent for improvisation. How can you plan so far into the future and organize everything exactly when things change every day?

For this reason, you shouldn’t push your Croatian project partners too hard with precise schedules, irrevocable deadlines and detailed process flows, but rather trust that they will have everything under control in the end.

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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