interview by Dimana Trankova; photography by Ivan Stoimenov

Ever struggled with Bulgarian habit of "trying to sit in your lap"? Professor Juliana Roth offers an explanation

Professor Juliana Roth.jpg

Juliana Roth has spent most of her life outside her native Bulgaria, yet she has never lost her connection to the joys and heartaches of this country. She is professor of Intercultural Communication at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, where she is one of the founders of the new discipline that promotes the idea of mutual understanding between cultures in the context of migration and globalisation. She feels lucky to have had the opportunity to tap into, for her academic work, her personal experiences in Germany, the United States and all the other places her professional and family life have taken her to. Outside the academic world, she is well known for her expertise as an educator, trainer and consultant in the areas of business, adult education and multicultural politics.

An opinionated and spirited person, Juliana is simultaneously the ideal and the nightmare of your average hack. An experienced interviewer herself, she is quick to avoid clichés in both questions and answers, and conversation with her is a multilevel interaction, an improvisation, and not a pre-determined Q&A game. And one thing is certain ‒ Juliana does not like to generalise.

"Giving cultural advice is, at present, very much in fashion," she says when asked for some general tips on life in Bulgaria. "Tourists and the international workforce alike appreciate compressed information about the intercultural etiquette of the countries they visit or work in." Very popular are 'culture guides' with Do's and Don'ts for almost any country on earth.

How helpful are they? "Anthropologists are usually critical of attempts to generate cultural knowledge by handing out fragmented facts and stereotyped features; consequently they shun the 'cookie cutter' technique popular with travel guides and tourist brochures.

"Practitioners insist less on the fundamental. They claim that culture guide books can be helpful if used appropriately: if we keep in mind that they represent only a very small portion of the broad picture of any human culture and describe individuals as firmly confined within the realms of their cultures. In reality, individuals have a choice. They might conform to the rules of their culture, but might also refrain from them and adjust to their foreign counterpart ‒ depending on the situation, the individuality of the partners, their social roles and their expectations."

However, Roth eagerly shares some cultural features which embody the attitudes Western visitors might encounter during their stay in Bulgaria. "They are meant as tentative orientations and shouldn't preclude you from taking a fresh view of your actual setting and your actual partners," Juliana points out.


Great contrasts

Post-Communist Bulgaria is a country of great contrasts. You will find very upscale modern offices in dilapidated town houses. In urban areas sophisticated glass and steel buildings rise next to run down living quarters. In the streets, fleets of luxurious new cars line up with ancient bangers. The sharp contrasts apply to all areas of everyday life, be it shops or restaurants, schools or kindergartens, dress or accessories. 

Slow service

Hotel and restaurant staff will not be very quick to help you. They might be engaged in a private phone conversation with friends, so you will need to divert their attention to you. The same can happen in shops. Big Western style hotels and expensive shops or restaurants will usually have trained staff who will pay immediate attention to the customer.

Personal space

If you use public transportation you will have to get used to people "sitting in your lap." The Bulgarian personal "bubble" that surrounds the individual and indicates privacy is very small. Individuals stand very close to each other and, especially at rush hour, you might feel extremely challenged by the bodily contact, odours and breaths you will be exposed to. You will encounter this specific handling of personal space virtually everywhere – in meetings, queues, taxis and so on. 

Cheating foreigners

If you use taxis you will need to pay serious attention to the meter. Once a taxi driver realises you are a foreigner – because you do not speak the language and you dress or behave differently – they feel free to charge you whatever they like. The same short trip in town can cost a Bulgarian four leva and you 40 euros.

Wild driving

You might decide to rent a car. When you get on the road, do not expect drivers to yield to you or be tolerant. Overtaking can happen on both sides, so keep a sharp lookout. In towns, pedestrians cross the street anywhere, not just at proper crossings. Road signs are scarce and it is easy to get lost once you leave the main road. 

Beat around the bush

Professionals call this attitude "preference for indirect communication." Bulgarians favour talking "around the corner" and loading their messages with implications and hidden meanings. Verbal statements disclose the actual "truth" only partially – their aim is rather to divert attention away from topics of actual importance. Individuals who talk straight or take explicit information at face value are considered naive or foolish.

You will recognise this approach to communication when you ask clear questions like "Are we going to meet X tomorrow?" and receive hesitant answers like "Probably yes, but we will need to call in the morning." This means that your partners do not want to tell you straight out that the meeting with X is not going to take place.


Bulgarians believe that they can get the better of any situation. A straightforward approach is not obligatory and is, in fact, not highly favoured. Finding the most cunning "way around" is considered an art and no time and resources are spared when it comes to seeking ways to achieve the desired goal. Handling the law and legal regulations "in a creative way" happens often and, as the Bulgarian proverb says, "A law is like a lonesome pole in the field; you know where it stands, so you know how to circumvent it". 


Yes and no

Not a single guide to Bulgaria omits the most popular aspect of Bulgarian non verbal language: nodding your head means "no" and shaking it "yes". The movements are not exactly the same as those commonly used in Europe, but to anyone who encounters them unprepared they can turn the world upside down. What guidebooks usually do not mention is that in settings where Bulgarians communicate frequently with foreigners they might adjust and nod or shake their head the Western way, when talking to you, and then turn around to the next client and revert to the Bulgarian nods and shakes. This double coding often produces real irritations and emotional insecurity. So, when a Bulgarian speaks to you, do not constantly nod because that means "No, no, no."


People do not smile a lot in public, and so service personnel – waiters, receptionists, sales people and so on – often come across as sullen and unfriendly. The bottom line is the personal relationship: an open and friendly face is for friends and relatives, the frozen one is for those "who do not belong." Foreigners automatically fall into the second group. If you do smile at people they will think you are either laughing at them or there is something wrong with you.

Eye contact

Looking people in the eye is avoided in Bulgarian culture. There is no sensible explanation for this, but the rule holds like clockwork. Avoiding eye contact is interpreted as polite behaviour; looking someone in the eye usually mean disobedience and disrespect, and between men and women has sexual connotations.


The Bulgarian handshake protocol is very complex. It distinguishes between males and females, and between hierarchies, as well as between public and private. Males shake hands in formal business situations, and especially in interactions ruled by hierarchy. They do this less with friends and in private settings. Females shake hands less frequently. In very formal public situations they behave similar to males, but outside this there is a strong tendency to avoid handshakes, especially between males and females. Also unusual is a handshake between a female boss and a female subordinate. Shaking hands with female friends is unthinkable. As a simple generalised guideline, a formal environment demands more handshaking and less gender differentiation, while an informal one employs fewer handshakes and a stronger gender differentiation. 


1. Treat them as knowledgeable and competent.

2. Treat them as equals and acknowledge their "Europeanness". They belong to Europe, not to Turkey.

3. Listen patiently to them, even if they never come to the point.

4. Refrain from making judgements and giving general advice on "how to do things better", "how to fight corruption" and so on.

5. When invited to social events, engage with those you meet, show an interest in their family, town and country. Never ask questions about the workplace. Never touch on Bulgarian politics.

6. Be prepared to answer questions about your private life, including family, friends or children.


Points 4, 5 and 6 from the previous page apply here too. In addition to that:

1. Inviting foreigners for dinner or to a party at one's home is a very big deal for Bulgarian hosts. Inquire about your host or host family before you visit them and bring a present. It does not have to be a very big one; in most cases flowers for the hostess and a bottle of whiskey for the host will suffice. If there are children you will have to get something for them too, usually sweets or chocolates. 

2. You will most probably be the guest of honour and your hosts will pay special attention to you. You will be offered more food and drink than you can possibly consume, and it will offend your hosts if you decline it. It is up to you how you contrive to balance your well being and the excessive helpings of food and drink. An open "no" in such situations often only results in stronger pressure to comply with the etiquette. 

3. Never criticise anything Bulgarian, especially medieval Bulgarian history, and keep a low profile on political and social issues.


1. Say that they do not belong to Europe and are lagging behind in their development.

2. Talk to Bulgarian men about the state of Bulgarian football and ask about the reasons for the poor showing in the last few years.

3. Discuss the relationship of the majority population to the Gypsy and Turkish minorities.

A bonus: Ask if the prime minister speaks any foreign languages.


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