Croatian Desserts cookbook

50 step-by-step recipes, 224 pages, 500 images & expert baking tips 

By Andrea Pisac - 29 Comments - September 26, 2014

Are you a shy person?

I am. Mingling with people at social events used to make my palms sweat. I’d feel isolated, wondering what on Earth was wrong with me.

Croatian Small Talk | Zagreb Honestly

Then I moved to London. From the first interaction I had at my University I felt a sudden change.

People asked me questions, strangers introduced me to more strangers – all of them smiling and interested in what life was like where I came from.

‘You’re a published writer, how amazing’ was the line I enjoyed most.

I was in heaven. There was nothing wrong with me after all.

Small talk – big gain

Small talk is THE most important element of social life. Everywhere you go, you’ll notice that chatting is the glue that keeps people together. It reflects their cultural values, it reproduces their social norms and it gives their participants a sense of shared reality.

Here’s the secret.

If you know how to engage in everyday small talk, you feel accepted. You belong.

What small talk does for you might be the same worldwide, but how small talk is done varies a great deal.

Why did I feel out of place at Croatian social events? Because I wasn’t aware of the rules of Croatian small talk. Not until I experienced small talk in London. This taught me that every culture ‘talks’ differently. And that to really become part of a place, I should learn the ropes of small talk.

You can do the same, and without speaking the language.

Croatian small talk: the most valuable asset for a foreign traveller (and shy locals)

As a foreign traveller in Croatia, you probably want to connect with local people. Many tourists feel sad for not being able to make friends in Zagreb. Time might be too short and my guess is you’re not YET proficient in Croatian small talk.

Keep reading and I’ll teach you the basics.

The structure of storytelling

Think of small talk as a story. There’s the plot, the characters, the general mood and the main message. I’ll walk you through them – backwards.

1. Croatian small talk allows people to bond

Croats will sit for hours in a coffee shop and talk about different things with no particular conclusion. They’re not necessarily sharing important information and they’re certainly not solving a problem. In fact, they might go over the same old stuff for the hundredth of time.

The main message of every story they say to each other is this: we’re all in this together.

This is why it’s crucial you tune into the story’s mood. So you’re in this together as well.

2. Pick any topic you like, the overwhelming mood in Croatian small talk is complaining.

If you’re coming from the Protestant background, your solution-oriented mind will go into overdrive. All you’ll hear is problems, problems, problems… And all you’ll want to do is offer solutions, solutions, solutions…

Please DON’T! Complaining mood is a culturally specific mode of expression – not a call for action.

Croats use complaining merely to cover everyday topics.

From personal ‘my husband came late last night’, to environmental ‘look what they’re doing to our coast’ to universal ‘life sucks and there’s nothing we can do about it’.

When you hear your new Croatian friend complain, offering practical help might confuse them or send them into a defence mode. You stop belonging then.

Instead, you should feel happy for being offered a way in. Just be a careful listener, nod and offer similar complaints from your own life.

3. Every story has a hero and a villain

A hero is not always a brave winner nor is a villain always a jerk. Literary studies show that some cultures feel more comfortable identifying with winners and some with victims.

Croatian small talk abounds with heroes who are victimised in more than one way. Which, of course, doesn’t stop them from being utterly likeable.

You’ll hear these common figures of victimisation:

NATURE VS NURTURE
Croats think their country is the most beautiful in the world. Croatia is also the cradle of worlds’ top geniuses. Think of sportsmen like Goran Ivanišević and Dražen Petrović, or scientists like Nikola Tesla BUT…

Nothing in Croatia works because of the people who run it. Infrastructure is shit, unemployment is through the roof, there’s no work ethics, corruption is everywhere.

So all the natural beauty will either go undiscovered or get ruined. Great talents and educated minds will leave Croatia and find prosperity abroad.

Don’t try to contradict the storyteller, offer a similar shitty story from your country.

IT’S EASY FOR THEM
If you mention an isolated example of something actually going right in Croatia (a natural talent succeeding in spite of shitty conditions), you’ll probably hear another type of complaint. It goes like this:

‘It’s easy for them, they…’ a) have political connections; b) have a rich uncle in America… c) don’t have to raise 3 children.

The excuses are countless and can be very imaginative. What the storyteller wants is to remain in the victim role.

Don’t try to fix them, just bond with them.

YOU’RE SO HORRIBLE BUT WE LOVE YOU ANYWAY
Gossip is a building block of the Croatian small talk. It might shock you to hear personal stories about someone you don’t know. Who sleeps with whom (jerk!), how much someone earns (bitch!), awful things someone’s mother-in-law said or did (cow!).

You assume your storyteller is talking about their worst enemy. When only moments later, you realise it’s their best friend. Will they gossip about me in the same way, you wonder. They probably will. But don’t fret, really.

Croats gossip most about the people they care about. Or people they envy most. In either case, it’s an expression of love and closeness. So don’t tell them it’s not nice to gossip.

4. The plot of the story is what keeps you engaged

But just like in literature, everyday conversations have trends that change over time. It’s like tapping into the most influential hashtags on Facebook or Twitter.

So how will you know for sure what’s trending in Croatian small talk?

Easy. Let your local storyteller speak first. You’ll soon realise which topics are hot. And one thing you can be sure about: it’s not ‘how we survived the homeland war’.

Nowadays, Croats are concerned either about their personal problems, leisure activities (travel, food, sports) or global economic and political events.

One last thing to keep in mind

Croatian small talk is an answer-lead storytelling. This means that your storyteller will enjoy answering your questions about their country, family or work. If you’re coming from the Anglophone tradition, this will feel like a natural match. Just don’t expect them to reciprocate, or at least not to the same extent.

If by the end of your coffee you’re still asking and not answering questions, don’t assume your new Croatian friend isn’t interested in you. They just small talk in a different way.

Also, don’t be offended if they don’t introduce you to someone who has just joined the conversation. This social skill is not universally taught.

If you lasted 2-3 hours over coffee, or sailed through a party without being left in the corner – congratulations!

You’re an expert in Croatian small talk. And you didn’t even have to learn a single word of the language.

Drop me a line to share some of your own anecdotes!

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    1. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it, Vesna. I wouldn’t quite say we were easy to see throught 🙂 it took me years of living abroad to gt my head round Croatian small talk 🙂

      1. Hello Andrea,

        Your piece is delightful! I have had the same experience and often struggle to explain to non Croatians, as this small talk is often taken literally and misinterpreted.
        Thank you!
        Katija

  1. Bok Andrea,
    I’ll write this in English (could’ve been Croatian).
    I lived in Vienna for 20 years, but coming back to Zagreb didn’t really change anything – Viennese are about the same as we are, complaining and gossiping all the time. We might be a wee bit more into politics, but that’s hardly surprising.
    Actually, just wanted to say I enjoyed your post – it’s highly accurate and entertaining. A lot of my FB friends shared it in the last few days – we’re the slow silver surfers..

    1. Hi Gugi,
      thanks a lot for your comment. I’m pleased the post was entertaining for you and your friends. I can totally agree that certain things I’ve described are not exclusive to Croatia. Maybe the geographical proximity to Vienna makes the two cultures quite similar. Thanks for sharing as well. 🙂

  2. I just loved your post. I lived abroad quite a lot, adore Croatia, but what did I adore if I disliked the small talk? Your blog helped me relax about the topic. Excellent blog!Thank you Andrea

    1. Thanks so much for you comment, Zrinka. It seems that many Croatian people could relate to the post. It is surprising how difficult it is for the locals to find their way around well-established customs. I’m glad you feel more relaxed having read the post and realising you’re not the only one!

      1. My father’s family immigrated to Michigan, US from Croatia. Your article just summed up the way my father talked about everything! My mother was Irish and wouldn’t complain if her leg was cut off. She’d just keep dusting and laughing. After mom died we found that dad’s depressive focus was getting to us. My brother-in-law would write him a list of things to be thankful for and say “we’re going to be positive for the rest of the week”. But each point you’ve pointed out is exactly one of my Dad’s way to express himself. I started reading about Croatia, history and all, after my Dad died at the age of 102! I wish I would have read earlier in life. I would have understood more and not taken so many things to heart!

        1. Mary Ann, thank you for this heartfelt comment – it really touched me to learn that my writing explained some of the ‘mysteries’ of the typical Croatian behaviour. We often judge what we don’t understand and I have done my share of this. Thanks for sharing your story with me.

  3. Now I know where I am going wrong! I will be in Zagreb in a few days and I’ll be sure to sit as long as I can and think of this post 😀

    1. Hi SJ, I’m glad my post offered an insight 🙂 I also get many Croatian people telling me they’ve learned something new!

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this! Great blog — I’ll be back. I arrived here via Frank About Croatia. I write my own blog about my life in Istria. Looking forward to reading more.

    1. Hi Isabel, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It’s great to connect with people who are both insiders and outsiders in Croatia. I think it’s the best perspective to really get to know a place. 🙂

  5. My dear,

    we share one thing in common…I also lived in London, but you beat me for 4 years. Nevertheless….your writing is amassing. Being a local tour guide in Zagreb I thoroughly enjoyed reading your stories. You really get to the point. Funny, refreshing, informative and so true. Well done 🙂
    Rent a local friend in Zagreb – Red umbrella tour by Snježana 😉

  6. Dear Andrea, LOVE your post,glad to find it and you made me understand lot of how ”it is in old country of mine” Great and hvala !!!!!!!

    1. Dear Nada, I’m glad you loved the post. It’s great when a piece of writing can make you understand stuff about your own culture. It used to happen to me all the time when I lived in London 🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

  7. This is so funny to read. I have been married to my Cro for almost 13 years and never understood why he cannot answer to my questions directly. To this date I ended up in an argument since he goes in circles before the answer. Even now he forgets to introduce me to people and since I live in Australia, in most cases I introduce my self and keep chatting. Once the guest leaves…I keep complaining how rude he is for being ignorant. Make sense now…
    Overall I’m so glad to be married to a Cro. ❤

  8. I blew it!
    For a while I got to interact with people from Croatia.
    Reading your insights about Croat small talk and Croatian friends, I really blew a great opportunity.
    I probably seemed so rude to them.
    I earned invites. So I must have done something right.
    But we had a common bond to whinge about.
    I was doing Croatian small talk and didn’t even know it.
    Did we solve the problems of the world? No.
    Did we care that we hadn’t? Nope.
    I should have provided coffee though!

  9. Dearest Andrea,
    Hvala and Tak for your insightful posts!
    I’m an American of Swedish decent, if that matters. I just know my man loves, “Blondies.” A bit off putting to categorize women by hair color, but I forgive him ’cause he has my heart, my soul, my future, in the palm of his hand!
    I met my Croatian love Z. in a parking lot near my house in California mountains of Pine Valley during a group ride with other Harley Davidson motorcycle enthusiasts last April 22nd. We just celebrated our 1st-year anniversary of our first meeting.
    When I first talked with Z. on that group ride he mentioned, over lunch, his Incredible years’ worth of experiences under seige during Croatia’s War for Independence, risking his life daily to get water for his wife and kids (no infrastructure during seige of course) and how he lit a tunnel to local airport to procure goods for town’s survival, etc. etc. Now, how could I Help but fall head over heels?
    Most amazing to me is his gentleness, wicked-good sense of humor and forgiving nature to all walks of humanity, despite rigors of war that he lost his best friend to. ( Z.
    shared with me poweful music video “Don’t Touch My Fields/My Sadness) that encapsulates expat and displaced Croatians during this noxious time in history. Maybe you could share this on your blog? ‘Tis So sad but so telling of resiliency of the Croatians! Are aforementioned characteristics of my Z. intrinsic to the Croatian soul? If so, we certainly need more people of this ilk on our planet!

  10. Loved this! I appreciate your insights and sense of humor. We need these ways of understanding each other, of cultural translation. Wonderful use of the idea of storytelling to unpack styles of communication. Thank you very much!

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