Seven Cultural Differences in Bosnia-Herzegovina

by Katie Wells

Bosnia-Herzegovina is both geographically and culturally distant from the United States. So, as one would expect, there are quite a few prominent differences that may trip up any unsuspecting newcomers planning on studying abroad in Bosnia-Herzegovina. To help prepare all you newbies, here are a few of the most interesting cultural differences between this European country and good ol' America:

Woman wearing traditional Bosnian dress and drinking Bosnian coffee

Wearing traditional Bosnian Dress with a Bosnian Coffe - Photo by Katie Wells

1. Coffee Life 

In America, going out for coffee is a quick and easy task. Maybe you’ll go on a coffee date and order a caramel macchiato and your date will get milk and sugar with coffee flavoring. But typically getting coffee in the United States is run in, order, and rush out to other tasks on your to do list for the day. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, this is not the case. Walking down any street in Bosnia, you will find multiple cafes lined up beside each other, all filled with people. When Bosnians feel like coffee, they don’t care where they stop; though they may have a favorite place or a favorite drink, it isn’t always a priority.

Going for coffee is social time for Bosnians, and you’ll rarely see a person sitting by themselves in a cafe. Bosnians can sit for hours with their friends, talking about the news, daily gossip, or whatever information passed their ears that week, with a bosanska kafa situated in front of them. 

When Americans first arrive in Bosnia, it may be a bit of a struggle adjusting to sitting down for coffee for so long, but soon they’ll find themselves boasting the amount of hours they’ve sat in those cafe chairs, conversing or working on small projects. Coffee in Bosnia is nearly sacred and coffee time is never skipped. It’s a wonderful part of Bosnian life that makes you truly come to appreciate the country and culture, as well as just sit down and enjoy the company around you. 

2. Public Transportation 

Public transportation wouldn’t seem like an obvious cultural difference to the naked eye. There are buses, trams, and trolleys, just like many American cities, however, within this transportation system lies the true cultural differences. In America, it’s all about personal space; don’t touch anyone else, keep your belongings with you at all times, and just mind your own business. In some ways, Bosnia is quite similar in that sense. However, taking public transportation can also mean long conversations with an old man who visited America when he was younger or a woman letting you place your shopping bags on her lap while you stand. 

When someone takes public transportation in Bosnia, especially at busy hours like when school and work get out, there is no such thing as personal space. Bodies are pressed against the windows of transport vehicles and windows are opened to give people air, as the driver allows passengers to squeeze on and off. The major public transportation company (GRAS) checks for tickets, but more often than not people just jump on and off without a ticket. Many people do not own cars in Bosnia, so public transportation is the key way to get around the city for most. 

Train in Bosnia and Herzegovina

3. Sickness 

Being sick in Bosnia is a completely new experience. Instead of simply taking an ibuprofen and drinking tea, there is a whole long list of remedies to cure your illness, not to mention a long list of causes. You leave the window open, you’ll catch the draft. Sitting on concrete as a woman is a big no-no as it’ll freeze your ovaries and you won’t be able to have children. Having pains while you’re pregnant? Cut up onions and place them on your back. Maybe you caught a little cold because you forgot to wear socks, so you should make tea and utilize the tea bags by placing them on your eyes. You might have a bit of a headache due to your kidneys being infected from not wearing an undershirt. Bosnian mothers will baby you until you are sure you are better, but take every precaution to make sure your health stays at the top of its game. 

4. Gender Roles 

Bosnia is incredibly traditional when it comes to gender roles. In American society, feminism is a large movement, trying to prove that women belong in certain roles the same as men. While women work in many different fields in Bosnia, in home life, it’s quite separated. The woman of the house is the one who cooks and cleans, even if she holds a steady job, while the man works on outdoor chores or simply lays on the couch watching sports when he isn’t working. For newer generations, the roles are changing for the most part; however, families that were getting started during the Bosnian War remain more traditional and handfuls of new generation families still cling to old traditions. Gender roles in sports are quite segregated.

There are plenty of sports open to males, such as the nation’s most popular sport soccer, and even swimming and skating too. But joining sports for women is much more difficult and there is less to choose from. In fact, a woman simply going to a fitness center is seen as strange and will surely provoke odd looks. With time it is becoming more common to see both genders participating in sports, but for now the roles remain overall traditional in most respects. 

5. Stray Animals 

After the Bosnian War, homes were destroyed and left in disarray and pets were included in the chaotic mess that was left standing. Since then stray dogs and cats can be found on every street, often scrounging through garbage cans for food. Some Bosnians set out food for stray animals, such as scraps from their meals or specifically bought cans of tuna for the kittens living underneath garbage barrels outside their back door. Due to the fact that many of the animals were previously owned and raised as pets, they are often kind and don’t bother strangers without being provoked. If you decide to pet the dogs or cats, just be sure to wash your hands afterwards; you’ll notice that almost any animal seems to be in search of some love!

Typically, Bosnians are more aggressive towards animals, shooing them away or kicking them if they get too close. Bosnian woman sometimes chase them away with brooms and men often just hit the dogs if they are being bothersome. Be extra aware of dogs in the winter when food is hard to come by, but the majority of the time stray animals remain kind and apathetic. 

Mostar city in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina

6. Eating 

Eating in Bosnia-Herzegovina is a treat. Being a big eater is something you will never have to be ashamed of, instead you will begin to take pride in it. If you eat everything you are served when visiting someone’s home, the host will automatically serve you more food, believing you are still hungry. To avoid this, leave a bite or two on your plate, because if you say “Nisam gladna!” (the feminine translation of “I’m not hungry”) they simply won’t believe it. Every social event contains food, whether it be a traditional dish, such as burek, cevapi, musaka, or pita, or just desserts. 

Coffee joins this gathering rule as well. Always remember: coffee and food will be served to you, regardless of if you are thirsty or hungry. 

7. Walking 

Although public transportation is an easy and attainable option to get around, more often than not, people walk. Sometimes public transportation can be unreliable, if GRAS goes on strike or the transport is merely off schedule, walking is the number one way to be sure you can get from one place to another on time. Many people wear flat shoes to walk on cobble stones and uneven pavement, however there are the few women who have mastered wearing heels down in Old Town, which is nothing but uneven walkways. Walking is also the perfect way to see the best places in Bosnia too. All the cities have hidden treasures, tucked away down alleyways or up a hill, that can only be reached by foot. 

As an American, these things can be a difficult thing to get used to, but getting the chance to explore Bosnia-Herzegovina is always worth the extra effort!