Culture and History
September 8, 2023
Have you ever accidentally committed a social faux-pas when travelling abroad? It’s easy to do, as all cultures have unique social etiquette and preferred ways of interacting. When visiting a country, it is helpful to understand the social expectations to enable smooth communication. Here we explain aspects of the social culture of Ukraine to enable you to enjoy the friendships you make and avoid awkward moments.
When greeting a person, warmth is usually conveyed by a strong handshake accompanied by direct eye contact. Be sure to remove your gloves before shaking hands, as this conveys sincerity.
You’ll know when you’ve been adopted: close female friends and family kiss each other on the cheek three times, starting with the left cheek. Close male friends hug and pat each other on the back.
There are also gestures to avoid in social interaction. Waving at someone with your finger should be reserved for beckoning a child or a pet. Making a fist with your thumb in between your middle and index finger is extremely rude!
Ukrainians prioritise people and conversation and therefore have a relaxed approach to time, but are very punctual. Ukrainians like to follow up on invitations to meet soon, often the same or following day. If you aren’t free to meet that soon, explain why, as otherwise it may appear that you’re not keen to pursue the friendship.
Ukrainians love to give and receive gifts when visiting each other, on birthdays or significant life events and at the New Year. When a work colleague has a birthday, co-workers often club together to buy a gift. Homemade food and alcoholic drinks are also enjoyed together after work to celebrate the occasion. However, 40th birthdays are not celebrated in Ukraine as 40 is considered an unlucky number.
If you are giving flowers, it’s best to ensure that the number of flowers in the bouquet is an odd number (e.g. 5, 7, 9), as even numbers are reserved for funerals. Likewise, avoid giving yellow flowers (yellow is associated with separation and loss). White flowers are often given to girls, and red flowers symbolise love. Ukrainians exchange gifts on New Year’s Eve as well as Christmas Day.
Do bear in mind that Ukrainians consider it polite to refuse an offer the first time, so be prepared to offer several times to show your sincerity. Likewise, if you politely refuse, expect the offer to be repeated several times!
When eating at a restaurant, tipping is voluntary, with an average tip of between 5 and 10% of the bill. At some restaurants, this may be included in the total bill. It is unusual to split the bill evenly; usually, each person pays separately for their order, or the person who invited people may pay for the total bill.
Ukrainians are generous and thoughtful hosts, who reserve their best food, drink and tableware for guests. Although guests are not generally asked to bring food or drink when visiting, it is considered polite to bring a bottle of alcohol or a cake to express your gratitude. Alcohol is usually a more appropriate gift for men, and flowers for women. If there are children in the household, sweet things are welcome! It’s also good manners to show your appreciation by offering to help your host, particularly with clearing up after a meal.
When entering the house, it is the custom to remove shoes; you may be offered slippers when you arrive or you can walk barefoot.
After greetings, guests are usually taken straight to the table for dinner. When eating together, Ukrainians prefer to sit together at a table rather than sitting on the floor, standing or walking around in buffet style. A Ukrainian dinner often consists of several courses, so remember to keep enough room for the next course! The meal often begins with salads, followed by meat, fish, or nhpotato dishes, before dessert served with tea or coffee. Guests are encouraged to enjoy multiple servings!
Toasting with Horilka shots or wine is an important element of the meal. If you don’t drink alcohol, it is polite to decline on the basis of health. Toasting is an important way of expressing gratitude, good wishes and celebrating events. A common toast is “Budmo!”, which means “Let us be!” (the equivalent of “Cheers!”). The host will decide the order of toasts, which may cover a variety of topics, such as love, good luck and good health. The final toast, which signals that the evening is drawing to a close, is “Na Konya!” (“On the horse!”). Parallel in meaning to “One for the Road”, this is a toast to the journey home, historically undertaken on horseback.