I’ve been living and studying abroad in Hungary for about three months now and there has been something that has really bothered me: the stereotypes about the Hungarian people.
Here are three Hungarian stereotypes and how I’ve found them to be inaccurate.
1. Hungarians are cold and not readily willing to help.
This is one of the most common Hungarian stereotypes about the people, and the one that I’ve found to be the most untrue. People like to act as if the Hungarian people will just stand around and watch you if you’re struggling. This is not what I have found to be the case. On multiple occasions when I have been trying to buy a train ticket and the cashier has not spoken the best of English, I have had a Hungarian in line behind me offer to help translate (the biggest blessing for someone who is stressed out about not being able to communicate effectively). This is something that I don’t think many people in America would even offer to do.
I have a favorite coffee shop here in Budapest (spoiler: it’s Starbucks, but a very specific Starbucks!) and there is one particular Hungarian barista (Dori, which is probably short for the common Hungarian name Dorottya) that is extremely bubbly and nice that I have seen a couple of the times that I’ve been here. Every time I walk in I greet her with “Sia” or “Jó napot kívánok,” and then proceed to order in English. Dori knows I am a student here and that I’m taking a Hungarian class, so she frequently jokes with me and insists that I order in Hungarian so that I can learn better. I explain that I don’t know how to say caramel or iced in Hungarian (as my drink order is an iced caramel macchiato). Most people would accept this answer as small talk and move on with their day, but Dori insists on being extremely helpful and writes down on a piece of paper exactly how to order what I want translated into Hungarian. She says, “I do not want to force you to speak Hungarian if you do not want to” — a fairly common belief that I’ve had other Hungarians tell me, as well — but she gave me the translated piece of paper and said she would remind me about it the next time I came in.
These Hungarian people had no reason to offer me extra help, but they did. There are outliers in every group, but I have found that, as a whole, Hungarians are not cold. They may not be constantly smiling every second, but they are in fact a kind and helpful group of people.
2. Hungarians are standoffish and mistrusting.
This one makes me laugh. Of all the Hungarian stereotypes, I can imagine this being invented by a Southern American, like myself, who trusts everyone as if they were their family.
Most people in the world are not super trusting of people that they don’t know, so I think this stereotype is a little bit comical. It’s possible that people have come to think this as a result of Hungary’s communist history. Hungary was a communist society only 29 years ago, so perhaps the thought is that situation produced a bunch of suspicious people.
However, I was on a Hungarian flight recently and there was a baby (about 1 year old) standing and crawling in the aisle. An elderly Hungarian woman sitting in front of the Hungarian parents of the baby proceeded to pick the child up from the aisle and began to play with it. It was clear that this woman was most definitely not related to the parents of the child. The parents laughed and did not seem concerned at all that a stranger had just picked up and started cuddling their child.
Later, the baby crawled over to me and, as someone was trying to get by in the aisle, I picked the baby up out of the way. The mother was sitting right across the aisle from me and just smiled and laughed as her baby happily sat with me. She even took a picture of me and the baby! This whole experience was so unusual to me because it would never happen in the United States. People don’t just let strangers hold their babies, but from my experience, these Hungarian people were being completely social and trusting with their most precious thing. Now this is not to say that you can go around Hungary picking up babies and no one is going to mind, but it’s just an example that I experienced that shows how most of the time this mistrustful stereotype is exaggerated and incorrect.
3. Hungarians don’t speak English.
Ahhhh, yes. In terms of Hungarian stereotypes, this is definitely a result of old Hungary. In comparison to more touristy countries and cities, Hungary and Budapest have traditionally been behind the curve in learning English (not that they have any obligation to). But when I arrived in Budapest, I came in expecting absolutely no one to speak English based on what I’d read online. This of course turned out to be an exaggerated opinion and not the overall case.
From my experience, the young adults of Budapest all speak English, as it became mandatory for them to learn it starting in elementary school. The people living in Budapest speak at least basic English and, if they don’t speak it, then they at least understand some of it (kind of where I’m at with the Hungarian now). When you leave the city you might start to find the spoken English language becoming a little less frequent — but if a Hungarian does not speak English, they will still do everything they can to understand you.
Overall, Hungary and its people are wonderful. They’ve been through a lot of unfortunate history which has attributed to the creation and perpetuation of Hungarian stereotypes, but as a whole, they are some of my favorite people in the world.