True Lithuania

Lithuanian etiquette: meetings and presents

In order to avoid misunderstandings, a foreigner dealing with Lithuanians should learn Lithuanian etiquette, especially on the time management, gift-giving and conversation topics. While not every Lithuanian will stick to the etiquette described bellow, it is better to adhere to it to be "on the safe side". Also, understanding the Lithuanian behavioral norms helps to better understand what to expect from Lithuanians and why, and what their expectations are.

Lithuanian time management and meeting arrangements

Lithuanians follow their day-time schedules quite rigorously. It is impolite to be late at business meetings or other work-time events. One should call or text in case he/she plans to be late 5 minutes or more. If one arrives before the agreed time however he/she should expect to wait.

Blue-collar help (repairmen, handymen) tend to adhere job schedules less strictly (coming 30 or even 90 minutes late without notifying) even though this may be frowned upon by their clients. If timing is especially important this should be repeated several times when ordering blue-collar services.

In the evenings and weekends, the schedule is a bit more relaxed for everybody. Most leisure events (e.g. theater performances) begin ~15 minutes late in Lithuania. Likewise, it is not inappropriate to be ~15 minutes late when invited to somebody's home after work. Any more than that would also require a polite call or text message, however. Furthermore, arriving up to ~15 minutes before the agreed time is also usually ok - meaning that one should always aim to arrive on time and the +/-15 minutes window is only the "grace period" in case the traveling time is miscalculated.

Save for a few rush hours in Vilnius the traffic in Lithuania is generally quite predictable, so it is not a good excuse for being late. If one doesn't calculate the time needed to drive to destination that is his/her problem.

In case one doesn't plan to show up at all, or plans to show up at a significantly different time, (s)he should inform about that as early as possible, preferably at least a day in advance.

Most Lithuanian parties are open-ended and it is polite for hosts to try persuading guests to stay until morning or sleep over. Guests leave at different hours, and it is polite for the final guests to turn down invitations to stay even longer (unless they are good friends of the host).

In the main cities, meetings should be generally pre-arranged and even good friends do not just "pop up" at somebody's home or office. However, the smaller the town the more likely it is that somebody would stop by without notifying in advance.

Presents and gifts

The main occasions to give presents in Lithuania:
*Birthday. Those invited to a party give presents while co-workers (even if uninvited) may give symbolic gifts (e.g. flowers) during the birthday or the nearest workday. In return, the person whose birthday it is buys meals, drinks, and cakes at the party. The presents may be more expensive during jubilees (30, 40, 50 and such).
*Christmas. In families, everyone gives a present to everyone else (except for kids who just receive, believing it was from Christmas Grandfather, i.e. Santa Claus). "Present exchanges" are common in schools and workplaces whereby everybody is expected to buy a single present of a certain value and select its recipient through a lottery. Some companies buy Christmas presents for all employees as well as business partners (actually distributed before Christmas).
*Wedding. Presents of utility are usually given but increasingly this is replaced by giving an envelope with money inside. Usually, some of the guests are invited to the evening party while others are invited to the ceremony alone; the latter are expected to bring smaller presents.

Generally, the present is decided by the person giving it, there are no present lists. Asking to gift money during major events such as the wedding is, however, acceptable.

Under the Soviet occupation, there were much more "presents", most of which were not symbolic but meant for utility. This "gifting culture" was created by public shortages coupled with privileged access to certain particular goods many people enjoyed (e.g. a TV factory worker may have been able to "appropriate" numerous TV-sets while even getting a single TV-set may have posed a problem to many others). Most of such "presents" were bribes in reality as they used to be given expecting something in return (usually a favor related to recipient's job or goods accessible to him/her).

The remnants of the "Soviet gifting culture" are still entrenched in Lithuania (albeit declining). The following are its remaining instances when either money or useful things are gifted:
*Presents to public healthcare workers given before or after a taxpayer-funded procedure. They are illegal as they lead to preferential treatment of those who give better "presents" as well as extortion-like practices on behalf of some doctors in case a "smaller than usual" present is given. The "present"/bribe is typically money for major procedures and alcohol/sweets for smaller ones.

Adverts against corruption in the Vilnius clinics. The signs, aimed both at doctors and patients and available on many cabinet doors, declare: 'Do you want to show gratitude to the doctor? Please [just] say THANK YOU', 'The best gratitude to your doctor is your smile' and 'I follow the Hippocratic Oath, therefore I avoid patient disinformation and corruption'. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Presents to public school teachers by parents/students. Less frowned upon than presents to doctors but also controversial as they may lead to preferential treatment of some pupils.
*Lauktuvės - presents (not souvenirs) distributed when returning from a foreign country (or by foreigners when they visit Lithuanian friends and relatives). This dates back to Soviet times when the stock at Lithuanian stores used to be pitiful. The few who were lucky enough to go abroad were thus expected to bring something back for their relatives and friends (e.g. clothing or electronics). Right now nearly everything could be bought in Lithuania and such expectations are limited to small towns and older people, or when the person visiting/returning to Lithuania is considerably more affluent.

Tips were not part of the Soviet system and while the tradition has been adopted after independence, it is not universal and limited to restaurant waiters/waitresses.

Conversation topics in Lithuania

Most dialogues in Lithuania take place in the Lithuanian language. But most international conversations are held in either English or Russian (translator into these two languages is usually brought in by those who need translation from any other language).

Business conversations in Lithuania stick to the point and small-talk is minimal unless they are in evening context or not everybody has arrived yet. Silence is rare and one may be left without saying his/her opinion if (s)he would wait until all the others cease talking. Interrupting is thus not entirely unacceptable, though it should be avoided if it's possible to make your point otherwise. While this makes Lithuanians hotter-tempered than northern Europeans, they are colder-tempered than southern Europeans and handshakes are the only acceptable touches in official contexts. Yelling is not acceptable during business conversations or negotiations and doing so will get one a negative image.

A foreigner conversing with Lithuanians always has one additional small-talk topic: his experiences and questions about Lithuania. Being a small nation Lithuanians are unused to their language, history, and customs being widely known. As such, they tend to genuinely admire when a visitor learns Lithuanian words, the taste of cepelinai, their main basketball victories/players, and key historical facts. Mastering the history is also important to avoid inadvertent insults. If you could remember just a single sentence about the Lithuanian history, this should be it: "Lithuanians never were Russians nor Slavs, they were under a brutal Russian yoke".

A foreigner who lives in Lithuania is, however, expected to be fluent in Lithuanian and not criticize the Lithuanian beliefs and way of life. Such protectiveness was forged by past foreign-led regimes whose numerous immigrants/settlers used to deride Lithuanian customs as inferior, more than once threatening to assimilate Lithuania as a whole. While nearly-miraculous subsequent comebacks saved the Lithuanian culture every time, Lithuanians remain wary of another similar peril arising. That said, a foreigner who *does* learn about Lithuanian ways and helps to protect them will earn the same respect for his own ways.

People of Lithuania first and foremost identify themselves by ethnicity. Ethnicity (of you and your forefathers) is another acceptable topic for a small-talk (including racial features, surname origins). Religion, on the other hand, is usually kept private (a habit forged under the Soviet occupation when being religious could have led to persecutions by the regime whereas being irreligious could have earned accusations of collaboration from fellow Lithuanians). Political views and emotionally charged personal issues are avoided as well unless talking to a friend.

Lithuanian jokes ("anecdotes") have very few limits. Many are based on stereotypes: each ethnicity, gender, occupation and even anthropomorphic animals have stereotypes associated with them. These jokes are not meant to insult: everybody understands that they are laughing at stereotypical characters rather than at any real person, even if that real person has the same ethnicity or gender. In many cases, jokes are created by people of the group the jokes target, and Lithuanian ethnicity itself has a fair share of negative stereotypes associated with it in jokes.

Other Lithuanian etiquette norms

See the articles on:
Lithuanian home and public/personal space etiquette
Age and gender-related cultural norms
Personal relations etiquette
Clothing etiquette
Lithuanian daily and annual routine
Lithuanian cuisine
Restaurants in Lithuania (and related etiquette)

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