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 below, 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 a 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.

Who pays?

The regular (though perhaps not the most common) situation in Lithuania is that a person pays for himself/herself for the expenses he/she had during a meeting (mainly food). When some bill is being paid, everyone should at least insist on pay his/her own share one time ("his own share" may be either his own actual expenses that day, or at least, for convenience, the total price divided by the number of people, when every person's share is roughly similar).

There are, however, exceptions, where a person may or should also insist on paying for others. In many of these situations it is also polite to turn down the suggestion first time at least, and in some cases turn down altogether. Such exceptions are:

*A host (or "inviter") often offers to pay for the guests, at least for the expenses they incur while being together (except for personal purchases of the "visitor").

*A richer person (especially a relative) often offers to pay for poorer persons. This regularly conflicts with the "host pays" rule when a poorer relative hosts richer relatives, leading to arguments where each side insists to pay. Eventually, if no side retreats after a couple of exchanges, each side pays for its own expenses or (more likely) one side pays the bill with the other side promising to pay the whole bill the next time (although the next time the same argument is likely to begin again).

*A man often offers to pay for the female. However, if the female accepts this, the man is likely to believe this was a date.

*Relatives and friends never expect payment for services they provided when these services are labor-intensive but have little direct costs. One exception may be when such services are their personal business but even then a payment is often not expected: e.g. if somebody owns a hotel, he will most likely allow his relatives and friends to stay for free. And even if he/she doesn't do business in that field, Lithuanians are very likely to offer such services, with invites to stay overnight, offers to drive someone somewhere, making somebody a meal being more common in Lithuania than in the West. This likely dates to the Soviet occupation, when many services were scarce or extremely low in quality (e.g. hotels, restaurants, public transport) so people were "relying on each other's help". Offering to pay for such services (at least when the person providing them has no regular business in that field) would be seen as weird. However, when there are larger direct costs involved (e.g. fuel when somebody drives another person to another city), it is polite to suggest to cover one's share of these costs (or the entire costs in situations where e.g. the service-provider drove somewhere solely for the benefit of the service-receiver).

*If one has received any "free services" (e.g. home food, accommodation, free tour) it is polite for him/her to offer to pay for the service-provider somewhere, e.g. for a meal during a meeting. It is even better to eventually return the favor by providing other similar-value free services, effectively making this a barter (e.g. if one stays at somebody's home, he/she is expected to invite that somebody to one's own home). It is even common for relatives and friends to effectively have elaborate trust-based unspoken open-ended exchanges of services this way (e.g. a lawyer's office may indefinitely provide free legal services for the doctor, while the doctor's clinic may provide free medical services when the lawyer needs).

In any case, it is impolite to overuse somebody's generosity. For example, it is not polite for the guest to order expensive meals in a restaurant when the host pays, especially when the host is not that rich and couldn't regularly eat such meals himself/herself (in Lithuania, prices and salaries are lower than in the West, therefore even when something may seem cheap for a Westerner, it may seem expensive to a Lithuanian).

It is also not polite to frequently or massively use somebody's favors when you don't want or couldn't do any favors of similar type or at least of similar "market value" to that person yourself. In such cases, it is polite to turn down the favors offered even when you'd want to use them.

It is never polite to request or visibly expect another person to pay for your share of the bill (unless this would have been agreed upon before).

If somebody begins to "freeload" (allowing/asking others to pay for him/her without providing anything in return, when, in his/her position, he/she should pay for himself/herself), rarely would anyone tell him/her to stop directly. However, the generosity offered to him/her would lower over the time and, when these are family or friend relations, there may be gossip behind the "offender's" back.

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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