Lithuanians are formal but friendly, and their culture has been defined by family and Catholicism for centuries.
Lithuanian people are, in my experience as both a legal translation professional and a tourist, very warm and friendly, but very direct and honest people who expect directness and honesty in return. They are suspicious of “glib” and the superficial politeness that many Westerners engage in, with small talk and insincere platitudes.
You actually don’t realise how much of your daily interactions are completely insincere until you hang out with a few Lithuanians and suffer their pitying looks when you first try to engage them in a typically modern, Western way. They’d much prefer a firm handshake while you look them in the eye, a respectful use of their honourifics, and honest answers to even the seemingly polite inquiries about your health and your day. Lithuanians, in other words, are very down-to-earth people.
Ethnically and Religiously Unified
Lithuania is populated mainly with ethnic Lithuanians, who make up about 80% of the country. Russians (9%) and Polish (7%) make up much of the rest, with some smatterings of Belarusians and other ethnicities throughout. You wouldn’t know it from being in Lithuania, however, as most of these cultures have been absorbed over the years, although you’ll hear a bit of Russian and Polish being spoken.
The country is also almost completely Roman Catholic. The Church played a central role in holding Lithuanian culture and identity together during the Soviet era, when Russia made real efforts to stamp out the cultures and ethnic identities of the countries it ruled. As a result, the Church took on a larger role in Lithuanian life than in some other countries, and to this day has an outsize influence on daily life. It’s safe to say the family and the Church are the twin centres of Lithuanian life, even in this modern world.
Interacting in Lithuania
As I said, Lithuanians tend to prefer unadorned speech – but they do appreciate and often require formality. It’s probably best to start off formal and let them tell you when it’s okay to relax and be a bit more loose. If you’re in Lithuania on business, don’t be surprised if after a day of sweating it out under the formal, reserved stares of your contacts you’re invited to their homes for a meal – Lithuanians don’t believe in separating business from personal relationships the way we do in the West, and sharing a meal is a great honour. I would describe table manners as “continental,” but if you don’t really know what that means don’t worry – just be on your best behaviour and you’ll be fine.
Overall, you’ll find Lithuania to be a friendly if somewhat reserved country. People are welcoming and take their responsibilities as hosts very seriously, but you can also meet someone for lunch and speak very little, and yet no one thinks it odd. After the constant chatter of my Western social life, it can be a relief, to be honest!
Image courtesy s1.zetaboards.com