In general Hungarians – and people from Budapest in particular – are not uninhibited like the extroverted Romanians or sentimental Slavs who laugh or cry at the drop of a hat (or drink). They are reserved, somewhat formal people.
Forget the impassioned, devil-maycare, Gypsy-fiddling stereotype – it doesn’t exist and probably never did. The national anthem calls Hungarians "a people torn by fate" and the overall mood is one of honfibú (literally "patriotic sorrow", but really a penchant for the blues with a sufficient amount of hope to keep most people going). This mood certainly predates what Hungarians call "az átkos 40 év" (the accursed 40 years) of communism.
To illustrate what she saw as the "dark streak in the Hungarian temperament", the late US foreign correspondent Flora Lewis recounted a story in Europe: A Tapestry of Nations that was the talk of Europe in the early 1930s. "It was said," she wrote, "that a song called “Gloomy Sunday ” so deeply moved otherwise normal people in Budapest that whenever it was played, they would rush to commit suicide by jumping off a Danube bridge." The song has been covered in English by many artists, including Billie Holiday, Sinéad O’Connor and Björk, and is the subject of German film director Rolf Schübel’s eponymous romantic drama.
Hungarians are almost always extremely polite in social interaction, and the language can be very courtly – even when doing business with the butcher or having your hair cut.
The standard greeting for a man to a woman (or youngsters to their elders, regardless of the sex) is Csókolom ("I kiss it" – "it" being the hand, of course).
People of all ages – even close friends – shake hands profusely when meeting up.
But while all this gentility certainly oils the wheels that turn a sometimes difficult society, it can be used to keep "outsiders" (foreigners and other Hungarians) at a distance. Perhaps as an extension of this desire to keep everything running as smoothly as possible, Hungarians are always extremely helpful in an emergency – be it an accident, a pick-pocketing or simply helping someone who’s lost their way.
Like Spaniards, Poles and many other people with a Catholic background, Hungarians celebrate névnap ("name days") rather than (or as well as) birthdays. Name days are usually the Catholic feast day of their patron saint, but less holy names have a date too. Most calendars in Hungary list them, and it’s traditional for men to give women – colleagues, classmates and neighbours as well as spouses and family members – at least a single blossom. See an interesting post about names used in Hungary here.
The gay and (less so) lesbian communities are quite active in Budapest but keep a relatively low profile compared with Western European capitals. Both groups can enter into domestic partnerships in Hungary, but such arrangements carry very few legal rights. The government is considering introducing partnership legislation similar to that of the UK. By and large Hungarians tend to meet their friends and entertain outside at cafés and restaurants.
If you are invited to a Hungarian home, bring a bunch of flowers (available in profusion all year and very inexpensive) or a bottle of good local wine. You can talk about anything under the sun – from religion and politics to whether the Hungarian language really is more difficult than Japanese and Arabic – but money is a touchy subject. Traditionally, the discussion of wealth – or even wearing flashy jewellery and clothing – was considered to be gauche in Hungary. Do not expect (or ask for) a tour of the house or apartment; that is just not done in Hungary.
Although it’s almost impossible to calculate (with the "black economy" being so wide spread and important), the average monthly salary in Hungary nowadays 246,000/157,000Ft gross/net (or €780/498). The minimum wage is currently set at gross. 105,000Ft (€333) per month, depending on educational achievement.
Hungarians as a whole are extremely fond of animals and Budapest has scores of állat-, díszhal bolt, pet shops selling everything from puppies and hamsters to tropical fish. Budapesters are especially fond of dogs (you can’t miss breeds indigenous to Hungary – the moplike puli herding dog, the sleek vizsla or the giant white komondor sheepdog) – and people of all ages go gaga over a particularly friendly or attractive one.
Hungarians let down their hair in warm weather, and you’ll see more public displays of affection on the streets than perhaps anywhere else in the world. It’s all very romantic, but beware: in the remoter corners of Budapest’s parks and on Margaret Island you may stumble upon more passionate displays.