Work and business culture in Hungary

An article that appeared in HGV is the inspiration for today's post. It was written by Zoltán Novák, a research associate of the Méltányosság Politikaelemző Központ (Equity Center for Political Analysis), and was entitled "Repulsive Symptoms in the Hungarian Work and Business Culture."

Today is the perfect time to tackle this topic because I just finished listening to György Bolgár's talk show (Klub Rádió) which ended with a bang. A big bang. A grandmother of ten, screaming on the top of her lungs, went on and on about all those people who don't appreciate Hungarian culture, who make fun of Hungary's true heritage, who are enamored with other cultures, who want to force English on Hungarian students, and who want to teach all sorts of things about other countries while they are making fun of Hungary's past. Her harangue was not devoid of anti-Semitic remarks. And if that weren't enough, right after her came a man who suggested that since this government has achieved so much in the last three months or so, all newspapers should be supporting it instead of criticizing it. Well, this is the culture or rather the lack of culture that makes dialogue almost impossible in Hungary.

Zoltán Novák begins his article by asking whether a given society's culture can be changed. And should bad traditions be broken? Novák's answer to the second question is an unequivocal yes. Is there a need for change in a direction that is better, more effective, more helpful for the society as a whole? Again, the answer is yes.

Novák points out that in Hungary there is a lot of talk about the ills of political culture–an unwillingness to compromise and the presence of corruption. But this emphasis on political culture gives the false impression that "Hungary is a country of twenty million diligent hands" and that the bad political culture exists entirely independently of Hungarian society. But, as Novák says, "Hungary's political culture was not blown into the Carpathian basin from somewhere outside; it is the true mirror of our present conditions and organically attached to the culture of human relations. The quality of Hungary's political behavior is not worse than the average level of culture."

When it comes to work and business culture the biggest problem is that no healthy competition–either on the personal or the entrepreneurial level–has developed in the last twenty years. Apparently the situation on the individual level is really serious. According to Novák a fair amount of time is being spent "elbowing, backbiting, watching each other, checking on each other, reporting to the boss." This behavior shows a "misunderstanding of the nature of competition." Instead of concentrating on their own achievement Hungarian employees spend their energies discrediting the achievements of others. There are problems with the quality of leadership as well. There are bosses who want to control absolutely everything and those who let anything go. There are very few in between.

As for business culture it is very similar to interpersonal relations within the firm. There is stiff competition among big businesses, but once again the business owners don't concentrate on the effectiveness of their own firm. Instead they do everything in their power to discredit their competitors. Contracts between businesses are sometimes 10-15 pages long, yet it is often impossible to enforce their provisions. Then come the lawyers and the endless court cases.

The situation is no better in the world of small and medium-size businesses, which is especially worrisome given the new government's decision to pour money into this sector. In small and medium-size businesses formulating business strategy is almost unknown, and as a result even firms that are relatively well endowed can come close to bankruptcy in no time. Most of them spend whatever money comes in, and they irresponsibly take up loans. If Novák is right, it is very possible that the new Széchenyi Plan will not bring the desired results.

Novák focuses on the work and business elements of social intercourse, but there are others that in his opinion would need drastic change, such as ethnic intolerance. Some people like to blame the Kádár regime for all this, but the author suspects that "the problem is much more deep-seated." In any case, although they themselves create the atmosphere that surrounds them, it is a well-known fact that Hungarians don't like their own surroundings.

Finally, Novák poses the question: can deep-seated cultural traits be changed? The answer is yes and his examples are Finland, Ireland, and Spain where, according to him, a few decades were enough for "a cultural change that brought in its wake economic prosperity and political consolidation."

Let's hope that Novák is right–that some of the "repulsive symptoms" will eventually disappear and a better culture will emerge.

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Odin's Lost eye
Guest
The Hungarian language is one of the millstones around Hungary’s neck. Beautiful, expressive and melodic it may be it has always isolated the Hungarians from their neighbours. This has produced insularity amongst its speakers within the Republic of Hungary As Sandor Maia and other Hungarian authors have has written ‘the Hungarians are amongst the loneliest people on earth’. By this he meant they could not speak to any other peoples. Professor in your article you quote the story of the grandmother who illustrates this point. This incident shows that the grandmother knew nothing about the peoples who live beyond their borders. She sees foreigners as ogres who wish to steal the clothes from her back, eat little babies etc. I wonder how many Hungarians who escaped to other lands could put the lie to that? The cheerful generosity, care, kindness and compassion shown to those refugees is something which I think out good hostess experienced at first hand. Isolation of a people on purely nationalistic, religious, political or linguistic grounds has caused more than enough carnage, destruction and horror. If you want to know more of the bestiality that blind nationalism and religious bigotry have caused, I would recommend that… Read more »
Frank
Guest
Odin, It is not the language but the culture and the attitude that is the cause of the core of the problem. The language is a mere vehicle/expression for and of your culture. Marai felt that the Hungarians could not communicate( i.e. he is not talking about speaking or the Hungarian language) with other peoples. It is in our genes to be temperamental,this is a reflection of our history and experiences over time. Anyone listening to Liszt’s Rapsodies will go trough a roller coaster of emotions, just like our ups and downs in our past. In the article quoted above,Mr. Novak discusses work and business culture. Time and time again I see comments on this blog complaining about Hungarians. All these deal with symptoms though I have yet to see a comment what the cause(s) is(are). In my humble opinion, the present day Hungarians either grew up under the communist system or were raised by parents born in communist times. And what did you first learn under that system? You had to learn how to lie at an early age for your survival. We learned two Hungarian languages, the official one praising the system and its leaders, and the unofficial… Read more »
John T
Guest
Frank – Its very easy to scapegoat the previous government – I agree with you that the MSZP were useless. But every administration since 1989 has been useless. And if you think the current bunch of clowns offer a ray of hope, then I suspect you’ll be disappointed. Orban believes he represents the elite. But outside of Hungary, he’d be considered distinctly average – I could walk down an High Street in the UK and find 20 people with more talent and ability than Orban or any of his government possess. The same goes for MSZP and LMP – no talent or leaders. And that is the problem – where is the talent required to take Hungary forward sensibly in the world. Sad to say, it probably doesn’t exist. What limited progress that has been made in the country is down to having to adapt to international laws or EU rules – very little positive change has been generated domestically. And while I’d agree with your points about life under Kadar, people have had 21 years to adapt to the wider world. All I see when I visit Hungary is a country where too many people (not all) do the… Read more »
Frank
Guest

John T,
Unfortunately, I have to agree with you. And even more disappointing is my thought that it
will take a couple of generations to turn things around.

Odin's Lost eye
Guest
Frank – It is the old question ‘which came first the chicken or the egg?’ The language isolates the people from their neighbours. Because of this simple ideas, and solutions, cannot easily permeate the main bulk of Hungarian society. Equally foreign ideas cannot spread outwards at the level of ‘hoi poli’. In the Turkish/Hapsburg periods the Hungarian language was the one thing which preserved Hungary. This engendered ‘insularity’ which in its self reinforces its self through the years. Frank you talk of ** “It is in our genes to be temperamental,” **. It is in everyone’s genes to be temperamental. Some peoples however from a number of causes learn ‘self discipline’ which is the antidote to temperament. They also learn empathy in the form of the need to think of others. This can come from their religion, their peer groups, in their schools etc. However iron discipline can be an equally bad and can give rise to even worse results. One of these is the blind acceptance of ‘ideas from above’. You also say ** “Time and time again I see comments on this blog complaining about Hungarians. All these deal with symptoms though I have yet to see a… Read more »
Frank
Guest
Odin, I hate to get personal instead of arguing on an intellectual level. However, based on my review of your past comments on Hungarians in general I came to the conclusion that and they are so outrageously incorrect/demeaning that one almost feels the hatred emanating from your thoughts. What makes an Englishman so bitter? Your inability to learn Hungarian ? Are YOU multilingual? I met Cubans who after a year in Hungary were completely fluent in the language so it is not impossible. As the writer of these blogs said somewhere:..”it does not take high I.Q. to learn languages.” Or is your dismal lack of knowledge of Hungarian history that makes Hungarians dealing with you hostile? Or is it the company that you are keeping; you seem be always referring to comments made by people in kocsma? I don’t even know if these places exist anymore in Budapest. (by the way learn how to spell kocsma) Now, to your comments. Hungarians before the war studied German at school. After the war Russian was mandatory.Now, I believe there is a choice. As a 20 year old, when I escaped from Hungary in 1966 I spoke Russian, German, English( I wrote the… Read more »
John T
Guest
Frank – No doubt Odin will submit his reply in due course, but speaking as an Anglo-Hungarian, when I am critical of Hungarians, it is out of frustration and certainly not hatred. My frustration is that Hungarians should be capable of much better, yet are just drifting along. I visit Hungary at least twice a year. For as long as I remember, people have moaned about how crappy life is and will talk for hours about problems. But thats all they do, talk. Hardly anyone does anything positive to make life better. In England, we also moan, but the difference is that there are far more people who’ll try to make things better. It’s a noticeable contrast. And, we are still pioneers and innovators. This is what is currently lacking in Hungary. As you mentioned Gundel, I think the restaurant sums up the country nicely – it certainly portrays an air of grandeur, but its current “product” overall is tired and lacks passion. As for corrupt politicans, I think it is very true that some members of all parties are corrupt, either at a national or local level. If MSZP politicans are guilty, then fine, they deserve to be punished.… Read more »
Frank
Guest

John,
I used to visit Hungary about twice a year as well eventhough I had no family there anymore since my brother’s passing. But I stopped about 3 years ago. It was truly painful for me to see what was happening.I had enough of what you are describing. I had enough of a society that only complained but made no effort to make any progress.
I now travel all over South America. It feels good because I am emotionally not involved.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

John, Frank: “I had enough of what you are describing. I had enough of a society that only complained but made no effort to make any progress.”
It is very tiresome, I agree. I listen to my cousin’s complaints almost every day. She complains that the street is full of potholes. Then she complains because they are resurfacing the street and there is noise and dust. She complains that nothing happens in the city. It is neglected. But when they fixing up Pécs because of its new status as one of the cultural capitals of Europe she complains about the general upheaval.
Among other things the city is building a modern library building where all the libraries scattered in inappropriate places at the moment will be able to send their holdings.Of course, such a large and modern building cannot be built in the Old Town. She complains that the library will be too far. I asked whether she frequents the library at all. The answer was “no.” Then, what’s the problem? Everything!!!!

Odin's Lost eye
Guest
Frank, You are wrong in your analysis. For me it is pure frustration. I see something which isn’t working, is wrong, dangerous etc. but no one cares. To the Hungarian it is always someone else’s fault, so they do nothing. I know my knowledge of Hungarian history is poor. I am not a historian. The history of a people or nation may well explain how those people/nation arrived where they are now. It does not give clues as to their future, but sometimes it does. If I was 50 odd years younger when I arrived in Hungary and had the same facilities as the Cubans maybe I could also speak fluent Hungarian, but I was not and did not have access to those facilities. I am retired, a pensioner and live in the boondocks. I had and still have a DIY Hungarian course. Whenever I reached for it and tried to begin, I could guarantee that within 5 minutes I will be called away to sort out some problem or other. As many Hungarians admit that they have a form of ‘tunnel vision’ where their own ‘agendas’ are concerned. This lack of ‘empathy’ towards the needs of others. This has… Read more »
Frank
Guest
Odin, I think you just made my point.You basically don’t speak any other language beside English yet you are upset that the Hungarians that you know/deal with are not multilingual.Is this not a double standard? It amazes me when visiting South America and Mexico I hear the North American(US &Canada) visitors griping about the fact that locals don’t speak English. Any native English speaker seem to assume that anyone else, no matter the location/ country of origin, should speak English. I don’t think that your daily contacts(seems to be rather miserable) with the people around you is sufficient to form a representative picture of the Hungarian culture. Do you visit the opera, operette, Muveszek Palotaja, Liszt Ferenc Akademia performances? Budapest has more, and better, symphony orchestras than Toronto. The number of theatres is mind bugling in Budapest.Of course you would need to understand Hungarian to enjoy them. Unfortunately, most of you contributing to this blog, are unable, or unwilling, to see that Hungarians were bastardized by the communists before 1990. Corruption continued unabated after the change over, so why are you wondering that Hungarians are not progressing to your liking? When a former Prime Minister is asked about his days… Read more »
John T
Guest

Frank,
I don’t see that Odin has said Hungarians should be multi-lingual. He has merely said that the difficulty of the Hungarian language has isolated Hungary in the past. And you have to be realistic, because of factors such as trade, business, English, German and French have been the languages that people in Europe have traditionally learned as 2nd / 3rd languages.
As I said yesterday, I agree with you that Communism distorted the values of society. But decent people will know what is right and what is wrong. I haven’t said, as you imply that 20 years is enough to get over the past. Of course it needs much longer. But, progress should have been made and it hasn’t really. I’ll make the point again – crooked politicans are just an example of the wider corruption that is still rife. So until Hungarians accept that everyone should pay taxes, that government should be transparent, that jobs should be filled on merit instead of because of who you know and that practices such as hálapénz have no place in a civilised society, nothing will change.

Frank
Guest

John,
may be I read too much into what was said. But this, I quote from Odin(Sept 2):
” I have found that things give me the ‘slow boil’ amongst Hungarian Hungarians is greatly reduced amongst Hungarians who were born and live in surrounding countries. They are probably genetically similar, but are multi lingual. As such they have access to the ideas etc. of others. These people seem to be far more receptive to new ideas”….
And from your comments on Sept 01:
“And while I’d agree with your points about life under Kadar, people have had 21 years to adapt to the wider world.”
Am I misreading you guys?

Odin's Lost eye
Guest
Communism cannot be blamed for all the ills of Hungary. There was a time when the educated classes of this land had a language which was spoken by others it was Latin. During this period an adage was coined in translation it says “There is no life outside Hungary and if there is it is not really life”. (“Extra Hungarium non est vita . Si est vita, non est ita). This is taken from Paul Lendvai’s book called “The Hungarians 1000 years of Victory in Defeat’ and refers to the period of Maria Theresa (1740-1780). He also quotes from English travellers and observers of the period notably John Paget and Julia Pardoe. Their comments are substantially similar to those to those sometimes expressed by myself and other observers in this blog. May be I am too critical of both Hungary and developments in my own country. I also have several hours of work to repair ‘things’ broken by the ‘locals’ plus other work I wish to do. So as we say I think we had best leave it at that! I will not talk about Hungarian business practices, ethics, and methods etc. Nor their attitude to work. Those that I… Read more »
John T
Guest

“Am I misreading you guys?”
Frank – only perhaps in so far as I was not saying I expected people to have completely adapted to the new realities / opportunities available. Clearly it will take longer and wont be easy for many.
I would also add that I think there is a noticably difference in attitude between those living in Budapest and those living outside of the capital. Most of my family live in Szombathely and I certainly notice people are more helpful and polite. There is also lots of cross border contact with Austrians, which I think has had positive benefits.

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