Differences of Life and Culture in Hungary and America

Compiled by Doug Coppage

Additional contributions by Arden Campbell

Useful corrections by several helpful Hungarians

This edition: 2007.5.29


In America…

In Hungary…

History and Society

The culture’s effect on the world is obvious. One can find examples of American influence almost everywhere.

The culture’s influence on the world is detectable but not obvious. Examples of world-famous Hungarians are few, and most of them are emigrants or of “Hungarian origin”—that is, either their family was ethnic Hungarian in a foreign country, or they were ethnic non-Hungarians with Hungarian citizenship.

The history of the country is one of continuous expansion of the borders. America has always been smaller than it is today.

The borders have fluctuated, but there is a “historical boundary” that roughly defined the country for about a thousand years. All that changed with the treaty of Trianon in 1920, which greatly reduced the territory. Hungary has never been smaller than it is today.

The population is growing and is now estimated to be more than 300,000,000.

The population is shrinking and will probably drop below 10,000,000.

It is possible to travel for several days without leaving the country. You speak a language recognized around the world.  You can communicate with hundreds of millions of people in your native language.

If you travel for three or four hours, you are in another country. Some people in the neighboring countries speak your language. You can communicate with perhaps 15,000,000 people in the world using your native language.

War has been a mostly successful undertaking. It is still a common cure for foreign ailments.

War has been mostly disastrous. It is a fearful prospect, to be avoided if at all possible.

There are many successful military leaders in history: George Washington (Revolution), Andrew Jackson (War of 1812), Winfield Scott (Mexican War), William T. Sherman and Ulysses Grant (Civil War), John Pershing (WW I), Dwight Eisenhower, Chester Nimitz, George Patton, and Douglas Macarthur (WW II). Robert E. Lee and his colleagues (Civil War) are the only talented generals who were actually defeated on the battlefield.

Military heroes usually ended in defeat or only limited success. The national mood toward historical military leaders is much like that of Southerners to the memory of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson. Furthermore, Lee and Jackson were not forced into exile or executed by the victors.

The only war fought on native soil was the American Civil War, which is also the country’s most costly war: over 600,000 total dead.  One-tenth of the male population of the South was killed.

The country has been a battleground for centuries. The Mongols invaded in 1241-42, killing about a third of the population. In World War II, over 250,000 soldiers died on the Eastern Front.

General Customs

The first day of the week is Sunday.

The first day of the week is Monday.

Saturday is a day off—part of the weekend.

Saturday morning is sometimes considered work-time or school-time.

Elections are on Tuesdays, usually the first Tuesday in November.

Elections are on weekends.

Using 15:00 to denote 3:00 PM is called military time, because only the military uses such notation.

Twenty-four hour time is used on all official or formal notices, train and bus schedules, TV program listings, store hours, school classes, public events, invitations, etc.

The date is written month/day/year. Hungary joined the European Union on 05/01/2004.

The date is written year.month.day. Hungary joined the European Union on 2004.05.01. or 2004.v.01.

Pentecost is a religious observance, ignored by all except by those who observe the seasons of the traditional church year.

Pentecost (Pünkösd) is a state holiday, with Monday off from work.

The holiday celebrating the founding of the nation is July 4, the date in 1776 when the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence during a successful revolution against the British. Independence persists to the present.

The holiday celebrating the founding of the nation is August 20th, Szent Istvan’s Day. In A.D. 1000 he established the Hungarian kingdom. This autonomy lasted for a couple hundred years. Independence ended in 1526. The failed revolution against the Austrian Habsburgs (1848) has its own holiday: March 15, as does the failed revolution against the Russians (1956) on October 23.

The official commemoration of the contribution of the average worker is Labor Day, the first Monday in September.

The official commemoration of the contribution of the average worker is May Day, the first day of May.

The traditional occasion for dressing up in a clever or deceiving costume is Halloween, October 31st.

The traditional occasion for dressing up in a clever or deceiving costume is Farsang, usually some evening in February, or at least before the beginning of Lent.

November first is a normal day.

November first is “The Day of the Dead.” Families go to cemeteries to clean and decorate the graves of loved ones and ancestors.

The Christmas tree is set up by the whole family, often on the day after Thanksgiving. The children hang stockings by the fireplace, and Santa Claus visits on Christmas Eve and fills them. Presents are opened on Christmas morning. December 26 is just the day after Christmas.

At bedtime on December 5, the children set their neatly polished shoes by the door or window. Mikulás (St. Nicholas) visits that night and fills them. The Christmas tree is traditionally set up by parents on Christmas Eve; the children are detained in another part of the house, usually in great suspense. Then the baby Jesus rings a bell, and the children rush in to see what gifts the Baby Jesus has brought them. December 26 is a holiday, too.

Telephone numbers are uniform in format: (3) 3-4.
Area code, exchange, and the last four.

Telephone numbers in Budapest have an area code of 1 and are seven digits long. Other cities have a two-digit area code followed by a six-digit number. Mobile phones have a two-digit area (company) code followed by seven digits. Phone numbers are usually divided 3-3 or 3-4, but if a number is easier to remember in another configuration, then it is permissible to write it that way, e.g., 49-49-978 or 22-57-33.

Dial “1” for long distance within the country and “011” for international calls.

Dial “06” for long distance within the country and “00” for international calls.

Postal codes are called ZIP codes and are 5 (or 9!) digits. Low numbers indicate an eastern address, and numbers increase as they move south and west.

Postal codes are four digits. A first digit of “1” indicates a Budapest address, in which case the next two digits tell which district (01–23).

Church bells are almost never heard. If they are, it is often via recording of bells played through powerful loudspeakers in a church steeple.

Genuine church bells are rung—with vigor—for about a minute at noon, especially in the smaller cities and villages. They also are rung for a funeral at any time of day.

When a couple is engaged to be married, the man gives the woman a diamond ring, which is worn on the left hand. Wedding bands are given and received at the wedding. They are also worn on the left hand.

When a couple is engaged to be married, they often give each other their wedding rings, which are worn on the left hand. The rings are transferred to the right hand on their wedding day.

There is one wedding ceremony. If it’s at a church, the officiating clergy is licensed by the local government to perform a legally binding marriage.

The first (and official) wedding ceremony is done by a municipal official. A church wedding is optional and has no legal consequence.

Parents are free to choose (or invent) just about any name for their child. Boys can be named Shaquille, Kim, or Carter. Girls can be named Shaquira, Kim, or Carter.

Parents usually stick to a list of about 100 traditional names. There are no girls named Katrelle or Caitlyn or Zoë and no boys named Tre’shaune.

Names are given in this order: FIRST (personal) - MIDDLE (extra) - LAST (family). For example, John Russell Smith.

Names are given in this order: FAMILY - CHRISTIAN. For example, Kovács János. Third names are rare but are becoming a fashion trend. They come last, after the Christian name.

Anybody can own and carry a gun, unless they have forfeited their right due to conviction of a felony.

Guns as personal property are almost unheard-of.

Titles on the spines of books are printed from top to bottom. The titles are thus right-side-up when the books are laid face-up on a table.

Titles on the spines of books are printed from bottom to top. The titles can thus be read in order when the books are shelved in a library.

A rolling ball is retrieved with the hands, mainly due to the influence of sports (baseball, basketball, football).

A rolling ball is retrieved with the feet, mainly due to the influence of sports (soccer).

Major surgery costs a lot of money, even if you have insurance.

Major surgery (if one is under the state medical system) is free.

Water fountains and restrooms are considered more or less public facilities.

Water fountains are almost non-existent. Restrooms are for customers only. “Public” restrooms are run like a franchise under a public contract, and you must pay the custodian a small fee when you enter.


In a store, the customer is king. Retail clerks should not show anger or annoyance to the customers.

The customer is a guest in the store. Store employees show their emotions, often getting unmistakably upset when customers mess up.

There is a crisis mentality about driving automobiles carefully and a non-crisis mentality about dressing for cold weather.

There is a non-crisis mentality about driving automobiles and a crisis mentality about dressing properly for cold weather.

Children are raised to be independent. The sooner they are out of the house, the better. Moving across the country is rather common, though we might miss the family.

Children are raised to be loyal members of the family, especially to take care of the parents when they grow old. Moving across the country is a grievous loss, even though many do move to Budapest.

Sitting on a park bench all Saturday afternoon indicates a lack of initiative and a waste of the day.

Sitting on a park bench all Saturday afternoon is considered a legitimate use of free time.

The opposite of emotional is rational.

The opposite of emotional is inhuman or dead. Reason is regarded independent of emotions.

The arts are mostly ignored.

The arts are appreciated: poetry, music, painting, sculpture, drama, etc.

The question, “What can we do?” starts a debate on possible solutions.

The question, “What can we do?” indicates that the speaker is resigned to fate. The conversation is ended.

The police are respected as a helpful—and usually competent—arm of the local government. They can be relied upon to promote and preserve law and order.

The police are suspected as a hangover of totalitarian government. They are often young and untrained, and they sometimes promote their own interests.

Manners and Morals

A police officer may demand personal identification only in strictly defined situations.

A policeman may demand personal identification at any time for any reason.

“Good morning” is used from early morning until noon.

“Good morning” (Jó reggelt) is used from early morning to about 9:00 AM, and only at the first meeting.

Newspapers may have slightly racy advertisements (e.g. for strip clubs or lingerie stores), but they never contain nudity.

Many newspapers have a photo or two of nude women, often on the front or back page.

People blow their noses quietly or, if necessary, they sniffle quietly.

It is very unacceptable to sniffle. However, it is acceptable to blow the nose like a trombone.

The flag is the most revered symbol of the nation.  It may not be used for decoration or clothing.

The ancient royal crown is revered as a symbol of the nation.  The flag is often used for decoration or worn as a patriotic cape.

Americans are taught not to monopolize conversations—especially with new acquaintances. We ask questions of the other person in order to show our interest in them. We refrain from volunteering information about ourselves for fear of seeming boorish.

A Hungarian will share something and then stop without asking a question. This pause is the invitation for the other person to share thoughts at the same level. Americans who constantly ask questions without sharing anything about themselves are perceived as intrusive.

When two cool dudes meet, they might shake hands, and they just “greet” each other.

When two cool dudes meet, they might exchange a kiss on each cheek.

A burly, cool teenager would not be caught dead wearing a stocking cap with pom-poms or tails. Nor do they wear hair bands or capris.

Cool dudes wear stocking caps with dangly pom-poms along with their nose studs and leather jackets. They also wear capris and hairbands.

People wear shoes all through the house unless the shoes are noticeably dirty.  Guests do not remove their shoes at the door.

Shoes automatically come off at the door of the house. Spare slippers are provided for guests.

Clothes are meant to conceal the body.

Clothes are meant to cover the body.

Modesty is a driving principle. A polite person does not show underwear or too much skin.

Modesty almost does not exist. Changing clothes (esp. by men and children) can be done down to the underwear in essentially public places (e.g. at a swimming pool). Mothers have their little kids wee-wee in the park.

Town and Transportation

Everyone has a car and drives everywhere. Not having a car is a social handicap and a detriment to employment.

There are trains and buses to almost every city and village. Larger cities have excellent public transportation. It is possible to live without a car.

The traffic signal is exclusively red, or yellow, or green.

The transition from red to green is preceded by a brief (2 or 3 seconds) showing of the yellow light under the red, telling you to “get it in gear.”

Parking facilities are well-defined.

Parking, especially in older towns, is often where you can get it. Cars are often pulled onto the sidewalk.

Signs that give the street names are on poles at intersections.

Signs that give street names are on the sides of buildings or fences at intersections. Occasionally there is no sign. Signs are (sometimes) on poles if there is no building at the corner.

At intersections there are STOP or YIELD signs to show who gives right of way. Few intersections are unregulated.

The Rules of the Road (KRESZ) govern traffic at intersections without signs. If the intersection needs special treatment, then there is some kind of sign or light.

A big tractor-trailer is called an “eighteen wheeler,” arranged 2-4-4 on the tractor and 4-4 on the trailer.

A big truck has 12 wheels, arranged 2-4 on the tractor and 2-2-2 on the trailer.

Horse-drawn carriages are seen in Amish country.

Horse-drawn carriages are seen in the countryside.

A street sweeper is a truck that runs through town in the very early morning.

A street sweeper is a person who carries a broom and pushes a cart through town in the early morning.

Addresses are allocated according to blocks and lots, with even numbers on one side of the street and odd numbers on the other. A cross-street usually introduces a new series of hundreds. 201 Main St. is across the street from 200 Main St. Large properties may cause numbers to be skipped, but facing properties have similar addresses.

Addresses are allocated consecutively by doors, with even numbers on one side and odd numbers on the other. Cross-streets have no effect. 86 Arad út might be across the street from 215 Arad út. Large properties consume many addresses, e.g. 22-28 Arad út.

The skylines of big cities are dominated by skyscrapers, many of which are several dozen stories tall.

The skyline of Budapest (the largest city) is dominated by the Citadella, Szent Mátyás Templom, and Parlament. There are few buildings more than 11 stories tall.

Shopping carts steer by the front two wheels.

Shopping carts have four free-steering wheels.

Food and Dining

The big meal of the day is often called dinner, which might mean lunch on Sunday (or, more rarely, on a Saturday), but it is always supper on other days.

The big meal of the day is ebéd: lunch.

The proper tip for a restaurant server is at least 15%. It is left on the table for them to pick up after the diner leaves.

The proper tip for a restaurant server is 10%. They come to tell you the price of the meal and to receive payment, and you tell them how much you will pay. They get the difference.

A waiter or waitress will occasionally check in to see if things are okay or if you want anything else. They will bring your check to you when you are obviously finished eating. It is a mistake for them to wait too long to bring the check.

A waiter or waitress will very infrequently check in to see of you need anything—especially if you are obviously finished eating and having a good conversation. You must catch their attention and call them to your table for further service or for the check.

The napkin is placed on the lap just before eating.

The napkin stays on the table to the left of the dinner plate during meals.

The fork is held in the right hand, and the left hand is put in the lap. Cutting food involves a switching of the fork from right to left and back again. There is a great temptation to use the fingers of the left hand to scoop food onto the fork.

The fork is always held in the left hand; the knife is in the right hand. Hands are kept above the table during meals. The knife is used to scoop food on to the fork.

If a guest eats all the food on his plate and asks for more, it is a complement to the cook or host.

If a guest eats all the food on his plate, he will be given more.  If a guest asks for more, the host might become embarrassed about his own lack of hospitality.

Dinner bread is put on the lip of the plate or on a bread plate—never on the table.

Dinner bread may be put on the table(cloth).

Cold fruit soup does not exist.

Cold fruit soup is not dessert and is a wonderful part of a summer lunch.

Mayonnaise comes in the white squeeze bottle. Mustard comes in the yellow squeeze bottle.

Mayonnaise comes in the yellow squeeze bottle. Mustard comes in the tan squeeze bottle.

Coca-Cola is cheap, and sparkling mineral water is expensive.

Coca-Cola is expensive, and cheap sparkling mineral water can be bought for about 30 cents per liter.

Eggs come in cartons of a dozen (12) and are white with yellow yolks.

Eggs come in cartons of ten (or are sold individually) and are pinkish brown with orange yolks.

If vanilla flavor is desired, the recipe calls for vanilla extract, which is a brown watery liquid.

If vanilla flavor is desired, the recipe calls for vanilla sugar, which is like fine white sand.

Microwave popcorn costs about 25 cents a bag in the big boxes of 15 bags.

Microwave popcorn is rather expensive.

You can’t find the following foods: Turó Rudi, cantaloupe yogurt, Boci chocolate bars. But ice cream (Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers) and pizza are superior to Hungarian varieties. The sandwich bread is nasty.

You can’t find the following foods: Oreos, Pop-tarts, chocolate chips, Old Bay, sweet pickles, Graham crackers, Ranch dressing, root beer, Dr. Pepper. But cabbage, potatoes, and (especially) bread are superior to American varieties.

Potatoes are white inside and have little taste.

Potatoes are yellow inside and taste better.

Refined sugar is made from Caribbean sugar cane.

Refined sugar is made from domestic sugar beets.

The condiments served with pizza are grated Parmesan cheese and hot peppers.

The condiment served with pizza is ketchup.

Meat is marketed as future food, something soon to appear on the table—not dead flesh.

Meat is presented to look as much like a dead animal as possible.

Most any produce can be bought at most any grocery store at most any time.

Produce is seasonal. Apples purchased in February are not of good quality. Cherries are available in summer.

People buy lots of frozen foods that go into rather large freezers.

People buy very few frozen foods because most home freezers are quite small.

House and Home

Houses are painted white or in muted pastel colors. Most houses have vinyl or aluminum siding, but a bare brick house is not unusual. Bricks are small, dark red, and mostly solid.

Orange, yellow, and pink are much more prevalent as colors for building exteriors. Most houses have stucco exteriors. Bricks are widely used, but they are large, compartmented, and stuccoed over.

The “first floor” is the ground floor. The “second floor” is the floor above the ground.

The “first floor” (első emelet) is the floor above the ground floor. The ground floor is called the “ground floor” (földszint).

Household electricity is 110 V, 60 Hz.

Household electricity is 220 V, 50 Hz.

Electrical plugs are relatively small and have flat metal prongs that can be bent. The ground contact is through a long pole extending from the plug.

Electrical plugs are relatively large and have round prongs, often with hard plastic stems and metal tips. The ground contact is either a pole that sticks out from the wall into a socket in the plug (older) or a metal flange on the circumference of a large round plug (newer).

Light switches are small and rod-shaped. They are found by sweeping the hand along the wall.

Light switches are large and flat. They are found by patting the hand on the wall.

The television format is NTSC. Fewer lines but 30 frames per second.

The television format is PAL, a finer picture (more lines) at 24 frames per second.

The sleeping area of a house is separate from the living area, and rooms open to a hallway.

The sleeping and living areas are often the same, and rooms often open one to another without a hall.

Household doors are opened by turning knobs.

Household doors are opened by turning a handle.

Interior doors are made of wood and rarely have windows.

Interior doors often have translucent glass panes, especially if they allow natural light into an interior room.

Exterior doors of buildings open outward in accordance with the fire code.

Most exterior doors open inward so as not to block the sidewalk.

Most residential windows are double sashes.

Most residential windows open inward like glass doors, often with two sets of windows, inner and outer.

Window dressings are curtains with blinds, or just thick curtains.

Window dressings are usually sheer curtains with a roló (shutters on tracks that can be raised and lowered via a strap from the inside) that comes down on the exterior.

The normal flooring for a house is carpet on wooden subflooring. It is cleaned by vacuuming. Kitchens and bathrooms have sheet flooring.

The normal flooring for a house is ceramic tile on concrete. It is cleaned by sweeping and mopping.

Washing machines are in a utility room, often near the kitchen. They consist of a vertically aligned barrel with an agitator in the middle. Access to the barrel is through a door on top. Out-of-balance spins cause an automatic shut-off.

Washing machines are usually in the bathroom. They consist of a horizontally aligned barrel with access either through a side door into the open end of the barrel or through a top door with a clasped hatch into the body of the barrel. Out-of-balance spins cause the machine to walk across the room.

Bathing is usually done in the morning.

Bathing is usually done in the evening.

A normal bathroom has a sink, toilet, and bathtub/shower.

A bathroom (fürdőszoba) is just that: a room with a bath. It probably has the washing machine, too. The WC is the room with the toilet. It may or may not be the bathroom.

Toilets are basin-shaped. Stool falls into a pool of water. The water tank is attached to the back of the seat. Flushes are automatic and cannot be stopped once started.

Toilets often have an “examination shelf” which holds the stool well above water level so that the person may inspect it for signs of disease. The water tank might be on the wall above head level. Flushing is often controlled manually or can be shut off by releasing or reversing the flush mechanism.

The shower head is attached to the wall just above head level. A person showers while standing up. A curtain prevents water from splashing throughout the room.

The shower head is on a hose attached to the spigot, and there is usually no place to hang it on the wall. Shower curtains are not so common; it is not a problem if water gets on the tile floor or walls.

If you start to lose hot water in the shower, you decrease the flow of hot water to conserve it in the heater.

If you start to lose hot water in the shower, you increase the flow of hot water to ignite the gas burners.

Washcloths are used while bathing to scrub the body.

A Hungarian will ask the American what the tiny towel is for.

School and Work

Teachers have their classroom, and each student has an individual schedule. The students go individually to the teachers’ classrooms.

Each class of students has a room. The teachers come and go based on the class’s schedule.

Children start school and advance through the grades based primarily on their age.

There is more freedom to start a child in school when the parents choose. The suitable grade for a new student is based more on capability than on age.

Public school classes change every year. Relatives are usually separated.

Public school classes stay intact and have the same teacher for several years.

Open-ended questions and class discussions are a normal part of instruction.

Open-ended questions are not well received by students, and open class discussions are not normal.

Standard paper is called Letter and measures 8.5 by 11 inches (216 by 280 mm), slightly wider and shorter than A4.

Standard paper is called A4 and measures 210 by 297 mm (8.27 by 11.69 inches), slightly narrower and taller than Letter.

Loose-leaf paper has three holes, and binders have three rings.

Loose-leaf paper has four holes, and binders have two or four rings.

The normal school notebook is the same size as standard paper and is spiral-bound.

The normal school notebook is a füzet half the size of normal paper and is thin and stapled.

Division is symbolized by ¸ or /. There is no difference between the two.

Division is symbolized by : or /. The first is used to determine how many groups there are. The other is used to determine how many are in each group.

Colored pencils are for art.

Colored pencils are used in many elementary school subjects.

Students might cheat in school, but they know deep down that it is wrong.  They cheat because they want to get a high grade.

Students cheat because they want everyone in their class to be successful, so they “help each other.” Part of the game is to discover the most creative ways to cheat.

A student would not feel comfortable photocopying an entire textbook, as it would be an outright violation of copyright laws. A copy shop will refuse to duplicate any copyrighted material.

Students have no qualms copying entire textbooks, nor do the shopkeepers who make the copies for them. The law of survival, that is, “I don’t have the money to buy all my books,” applies more readily than the copyright laws.

School grades are given by the teachers of each class. Final exams are given and graded by the teachers of each class.

School grades are given by the teachers and are read aloud at a faculty meeting to ensure the knowledge and approval of all. Final exams are standard and are given by the state, not by the school.

Graduation from high school or university is usually achieved by accumulating enough passing grades in a certain number of required courses. Comprehensive examinations are usually only for graduate degrees.

Graduation from high school or university is achieved by passing a rigorous battery of state-governed comprehensive examinations.

The graduation ceremony consists of a few speeches, presentation of awards, a musical piece or two, and the giving of diplomas.

Graduation from high school consists of a few speeches, presentation of awards, a tour of the school grounds by the graduating class (to say goodbye), and the giving of diplomas.

Two weeks of paid vacation is standard.

Two weeks of paid vacation is considered pitiful—almost barbaric.

A woman who gives birth to a baby gets maternity leave.  She must usually return to her workplace after 6 weeks or risk losing her job.

A woman with a “status” (full-time) job paid by the government who gives birth can stay home with the baby for 3 years. She receives full pay for the first year, 75% pay for the second year, and 50% for the third year, after which she can step back into her job. 


English word order is determined by the grammar. Emphasis is given to certain words via the voice, which can go up and down many times during long, complex sentences. This does not convey well into writing, and so underlining and italicizing are common.

Hungarian word order is rather flexible. The relative importance of words is indicated by their location in the sentence, so the voice drones on and on during long, complex sentences. Emphasis therefore conveys almost completely into the written form.

The language is pre-positional: in my blue car

The language is post-positional: a kék autómban = the blue car-my-in

The spelling of a word has a loose, perhaps historical association with its pronunciation. If pronunciation changes; spelling does not.

Words are pronounced predictably according to their spelling, with few exceptions. If a word’s pronunciation changes over time, the spelling follows.

Some questions must be asked using combinations of words, e.g. How many? How much? How long? What kind of…? What is … like?

There is a more complete set of question words. The given English examples can be rendered, in order: Hány? Mennyi? Meddig? Milyen? Milyen?

It is possible to distinguish between a man and a woman and a thing pronominally: he, she, it.

There is only one third-person singular pronoun: ő. Hungarians have difficulty using he and she properly: “I met your wife; he is nice.”

The numeral 1 is written like a stick. The numeral 9 is written without the final tail. The numeral 4 is written with two strokes.

The numeral 1 is written like a left-leaning 7 or an A without the crossbar. The numeral 9 is written with a tail, like lower-case g. The numeral 4 is often written with one curly stroke and can look like a very badly shaped 6 or a backward N: И.

VA stands for Virginia or Veterans’ Administration.

VA stands for vonat állomás, a train stop.