Greece (officially known as the Hellenic Republic) is a country bordering Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey. Its territory includes thousands of islands scattered throughout the Aegean Sea, Ionian Sea and Mediterranean Sea, the biggest of which is Crete. Greece has gained a global reputation due to the legacy of its ancient roots, particularly in Western philosophy. Greeks continue to pay homage to this heritage, as well as their more current national identity that centres around the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition. Many aspects of Greek society have had to adapt to pressures of the 21st century; however, family solidarity, generosity and interdependence remain deeply important to people’s lives. Lively conversation and sincere, rational debates continue to be an integral part of how Greeks interact with one another.
The Greek government does not collect information on the ethnic diversity of its citizens, but rather categorises them on the basis of whether they have citizenship or are a foreign migrant. Greek citizenship can only be gained by descent, whereby at least one parent is already a citizen. As such, the government takes the position that virtually all citizens are (or should be) Greek. This ideology of homogeneity hides the existence of ethnic or national minorities; therefore, the topic of ethnic diversity can be a sensitive issue.
There is one minority officially recognised by the government – the Thráki (Thrace) people. This is a Muslim minority originating from the far northeast region of the country. However, there are also large numbers of people identifying as Turks, Macedonians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Vlachs and Roma. The official language of Greece is Greek. This is traditionally written in a distinct alphabet that ranges from alpha (Αα) to omega (Ωω). There are also some regional dialects spoken throughout the country, such as Cypriot and Pontian. However, most of the population that speaks a local dialect is bilingual and also understands standard Greek.
Greece is geographically located in the east of Europe and has a majority Eastern Orthodox Christian population. However, unlike other Eastern Orthodox European countries, it is mostly associated with the West. This is partly because Greece managed to remain outside of Russia’s sphere of influence after World War II; it allied with Western Europe and has been a long-term member of the European Union (EU). Furthermore, ancient Greece is generally regarded to be the birthplace of Western civilisation. Its contributions to political thought, philosophy and science continue to be central to Western culture.
Greek society is deeply patriotic. Though they may be critical of the current state of the country, people generally express strong feelings of cultural superiority and national pride. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that 89% of Greeks agreed with the sentiment “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others”. Greece’s ancient heritage and legacies often contribute to this sentiment. People are also very proud of the fact that Greece has always been on what has been perceived as ‘the right side of history’, having always allied with defenders of democratic rights.
An association is often made between Greek culture and the famous philosophers and thinkers of ancient Greece. Though this is an outdated representation of modern-day Greece, the culture still values rational debate and thoughtful reflection. Intellect is greatly admired and often a determiner of social status. Decisions based on reason are highly respected by society, and healthy rational argument is enjoyed. As such, the Greeks are passionate and animated debaters. They often like to test their intelligence by attempting to persuade others with strongly held opinions, perhaps creatively drawing upon knowledge of a wide variety of subjects to make their case. It is common to see ‘kavgádes’ (matches or arguments) erupt on the street. These impassioned discussions may provide brief entertainment for onlookers, but generally end without hard feelings and lingering emotions.
To fully understand the Greek communication style, one must appreciate their love for discussion. ‘Kefi’ refers to the contentment, bliss and joy one feels when a moment is so overwhelmingly enjoyable they are transported by it. The Greeks recognise kefi arising when an engaging conversation with good company becomes particularly delighting and fulfilling. As such, they may enter or initiate discussion hoping it will stimulate them and achieve kefi.
The concept of ‘philotimo’ also has a strong cultural influence in Greece. Meaning ‘sense of honour’ (officially translating as ‘love of honour’), philotimo is unable to be fully described in English. However, it is closely related to a personal compulsion to “do the right thing”. Philotimo is a person’s inner awareness of their dignity and pride that motivates them to fulfil their social responsibility and duty even if it puts the individual at a personal disadvantage. In this way, honour is derived from doing things for others that are beyond one’s own self-interest, whether it be to their family, friends or country. For example, a person’s philotimo would be questioned if they were acting like a ‘tzampatzis’ (free rider) who is only concerned about their own personal benefit.
In ancient Greece, the higher calling of one’s philotimo was thought to explain how people were prepared to die for their country in battles. Greeks very much feel that the concept of philotimo is something unique to their community and national character, binding them together. Today, it perhaps explains why they are so comfortable relying on each other’s word rather than writing agreements in contracts. There is a mutual understanding that, by one’s philotimo, one will fulfil their promise. They are accountable to their own moral compass and those around them.
Greece is a collectivist society in the sense that there is strong loyalty shown to familial and social groups. The social life of many Greeks is usually kept to a close circle of family and friends. These personal relationships are deeply important to people’s day-to-day life. Under the promise of friendship, people perform favours for one another, from old school friends to former neighbours. This interdependence has been largely driven by necessity, as the government cannot always be relied upon to provide support. It is common for Greeks to call upon contacts to act as a ‘meso’ (intermediary/connection) to help them accomplish things. For example, friends and family connections can be crucial to helping a person bridge opportunities, get introduced, obtain information, gain access to authority or navigate around the bureaucracy. Some people resent being in a position where they have to use a meso; however, it is often inevitable.
Greeks tend to structure their lives around the immediate social relationships important to them, taking an easy-going approach to time and socialisation. Society is not tightly organised and schedules are not closely followed. Those from rural or coastal areas and the older generation in particular tend to adopt quite a relaxed and slow pace of life, devoting more time to personal interactions. Afternoon naps are also a regular part of many people’s days. Nevertheless, misconceptions occur when people perceive this cultural milieu to mean that Greeks are lazy. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Greeks work more hours than any other Europeans. A stereotype about their work ethic (or lack thereof) has perhaps been formed because a lot of socialisation occurs in the public eye.
Public spaces play a large role in community relationships, especially in summer. For example, outdoor cafes and coffee shops provide a place for Greeks to mingle without having to necessarily plan an occasion. People enjoy congregating to catch up with friends and hear the latest news. There is also a popular tradition of taking a leisurely stroll down the town promenade in the late afternoon/early evening – known as ‘volta’. This is especially common on the Greek islands. Informal social events such as these reinforce a sense of community belonging.
Greek society is currently undergoing a difficult transformation as the country has been suffering from a severe economic crisis since 2009. Almost everybody knows of someone who has lost their job, pension or even their house, and unemployment remains a serious problem, especially for youth. There is very little ability to project into the future, meaning it is difficult to be forward planning. Such insecurity has forced many Greeks to reassess their priorities.
Some are finding that the lessons inherited from older generations are not always suitable to deal with the current social climate. For example, many people who grew up in Greece used to be able to ‘get by’ without necessarily having to safeguard or worry about their future. People had more freedom to approach situations with a laid-back attitude; ‘ohaderfismos’ describes the mentality of responding to problems with the easy-going sentiment “Oh brother, who cares?”. Today, many Greeks no longer have the luxury to rely on this attitude and disregard the difficulties of the current precarious economic situation. Instead, people have become quite cautious and wary of ambiguity. According to Hofstede’s dimensions, Greek culture has the highest possible score for uncertainty avoidance. This indicates that Greeks are seeking stability and security more than ever.