Romania is a country in southeastern Europe bordering Ukraine, Bulgaria, Moldova, Hungary and Serbia. The majority of its inhabitants are Romanian and follow the Romanian Eastern Church. The Romanian population has traditionally and historically been rural dwellers. However, society has changed massively in recent decades due to the impact of economic and sociopolitical processes, both during and after the communist era (1947-1989). Romania has experienced widespread industrialisation and urbanisation, and is increasingly culturally oriented towards Western Europe. Nevertheless, the population remains quite religious and places great importance on family networks and values. While sometimes initially reserved when first meeting people, Romanians are known for being hospitable, warm, animated and opinionated people with a good sense of humour.
Historical and Regional Differences
Romania has a long history of foreign occupation that informs its culture today. Different regions were ruled or occupied by the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires at various times before they unified. Romanians are very proud of the fact that they held onto their land over a history of invasion. However, this has also produced cultural differentiations across the country. Broadly, the country can be distinguished into three parts, each with their own unique cultural and history: the east (with Moldova as the centre), the west (Transylvania and adjacent regions) and the south (with Muntenia at the centre).
People often draw cultural distinctions based on geographic divisions in Romania. Some of these characteristics are clear to see, while others are maintained through stereotypes often associated with each region. For example, the Western regions (particularly Transylvania) are especially with a high concentration of Hungarians and Germans. The area’s long history under Austrian-Hungarian rule also means it has more visible Gothic architecture. Meanwhile, the Eastern regions have a closer proximity to Ukraine and Russia and show more influence from the Caucasus and Tatars. The south is home to the capital of Bucharest, which is the metropolitan centre of the country. Light-hearted competition between regions is common. For example, residents of the south may consider themselves to be the ‘real’ Romanians compared to other regions. Dialects do not vary drastically across these regions, but Romanians may be able to distinguish whereabouts one is from based on their accent.
Tradition and Folklore
The Romanian population has traditionally and historically been rural dwellers. However, the country experienced widespread industrialisation and urbanisation during the communist period. Today, more than half of the Romanian population (54%) lives in urbanised areas.1 Modern life has influenced a rise in cosmopolitanism in the cities. However, folk traditions and rural practices remain strong in certain parts of the country. For example, sheep herding, weaving and carpentry are still common in rural villages.
Romania also continues to have a strong tradition of folklore that informs many of its customs and traditions. There are many tales of witches, giants, ghosts, spirits, heroes, fairies and monsters throughout Romania. Many of these have a pre-Christian origin. For example, the night before the Feast of Saint Andrew is marked by several customs aimed at protecting both people and their homes and animals from evil spirits (such as stringing up garlic). Some would consider this night the Romanian equivalent of Halloween. Some people also believe in the existence of supernatural occurrences (e.g. spirits and witchcraft). This is more common among Roma communities and in rural, traditional areas (such as Maramures).2 Urban Romanians and the younger generations generally do not believe these stories, seeing them more as cultural superstitions.
Romania is quite ethnically , with various sources estimating roughly 83-89% of the population are Romanian (Români).3 According to the 2011 census, Hungarians are the largest minority group (6.5%), with the Roma community constituting the second largest (3.3%).4 However, a lack of reliable statistics has led some to question whether the Roma population is potentially larger. Other minorities include Ukrainians, Germans, Turks and Tatars. The treatment of minorities in Romania remains a sensitive subject. Minorities can experience high levels of inequality, social exclusion and prejudice (particularly the Roma).
The majority of Hungarians (also known as Magyars) live in Transylvania, constituting roughly 18% of the population of this region.5 Most speak Hungarian at home and follow the Catholic Church or a Protestant tradition. Some older Hungarians may not speak Romanian at all. The treatment of Hungarians in Romania remains a point of contention.6 Some have engaged in a struggle for equal recognition of their language rights. Hungarians may also have a different view of their national belonging. Transylvania was part of Hungary until 1920 and Romania’s acquisition of this land can be a sensitive subject. Some have called for majority-Hungarian sub-regions within Transylvania to be given more independence and autonomy from Bucharest.7 In recent years, more Hungarians in Romania have been gaining dual citizenship with Hungary.8
The Roma (often referred to as ‘Gypsies’ by Romanians) originated from northern India, but can be traced back through Romanian history to the 13th century. They are traditionally nomadic and speak a Romani dialect. However, today many people practise their culture in a modified form, with many no longer being nomadic. The Roma are generally spread throughout the country, although more commonly living in the south (especially in the capital). Within the Roma group, there are further divisions based on common ancestors. For example, the Roma Gabor are a network of families that trace their heritage back to a common ancestor named Gábor (Gabriel). They are often thought of as their own caste within the Roma people due to their unique cultural traditions.
The Roma people continue to be significantly disadvantaged, marginalised and underrepresented, having less access to infrastructure and adequate education than the majority of the Romanian population.9 According to the European Commission, the threat of poverty among Roma in Romania is up to three times higher than the rest of the population.10 Romanians often blame negative perceptions of their country on the practices of Roma citizens (who are often seen begging or in difficult circumstances). Poor treatment of Roma is common and Romanians may be openly disparaging and discriminatory towards them.
It is important to understand Romania’s political history, as the events and hardships of the last century have deeply affected the culture and society. They have also shaped the living overseas. Romania came under Soviet control in the post-WWII period. The communist era (1947-1989) saw improvements in many standards of living, as well as large-scale industrialisation and urbanisation. However, it also involved severe economic difficulties, obstacles and the suppression of some forms of self-expression and personal freedom. For example, citizens were subjected to widespread surveillance by a secret intelligence policing network (the ‘Securitate’).
Romania was ruled by the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu during the latter half of the communist era (from 1965 until 1989). Ceauşescu’s leadership direction defied Soviet Russia in many circumstances, gaining him a positive international reputation in the West. However, despite many internal and international achievements, his regime also enacted increasingly repressive policies that created hardships for many Romanians. This included the introduction of aggressive reproductive policies to boost the country’s birth rate and extreme rationing on food, petrol, electricity and heating to eradicate the country’s foreign debt.11,12 Under Ceauşescu’s rural urbanisation program, hundreds of rural villages were also demolished (mainly in Transylvania) with inhabitants forcibly resettled into urban apartment blocks.
The 1980s were marked by civil unrest as Ceauşescu’s social control increased. Many Romanians fled the country over this period despite restrictions on travel. Widespread protests and uprisings eventually led to a revolution in 1989, ending the regime. This culminated with the trial and execution of Ceauşescu and his wife. A slow, prolonged transition away from communism and towards followed, with a new constitution established in 1991.
Social Changes and Generational Differences
The shift to capitalism has been widely embraced. Most people desire a way of life built on and liberal principles. European models and organisations are generally favoured.13 However, the transition to a competitive market economy has been challenging in many respects. Despite increased economic security, better incomes and renewed freedoms of travel and expression, many Romanians who can earn enough to meet their needs still feel profoundly insecure.14 For example, many people now struggle with finding and maintaining employment.
A difference in attitudes can largely be drawn between those who lived under communism and those who have not. The younger generation in particular generally see themselves as more aligned with Western culture and could be described as more European-focused.15 Meanwhile, some among the older generation remain nostalgic for the communist era due to the consistency and job security it provided. Many continue to uphold traditional mentalities more typical of Eastern Europe. An INSCOP Research poll found that 44.4% of respondents believed living conditions were better under communism.16
Scepticism and Uncertainty Avoidance
The nostalgia for communism reflects the high level of among society. Romanians are generally more comfortable with assured stability and tend to approach situations with scepticism and caution rather than taking risks. Many people also continue to be rather sceptical of politics and mistrusting of overriding authority. There is a noticeable tendency towards cynicism and pessimism – particularly visible in attitudes towards the government, the justice system and the political elite.17 Many share discontent with current politicians’ ability to improve their living standards and international reputation, in contrast with some of Ceauşescu’s achievements.18 This is exacerbated by the problem of corruption pervasive at all levels of society.19 Ultimately, many Romanians desire , whereby wealth and power are vested in individuals on the basis of talent, effort and achievement, rather than connections, wealth or social class.
Romanian society is very hierarchical. Power is heavily centralised and there is a big disparity of resources between those with authority and the people that depend on them. The gaps between Romania’s social classes have expanded and become more visible in the post-communist era.20 Prior to 1989, Romanian citizens received the same amount of rationed food and products regardless of their profession. Meanwhile, the ‘nomenklatura’ (people with positions of authority in the Communist Party) attempted to be discreet about their privilege.21
Today, more visible differences between the classes make the rich seem richer and the poor seem poorer. Larger differentiations of power have also led to an increased emphasis on status symbols. There is now a noticeable class of elites made up of those who are known for showing off their wealth through lavish expenses and material items (e.g. luxury cars). Known as ‘fițoși’, these are often business people, politicians and high-ranking civil servants who became wealthy in the period of transition from communism. Romanians across other sectors of society commonly save to buy luxury items as well (such as technology and clothes) even if they only make modest livings or are financially stretched. Ultimately, Romanian society has become more status conscious since the end of communism.
Romania has experienced the highest increase in emigration of any EU country since 1990. As of 2018, it is estimated roughly 20.6% of work-age Romanians have emigrated.22 Many are low-skilled workers emigrating to more affluent European countries. This trend has had large impacts on the Romanian labour market, family structures and the economy. More than one in four people (26.6%) with higher education have been leaving the country.23 The sent back from family members abroad have reduced poverty and income inequality for many families, largely supporting much of the Romanian economy. Emigrants often bring their spouse and children where possible. However, widespread emigration has also split many families. Poor and rural families are most affected by these changes.
Interdependence, Favours and Deals (Blat)
Personal relationships play a very important role in people's lives and are often crucial to getting things done in Romania. People often perform favours for one another under the promise of friendship – from old school friends to former neighbours. Some examples include introducing someone to a person of authority, helping them obtain information or navigate around the . Connections help fix daily problems, get past barriers and speed up administrative processes that would otherwise take a lot of time and effort. Community and family have been largely driven by necessity as the government cannot be relied upon to provide support. Social security services are very limited. Therefore, the majority of Romanians rely heavily on their families and relatives for any kind of support. People often only seek greater assistance once they have explored and exhausted all the available connections or options provided by their family and community.24
Exchanges of money are very common in Romanian culture. People often make deals when a person needs to get past red tape (even if what one is trying to achieve is perfectly legal and justifiable). For example, if a parent wants their child to be accepted into a good university and they know someone on the board, they may ask for a favour "for old friendship's sake" whilst also giving a "gift" to the person for their troubles. One would even ‘tip’ their doctor with cash after a visit. Such deals are often known as ‘blat’.25 The exchange of money as blat is generally not seen as a bribe. While it may occur in both private and professional contexts, the social networking dynamics of blat are very personal in nature, based on friendship and trust. However, the Roma word for a similar exchange of cash (mita) has more negative connotations as a morally ambivalent practice, depending on the context.
Get a downloadable PDF that you can share, print and read.