Crash Course in Greek Culture

The culture of a country is the amalgamation of the history, customs, and lifestyle of its people. It is formed over time and preserved for future generations. Every culture is unique in its own right and Greece is no exception.

If you are planning a trip to Greece, it would be prudent to find out about the culture; especially if the culture is markedly different from your own. Differences in culture may come as a huge surprise for some and they may experience what is known as ‘ culture shock ’. This phenomenon is pretty common and it can affect your overall experience, for better or for worse. Knowing what to expect in a new culture can make a world of difference and is worth investing some time into before traveling.

So, what is so special about Greek culture? Everything! Greek culture encompasses many fields of study, architectural structures, and genres of art but in the interest of time, we will only discuss some important and need-to-know facts about Greek culture.

This crash course in Greek Culture will take you from visitor status to honorary Greek in no time. These are some valued pieces of information about Greek culture that people should know, and what sets Greek culture apart.

  1. People

Like every culture, it starts with the people. Greeks are family oriented and it is common to find large extended families living together; including grandparents and/or other family members. We are a proud people and it is displayed all around the country by the preservation of their ancient monuments and landmarks scattered about the land.

Moreover, we are big on tradition. Nothing rubs a Greek the wrong way than forgetting about tradition. Whether it’s choosing a name for a newborn, getting married, or spitting three times for safety against evil, always respect their traditions, even if you may not believe or understand them. The vast majority of the population are Christian Orthodox and they follow its respective customs and celebrations.

Greeks love the outdoors and as a result, spend as much time as possible outside. Picturesque hillsides and colorful sunsets are just another Tuesday in Greece. It’s not surprising that most restaurants and cafés have patios or outdoor seating where customers can enjoy a meal/beverage while enjoying the outdoor scenery and ambiance.

  1. Language

There are more than 13 million speakers of Greek with most residing in Greece and neighboring countries.  Many words in English were derived from Greek and it is the foundation of the alphabet that we use today. Greek is not the easiest language to learn, but being able to speak the native language is always an advantage for visitors.

Although most of the younger population can speak some English, knowing a bit of Greek may come in handy; like when haggling or conversing with locals. Greeks are proud of their history and culture and admire visitors that take the time to learn about it. In addition, it will help navigate the surrounding better since most billboards, signs, and public transportation services use Greek, not English.

  1. Architecture

One of the most popular reasons for visiting Greece is its architecture. The land of Greece is littered with historical monuments and important cultural landmarks. You needn’t go very far to be exposed to the deep historical prominence of these buildings and artifacts. Structures of note include temples (Parthenon), theatres (Dionysus), treasuries (Delphi Athenians), stadiums (Panathenaic), and stoas (Poikile).

Greek architecture has a distinct style usually including ionic columns and marble. Throughout Greek history, their style of architecture has grown and evolved to include either the Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian Order in their designs.

Some must-visit places include the Parthenon (the oldest structure in Greece), the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Another significant contribution of Greek architecture was the amphitheater. As far back as the 6th century, we can find evidence of Greeks gathering as spectators of theatre, dance, and especially music; orchestral being the most popular at the time.

  1. Gestures

Body language was the first way that people communicated. Even now, many cultures, including Greek, put heavy emphasis on gestures and body language and it is commonplace to see when conversing or speaking. Moreover, it is imperative to know which gestures carry an international meaning and which ones are specific to the region.

A few gestures to keep in mind: (1) a lifted outstretched hand in the direction of a person or else “mountza”: a common insult to mean moron. (2) Touching the lower lip lets you know that the person has something private to talk with you about. (3) Pointing at someone with your index finger is considered moderately rude. (4) Middle finger is interpreted the same way as in western countries. (5) Greetings usually include an embrace or multiple kisses on the cheeks.

Although many gestures used in Greece are international, knowing what they mean in the region and which ones to avoid will save you from getting into inadvertent trouble. For example, the ‘Ok’ sign made by connecting the index and thumb into a circle does not carry the same meaning in Greece, where they usually sign it with thumbs up.

  1. Food

Who doesn’t enjoy a good meal? Food is the source of energy and growth, and Greek cuisine ensures that every meal is not only delicious but balanced and nutritious. Greek cuisine is considered one of the healthiest ways to eat and usually contains fresh vegetables, meat, or seafood. Their dishes have a unique taste and blend of seasonings that make Greek cuisine a culinary delight. Olive oil, lemon, and garlic are standard ingredients for many dishes in Greece.

Having a meal is like an event in Greece as families come together to eat, converse and share stories about their days; a more wholesome rejuvenation of the body and mind. Of course, meals are usually had in the outdoor areas with several people (family & friends) sharing one or two tables where they sit for several hours enjoying the food and each other company.

The type of food eaten in Greece is also affected by the culture, celebrations, and holidays. For instance, the first dish served at a Greek wedding is traditionally antipasto. During Easter Lent, the kinds of foods Greeks eat are limited to certain food groups. This is a way to show devotion to their beliefs. Tsoureki is the traditional Easter bread and a variety of cookies can be found in practically every home during the Easter period. Moreover, during Christmas, they have many Greek sweets like “melomakarona” and “kourabiethes”.

  1. History

One of the greatest contributions of Greek culture was in creating an environment for reasoning and inquiry. It emphasized logic, unbiased views, and balanced observation of the world. Greece was the center of civilization for a long time and holds some of the most detailed and intriguing historical facts.

Greek mythology, for instance, is one of the more popular historical recollections. The culture, customs, and even some physical structures have made it across the period to the present and are still very much a part of the Greek world. Hearing the myths of Gods and men and visiting some of their ancient sites truly gives an experience like no other.

Greece is responsible for the creation of many languages, sciences, art, styles of architecture, and governance. Brilliant minds like Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato, Archimedes, etc. made momentous contributions to civilization in their respective fields.

From Ancient Greece (Bronge Age, Classical, Hellenistic and other) to the Roman and Byzantine Greece, from the Ottoman Rule to the War of Independence (Greek Revolution in 1821) and Modern Greece, the Greek civilization’s depth and impact cannot be overstated.

This crash course in Greek culture only touches the surface of what it means to be Greek and the historical and cultural impact of one place on the entire modern world 


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