The Greeks judged politeness by a person’s behaviour and not by their words. There is also an informal atmosphere; everyone is treated like a cousin. They use their hands a lot to make gestures. Have fun with it. Sometimes over-emphasising politeness in spoken language only leads your conversation partner to think you are arrogant. It’s nice to learn basic words like “thank you”. (Ευχαριστώ: ef-khah-rees-TOH) or “please” (Παρακαλώ: pah-rah-kah-LOH).
Greeks generally consider it good manners to let the stranger make the first move. When you walk into a café or pass a group on the street, you may feel ignored, but if you take the initiative and say hello first, you will probably find that people suddenly become friendly.
Greeks take leisure very seriously; it is a culture of “working to live”, not “living to work”. Don’t be offended by perceived laziness or rudeness. They do it to everyone, locals and tourists alike. Instead of fighting it, just accept the situation and laugh about it. This can be very frustrating at times, but also appreciate their “enjoy life” attitude. They take politics and football very seriously.
The church’s dress code sometimes stipulates covered shoulders for women and covered knees for both sexes, but it usually doesn’t care about your clothes as long as they are not very provocative. This rule is easily applied at the height of the summer tourist season, simply because of the volume! In any case, appropriate clothing is usually available at the entrance of churches and monasteries, especially those that receive the most tourists. Simply collect them at the entrance and return them at the exit.
Don’t say that Greece is part of Eastern Europe. During the Cold War, Greece was an openly pro-Western country with communist neighbours directly to the north. Greece is generally counted as part of Southern Europe.
Greeks do not like it when Greece is referred to as a Balkan country, as it has a negative image of the region, even though Greece, as the southernmost point of the Balkan Peninsula, lies within the Balkans.
The Macedonian question is considered a very sensitive issue: the Greeks consider that the name “Macedonia” was stolen from them and is used by Tito’s supporters in Southern Yugoslavia to refer to the country created by Tito after the Second World War as a new constituent republic within Yugoslavia. Greeks call it “FYROM” or “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” when dealing with foreigners and as Skopia (the Greek name for the Macedonian capital Skopje) among themselves.
Be very careful when talking about ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire, which are symbols of their national pride and splendour. Many Greeks are proud of their ancient history, because ancient Greece is a civilisation known for being the first to develop the concept of democracy and Western philosophy, as well as for its art, architecture, literature, theatre and sciences, which are considered the cradle of European civilisation.
The military junta of the late 1960s and mid-1970s is a sensitive issue, many communists and other left groups suffered severe repression and regard their leaders with complete dislike.
Also be polite when asking questions about relations with the Turks, the Turkish occupation and the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, as these give rise to passionate, sometimes aggressive debates given the past unrest between the two nations. However, relations have improved in recent years.
To “summon” someone with their hands, the Greeks take out their whole hand, palm open, five fingers extended, as if to signal someone to stop. This is called a “mountza“. Sometimes they also do it by saying “na” (here). It actually means to tell someone to fuck off or do something totally ridiculous. We know that the word “mountza” comes from a gesture in Byzantine times where the guilty person was smeared with ashes on his face by the hand of the judge to make him look ridiculous. In Greece, you have to be careful when refusing something: When refusing the offer of a drink, it is better to place the palm on the glass (or some other gesture of refusal that limits the visibility of the palm). The ubiquitous greeting with the middle finger is also understood.
The use of the “OK” sign (thumb and index finger in a circle with the other three fingers pointing up) varies from region to region, as does the use of signalling to a server by mimicking a signature on a receipt.
Greeks are heavy smokers and they consider smoking a birthright. Although the law technically bans smoking in all public places such as restaurants and cafeterias since September 2010, some establishments and most Greeks simply ignore it. Still, it’s best to abide by the smoking ban and ask if you can light up a cigarette or just see if someone else is already smoking. The best hotels and restaurants (especially small, closed restaurants) will enforce the ban if asked, and the best hotels have non-smoking rooms.
Remember that forest fires are common in Greece during the dry summer season, so avoid smoking in forested areas at all costs!