The ‘K’ word
Whether you refer to it as the elephant in the room or the albatross around the nation’s neck, no amount of animalistic analogies will come close to accurately conveying the sensitivity of the subject of Kosovo. The breakaway province/independent nation (depending on who you ask) is considered the home of Serbian civilisation, and is also where many of the nation’s most important monasteries and churches are located. Serbia doesn’t recognise Kosovo and is unlikely to ever make that concession, and there is no more tender subject in the state.
Mentioning the Clintons
Sticking with the same sort of subject, you won’t find many people in Serbia who have a soft spot for Bill or Hillary Clinton. The Clintons may well be the least popular family in the entire country, and the anger stems from Bill’s leading of the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. The hatred of Bill and Hillary began during the Bosnian War of the early ‘90s, and has carried on unabated ever since.
The Clintons haven’t covered themselves in glory when it comes to Serbia. Hillary famously lied about being shot at by Bosnian Serbs when disembarking from a plane in 1996, and Bill was front and centre of the drive for Kosovo’s independence. Not many Serbs on either side of the political spectrum shed any tears when Hillary came up short in the 2016 US Presidential Election.
Talking up Croatia
Undoubtedly the least intense of the big three, bringing up Croatia in political conversation with Serbs can still ruffle more than a few feathers. Certain pockets of the Serbian population suffered greatly at the hands of the Croatian Army towards the end of the Croatian War of Independence, and many in Serbia are angry at the international perception of total Croatian innocence. Sporting encounters between the two countries are feisty affairs, to say the least.
Being a tentative and terrible driver
Moving away from the messy world of politics for a second, the roads of Serbia (and Belgrade in particular) are no place for the tentative. Beograd’s roads get very busy during rush hour (obviously), and the Serbs aren’t afraid of cutting in lane and attempting a daring move or two. If you aren’t a confident driver, don’t be surprised to see an angry Serb honking in your direction before gesturing at you as he or she drives by, presumably with a cigarette dangling between his or her fingers.
Criticising the nation
Okay, back to politics. The Serbs can often come across as a nation at odds with itself, forever complaining about corruption in the state and the mistakes its politicians have made in the past. The commentary will be biting, but don’t make the blunder of thinking this means it is open season on Serbia baiting. The Serbs aren’t fond of foreigners coming in and criticising their nation, and excess grumbling will almost certainly be met with justifiable demands for the guilty party to leave.
Claiming Tesla was a Croat
Don’t do it, because he wasn’t. That’s what the Serbs will say anyway, and they have a very good point. Nikola Tesla was indeed born within the borders of modern Croatia, but his family made no secret of their Serbian Orthodox ways. His father was an Eastern Orthodox priest called Milutin after all, and it doesn’t get more Serbian than that. Tesla was an ethnic Serb that was a citizen of the Habsburg Empire, who eventually emigrated to the United States and became an American citizen.
Avoiding eye contact
No Serb is going to berate you for failing to make eye contact when clinking glasses, but we aren’t entirely rushing to prove that. Avoiding eye contact at this point means you have something to hide, and your social standing will plummet as a result. You don’t have to say živeli every single time you order a new drink however, unless you are feeling particularly festive.
Let’s be honest, who doesn’t get angry at the thought of colonialism? Geopolitics is a testy subject at the best of times, but the Serbs are particularly sensitive to the idea that certain countries have major international influence. This goes for all generations too, and many remember the bombing of 1999. Talking up the importance of single nations is guaranteed to rile up people all across the country.
While not on the level of the international confusion over Slovakia and Slovenia, some people still manage to ignorantly confuse Serbia with similar sounding places. If you manage to confuse Serbia with Syria or Siberia while you are in the country then we aren’t entirely sure what to say, but doing so isn’t going to make you any new friends. Yes, Serbia can get cold and yes, this was once a war zone, but this isn’t the desolate tundra or the Middle East.
Making linguistic assumptions
‘We thought you spoke Russian here’. Serbs are very proud of their language and rightly so, as it has a rich history and a beautiful way of painting pictures with words. Russian has those same qualities, but it is a very, very different language. Learn a bit of Serbian and you’ll find your experience greatly enhanced, but speaking Russian in Serbia is about as useful as speaking Spanish in Portugal.
Supporting the wrong team
This isn’t true of all Serbs, but football allegiances can become life or death matters in this country. There are few soccer rivalries on the planet that come close to matching the intensity of the one between Red Star and Partizan, and the hardcore elements of both fanbases are among the most intimidating going. This isn’t a throwaway subject like in other countries, and displaying a love for Red Star in Partizan territory is a surefire way to anger the wrong people.