Cypriot People & Culture

By Blanca Garcia

Cypriots are not always described simply as “Cypriots”. The word is often used together with the prefix “Greek” or “Turkish” in recognition of the two major ethnic groups that inhabit the island: the Greek-speaking Greek Orthodox community and the Turkish-speaking Muslims.


When Cyprus achieved its independence from Britain in 1960, the new Republic’s constitution defined the Greek and Turkish Cypriots as two separate ethnic groups. At that time, the members of both groups still co-habited in mixed villages and cities and purely Greek or Turkish villages were few. In the majority of cases, neighbours lived together in peace and celebrated their festivals together.

Then the events of 1974 split the island, and the two communities have not lived with each other for over 30 years.

Nevertheless, the two communities still have a lot of things in common: in the way they conduct their lives, their gestures, their food and drink. The Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots on both sides of the Green Line are all Cypriots, after all.


Language


The official languages of Cyprus are Greek, Turkish and English. Visitors have no trouble communicating in English due to the fact that Cyprus was a British colony from 1878 until 1960, and even today the British maintain military bases on the island. While you can get by this way, the ability and willingness to say even a few words in Greek will definitely be warmly welcomed and may "upgrade" your status from a simple touristas (or tourist) to a more honourable xenos, which means foreigner or traveller.

It is important to note that the Greek spoken in Cyprus is a strong dialect, with about 15% of the words peculiar to Cyprus. This means that people from Greece often find it hard to understand a conversation among Greek Cypriots.

Greek is not an easy language. The grammar is complicated with nouns divided into three genders, all with different ending cases in the singular and plural, and adjectives that have to agree with these in gender, number and case. Then comes the verbs which are even more complex; they come in passive and active voices, in two conjugations, and so on. But this should not be a discouragement to learn at least the basics.

If you are interested in learning Greek, other than taking lessons at an accredited institute, you can chose the option of teaching yourself with the aid of a book or online course.

Recommended Books

Learn Modern Greek the Best Way: An Introductory Book to "Modern Greek for Foreigners" by Athanasios J. Delicostopoulos

Talk Greek by Alison Kakoura

Greek for Beginners by L.A. Wilding

Rosetta Stone Version 3: Greek Level 1 with Audio Companion

Rapid Greek: v. 1: 200+ Essential Words and Phrases Anchored into Your Long Term Memory with Great Music (Audio CD) by Earworms Learning"BBC" Greek Phrase Book and Dictionary

Greek Phrase Book by David Hardy


Religion


Most Greek Cypriots belong to the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Cyprus (78%), while most Turkish Cypriots are Muslim (18%). Other religions represented on the island include the Maronites and the Armenian Apostolics (4%).

While the power and wealth of the Orthodox Church in Cyprus is evident from the many lavishing churches that have been built in the last few years, religious observance is varied.

In traditional rural villages, women attend religious services more regularly than men, and elderly family members are usually responsible for fulfilling the religious obligations on behalf of the entire family. Church attendance is less frequent in urban areas and among educated Cypriots. For most Greek Cypriots, religion revolves around rituals at home, adoration of icons, and strict observance of certain festivities marked by the Orthodox calendar.

The religious services are long and colourful, with singing, incense, and elaborate vestments according to the occasion for the priest. Statues are not allowed, but the veneration of icons, located on the church's walls and often covered with offerings of the faithful, is highly developed. Easter is the focal point of the church year, closing the fasting of the Lent season with an Easter eve vigil and procession.

Churches and Monasteries

Many of the famous Byzantine buildings are still used in some sacred capacity and remain locked. Part of the experience of visiting them is locating the key-keeper, who might or might not be a priest. When this is the case, it is customary to leave a small donation to the church or monastery after you complete your tour. The most courteous way to do this is not to hand your donation to the priest, monk or key-keeper himself, but to leave the money on the plate or box provided for this purpose.

Out of respect, visitors should avoid pointing to icons with their fingers or standing with their backs towards them. Likewise, men should not enter in shorts, and women should not wear very short dresses. Sleeveless tops should be avoided in all cases.


Education


Cyprus enjoys 97.6% literacy, with a school life expectancy of 14 years.

One could even argue that Cyprus suffers from an “over-qualified population”, with an overwhelming number of Cypriots holding post-graduate degrees.

The education system in Cyprus is backed up back public and private schools and consists of the following stages:

Pre-Primary Education - one-year pre-Primary education is obligatory and it accepts children over the age of three.

Primary Education - it is compulsory and takes six years to complete. Primary education is also provided by English-language, French-language and Russian-language private schools.

Secondary Education - secondary education consists of two three-year cycles: Gymnasio (lower secondary education) and Lykeio (upper secondary education) for students between the ages of 12 and 18. Instead of the Lykeio, students may choose to attend Secondary Technical and Vocational Education. More than 30 private primary and secondary schools operate with Ministry of Education and Culture approval. Apprenticeship Scheme – this is for students aged 14-16 who drop out from a secondary school. The system is managed by the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance and run by the Cyprus Productivity Centre and the Ministry of Education and Culture.

Higher Education – students can choose to follow their university studies in the public or one of the three private universities with campuses in Lefkosia and other towns.


Culture and Social Behaviour


Cypriots are little more reserved initially in friendship than Americans and most Europeans, but tend to become closer friends once friendships do develop.

Cypriots are typically more formal with their elders than other nationalities. People older than you are typically referred to as Kyrie (Mr) or Kyria (Mr), followed by their first name.

Being on time may be a virtue, but it is not one well-practiced in Cyprus. Being 30-45 minutes late to a social engagement is not considered unacceptable. It is actually expected.

Overall, Cypriots are extremely hospitable. It is considered polite to accept at least a little of what is being offered to you even if you do not want it. This applies most often to food and drink.

Cypriots speak more loudly and with more hand and facial gestures than western Europeans. A friendly discussion may look like an argument to the outsider.

Among friends (male-female, female-female), a kiss on each cheek is a common greeting; otherwise a handshake will do. Men do not typically kiss, unless they are old friends. Young female friends will sometimes hold hands.

Cypriots are quite trendy when it comes to clothing. Styles are similar to the US or Europe, but probably a bit dressier. Even for the younger generations, a typical going-out outfit definitely would not involve shorts and sandals.

Binge drinking is not part of Cypriot culture, and losing control in public is not viewed as desirable.

Musical taste in Cyprus tends toward a blended mix of Euro-pop, techno, American hip-hop and Greek music. Developing a taste or at least a tolerance for Greek music will definitely help you improve your experience on the island.


The Role of Women in Cyprus


The Cypriot Woman at Work

Cypriot women have seen a gradual change in their role as players in the economic revival of the country since the events of 1974.

This has been achieved through their increased participation in the island’s economic activity, the updating of family and labour law, the public awareness of women’s issues and the government’s policy for the promotion of gender equality.

The contribution of Cypriot women in the overall development of the country is evident:

Women’s share in the total labour force rose from 30% in 1976, to 37% in 1985 and 44% today
62.1% of all women aged 15-64 years are integrated in the labour force
31% of Cypriot women over 20 completed tertiary level education compared to 29% of Cypriot men

But there is still a long way to go when it comes to gender equality in the workforce:

Only 14.4% of high posts are held by Cypriot women
While women are paid an average of 17.4% less per hour than men across the EU, the gap for Cypriot women is 24%

The Cypriot Woman at Home

Cyprus is essentially a male society. Patriarchy, the social system in which a male is the family head and primary authority, is still very much alive in Cyprus. This is probably due to the political conflict that prevails on the island.

The island’s institutions, represented mainly by men, have been focused on the Cyprus issue since 1974, marginalizing thus any other important issues such as women’s rights and gender equality. As a result, Cypriot women still have a long way to go through before claiming their liberation from a system which traps both genders.

Traditionally, the expected primary role for Cypriot women has been to get married and have children and all other achievements were perceived as secondary. Nowadays, Greek-Cypriot women are split when asked if they believe that their social role is different from men.

Cypriot women do not talk much about themselves, what they want and their achievements. This is due to gender socialization, which promotes the norm for women to speak very little about themselves and when they do, to be judged as inappropriately showing off. Another reason related to women’s socialization is that women are expected to listen rather than speak, and to focus on caring and serving the needs of others, especially their children.

While many Cypriot women work outside the home, they are usually expected to fulfil the traditional domestic roles of housewife and mother. Even when these women have full-time jobs, they usually expect little help from their spouses or male children.