The “megoldás”

One of the things I most love about Hungarian everyday culture is the concept of the megoldás (solution). When a problem comes up, people don’t fly into hysterics. They don’t typically look for someone to blame. Instead, they (and I) say, “megoldjuk” (“we’ll figure it out, we’ll solve it”). The solutions tend to be reasonable. This isn’t always the case, of course; there are problems in the country that have been waiting for a megoldás for a long time, and not everyone is megoldás-inclined, to put it mildly. But I think of the megoldás as a true cultural characteristic of Hungary. It comes up in my life almost every day.

It has come up at school, at government offices (with regards to paperwork), on public transportation, in conversation with just about everyone, in the plans for the October trip (many times). Some complexity or obstacle arises, but there’s a way through or around it. Hungarians are often perceived (by themselves and others) as pessimistic, not without reason, but they also show a kind of optimism combined with wit when pursuing practical solutions in matters large and small.

I don’t mean that U.S. Americans lack practicality—not at all! But I do see a greater tendency toward making a scene, taking things personally, blaming others, suing others. I participate in this too, often unwittingly (I have never sued anyone); there are times when I get ruffled instead of putting my brain to work. Or times when I panic that something will go wrong, when in fact there’s no reason why it should.

An example: In my first year at Varga, on my birthday, my students suggested we go out to the rose garden across the street. I agreed, and we went. While we were outside, a student discovered an injured pigeon. She knows how to take care of animals, so she decided to take the bird home. She ran off to a nearby store and came back with a cardboard box and some newspaper for filler so that it would be comfortable.

It was the most beautiful birthday gift: to see a student take care of an injured bird. But I panicked (silently) that we would get in trouble later for bringing the bird in the school. (In fact no one complained at all when she brought the bird inside; I think the receptionists offered to keep it with them until the end of the day.) When I later posted pictures from our little excursion, students asked me why I hadn’t included a picture of Hajni and the pigeon. Getting in trouble, getting blamed had been on my mind.

The imaginary voice roared, “You should know better than to bring a bird into the school! It’s unsanitary, and someone will complain, and the school will get cited!” (The voice would not roar about any real danger posed by the pigeon, but rather, once again, about “getting in trouble.”)

Now, let me not be silly about this. It is possible to get in trouble in Hungary too, and if that happens, the consequences are stiff. No one wants a run-in with the police. But in everyday relations, people (often) first seek to resolve the problem rather than point the finger. There are exceptions and complications, but the “megoldás” generally prevails.

The fear of “getting in trouble” can demean and demoralize a person. Instead of devising an umbrella strong enough for hail, or figuring out that it’s not going to hail in the first place, you cower, waiting for the ice stones to tumble down upon you (as you are sure they will do), or scream at whoever you think is bringing them down. I am not sure where the fear comes from (as a cultural phenomenon in the U.S.). It’s peculiarly profound.

It might come from some kind of murky, rumbling pressure to outshine others, to appear successful. When the desired success does not take place or falls short, this same murky force looks for someone to blame. That may be part of it. Another part may be a tendency to think in extremes: if things aren’t going wonderfully, then they’re going terribly. If they are going terribly, then once again, there is someone to blame. Still another part has to do with a cultural tendency toward upheavals. You can never trust that things will just proceed calmly. As soon as you get used to a situation, it will collapse, not because of its own defects, but because someone wanted to destroy it all along.

Hungary has its own murky pressures, but they are of a different kind. People keep many of their opinions (political, etc.) to themselves (and family and close friends), not trusting that they can speak up without consequence. There are plenty of outspoken people, particularly among the young and in particular contexts (workplaces, online debates, political protests), but on the whole, Hungarians stay rather quiet in comparison to U.S. Americans. At first I loved Hungarian quietness and soft-spokenness, and I still do. But it has many layers, not all of which are happy. I miss the American ecstasy of opinion (which has its own pain).

You live in a country for five years, and it slowly, slowly starts to open up to you and in you. That is no surprise. The greater surprise is that your native country does, too.

I made a few small additions to this piece after posting it.

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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