I remember visiting Hanoi for the first time, unable to walk out of my hostel. The chaotic Vietnamese traffic seemed frightening to me. That’s when I learned the real meaning of the term „culture shock.“ I’ve overcome the shock eventually – and even visited Hanoi for the second time during the same trip, totally enjoying crossing of the streets and bravely zigzagging between the motorbikes, but it taught me how much cultural background affects our perception of local habits.
The following list of „Czech peculiarities“ should help you prepare yourself for potential surprises, misunderstandings, or even shocks. I collected them from foreigners of diverse nationalities who have spent some time in the Czech Republic. They might not apply to each and every Czech person, but as a generalization, they‘re quite good.
1. Be prepared to get a story upon asking “How are you?”
Czechs are very straightforward and direct in communication. If you come from countries like the U.S., you might find this even impolite. But in Czech, extended (false) effort to be polite is perceived as a pretence. We usually don‘t open a conversation with strangers by asking how they are. We only say that if we’re really interested in an honest answer.
So don’t be surprised if an innocent „how are you“ provides you with more information than you‘d want to know. These are answers received by an American living in Prague:
Tesco cashier: “Oh, you know, my cat died last night.”
Barista: “I am upset. My favourite sweater shrank in the wash, and I had to stand on the longest queue at the market this morning. Not only that, but they raised the price of milk without telling anyone, so now we have to change our prices as well, and…”
Friend: “I’m not so good, I have diarrhoea.”
And, having lived in Australia for a few months now, I have to say that I still always automatically think about an honest answer when I’m asked how I’m doing. Simply because due to my cultural background I assume that the person who’s asking is really interested in my well-being…
2. Keeping distance, reservedness
Czechs tend to be reserved and slightly formal initially. They may even seem distanced and unwelcoming, but this eases once they get to know you. It may be a little bit harder to get to know a Czech person and hang out together. We usually don’t like to talk to strangers – whether Czech or foreigners. Even if you’re obviously lost, don’t expect anyone to come and offer help. You’ll have to ask – and be sure that people will be happy to help you. This reservedness is not unwillingness to help or be friendly, but rather a combination of individualism, independence, and respect for other people’s life space.
„One of the everyday struggles that I hope to soon become used to is the lack of smiling among the Czechs. In fact, it is seen as rude to smile at somebody you don’t know. When using public transportation, it is your best bet to keep quiet and avoid eye contact.“ [Katherine, USA]
Well, I’m pretty sure Katherine hasn’t lived in Denmark as I have. The thing I’ve perceived throughout Europe is that the openness and friendliness towards strangers decreases the more you go to the north. While a beautiful girl will be greeted “hola, chica!” or “ciao, bella!” in Spain and Italy, she’ll pass unnoticed in Denmark or Sweden. The more to the north, the more reserved – and polite! – people are. I’ve lived in Denmark and I currently I live in Germany, and I assure you that the distance is nothing else than a respect for your privacy. People let you do your business; intruding is seen as impolite.
But don’t forget, we’re generalizing here.
3. Larger personal space
I remember how much effort it took me to get used to India. Pushing or touching someone in the street is not a big deal at all in Indian cities. Actually, if you’re not pushed by others, check your location on Google maps, you might not be in India. Even practising yoga next to an Indian girl in a one-month course was a challenge, as I perceived her intruding my personal space and stepping on my mat to be quite rude. But it was just the Indian mentality and culture.
Larger personal space is not particularly a Czech feature, but rather a Western-culture one. Especially if you come from a densely-populated Asian region, you’ll notice that people don’t come so close to each other. The distance tends to be even bigger in the countryside where there are less people and more space. In big cities and especially in public transport, where there’s no choice, this rule doesn’t apply that much.
The usual greeting is a handshake with eye-contact. Don’t bow, hug, or kiss on cheeks. Kissing on cheeks or hugging is a higher level, we do that only with closer friends – but not necessarily.
At the age of 17, I spent a month at a French high-school, and at the end I was chosen by our teacher as a „delegate“ of our Czech group to officially say thanks to the mayor of the city that supported the exchange programme. How surprised I was when – instead of a decent handshake – that 50-something-year old man started to kiss me on the cheeks three times(!) in front of everyone…
5. Keeping your voice down
Compared to many cultures and nations, Czechs are quite quiet. We don’t scream in the streets or in public transport. In general, annoying others by being loud is considered impolite. Even while speaking, the intonation doesn’t get as wild as in Italian, Spanish, or Chinese. Playing music from your phone out loud in a public transport should be a no-no (although you may spot some less considerate people do it).
6. Take off your shoes, please!
It‘s a strong national habit to take your shoes off before you enter someone’s home. Doesn’t matter if you’re a queen, seriously. There might be some exceptional households trying to be cool and following western standards, but don’t count on that. Even an electrician or a serviceman take their shoes off when coming in. It‘s not unusual to bring your own (clean) house shoes when you’re visiting someone (but you don’t have to).
7. Czechs tend to be pessimists
Not everyone, of course, but it‘s a well known Czech stereotype that people always complain about something. And given the national straightforwardness, they will also let you know about it. What can I say. I’m working on it.
Czech Republic is a bureaucratic country. If you stay here for a longer time, you‘ll have to deal with paperwork. It‘s involved when opening a bank account, obtaining an identity card, identification number, permit or license, and also when re-registering a telephone number or applying for an internet connection. Many processes are deemed legal only after they have an official stamp. It’s necessary to keep all the documents. Which is peculiar, given that the state has all information in a digital form¾but somehow they haven’t been able to connect all departments, and so the paperwork goes on.
Nevertheless, that’s also true for many other countries, and there’s no way Czech can compete with Germany in this.
9. Poor customer service or just plain honesty?
If you come from a country where the customer is always right, then the service you receive from the staff of an average Czech restaurant or shop may strike you as a bit lacking. This is a testimonial of one Canadian:
„Generally, when you enter a shop or restaurant you will get the standard “dobrý den” (good day) greeting. From there, you will have your order taken or be asked if you’re looking for something particular. Beyond that, you’re usually left to your dining or browsing in peace until you’re ready to settle your bill or make your purchase. It may seem a spartan or otherwise minimalist approach to customer service by some standards, but at least it’s a largely honest and unpretentious approach. After visiting my native Canada and being reminded of how superficially nice and artificially friendly the average customer service worker has to be to keep their jobs, I find this much of the Czech approach to be refreshing.“
As a native Czech, I can only tell you that while visiting Vietnam, I wasn’t able to buy almost anything. I’m no shopping queen, but I really wanted to buy a dress. Yet they always made me run away. I’m just not used to a merchandiser staring at me from 40 cm. I prefer to be ignored, having my time to visualize myself in the dress on a date, and be well taken care of immediately after making an eye-contact.
Do know that waving at a waiter or even calling them loudly is considered impolite. Just attempt to make an eye contact and make them come to you.
10. Language barrier: The (only) official language really is Czech
While travelling, I came across people asking me if the official language in the Czech Republic was English or German. Maybe they thought Czech was inferior due to the country’s small size, or they didn’t think Czech was a language at all.
Nevertheless, in the past, Czech was indeed inferior to German – at least by its political significance. Just like German and all other European languages were inferior to Latin in matters of religion and education. In Bohemia and Moravia, German was for a long time used for official documents by the authorities (until after the 2nd World War), but we’ll talk about the history later.
Czech people have had their own language since their settlement in the Central Europe in the 8th-9th century AD. It has always been used as the primary language in everyday life and survived suppression from Austrian and German rule. Russian attempts to put Russian as a „better“ language and teach it to small children at school didn’t jeopardize the national language heritage either. (The generations of my grandparents and parents had to learn Russian at school from early age.)
Today, Czech is the only official language in the Czech republic. You’ll get a much warmer greeting if you learn at least some basic things like „dobrý den“ (good day) and „děkuji“ (thanks).
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