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Dos and Don'ts: Small Talk

Dos and Don'ts: Small Talk

A look at common interactions in the Czech Republic

Dos and Don'ts: Small Talk

Dos and Don'ts: Small Talk

A look at common interactions in the Czech Republic

Published 04.05.2011
Last updated 10.05.2011

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Even though English is commonly spoken in the Czech Republic, it doesn't mean that interacting is the same as in English-speaking countries.

Ice Breakers and Ice Hockey
Certain topics are just universal. Hobbies are always a good thing to talk about. Outdoor activities are popular here. Pets, especially dogs, are another favorite topic. Football and ice hockey may depend on how the national team is performing at any given time.

Lost in Translation
Typically acceptable conversation openers in English don't quite work here. Asking “How are you?” will often result in a truthful answer rather than the perfunctory “I'm fine”. Several Czech colleagues and friends have even told me not to ask in either Czech or English.

Talking about the weather can also invite the same bluntness. If you say “it's cold,” expect an abrupt rebuff such as “Yes, it's winter.” This is not to say that weather doesn't come up, especially if an older family member is instructing you to dress warmly.

Stating that Czech people have an accent in English can also be met with some confusion, even offense. For a native English-speaker, an accent means the way someone sounds when they speak, and we all have them. Many Czechs seem to see the word as a pejorative - a suggestion that they don't speak English well.

Other Prickly Subjects
Though the Czech Republic and Slovakia have has been divided since 1993, some people make the mistake of calling the country Czechoslovakia. From almost all Czechs I've spoken to, it irritates them. They might not tell you to your face, but they'll continue to believe us foreigners are an uneducated lot.

Even if you're aware of the separation of the two countries, don't over-emphasize the linguistic, or for that matter cultural, similarities between the Czech Republic and its neighbors. Most Czechs see themselves as having more in common with the West. Which leads to the final point - don't refer to the Czech Republic as being in Eastern Europe. Here, the preferred (and geographically accurate) term is Central Europe.

Politics at the Dinner Table
Given the high number of self-professed atheists, religion is not a common topic. Politics, on the other hand, crop up at family get-togethers and even in the work-place. One thing you must remember about Czech political discourse is that the Czechs have the worst, most corrupt, most incompetent politicians on the planet. Any attempts to suggest otherwise will be met with protests. Given the number of scandals and governments it is perhaps understand why they talk about it. It is like rain to an Englishman.

Those with more progressive tendency be warned - even in a country in which 81 of the 200 seats in the lower house are held by left-wing parties, you will be hard pressed to find anyone who will admit to such leanings and can seem shocked if you profess to be even mildly inclined to the left.

What Might Offend Us
The last point segues nicely into what might be said by Czechs that might sound offensive to our ears. Generally, Czechs can come across as less politically-correct than native English speakers. This may, in part, be due to the fact that even if people speak English they are not always adept at the nuances of language, especially being euphemistic and thus come across as blunt.

Furthermore, Czechs regard the word černoch (black person) as a neutral description. Běloch is for white people. Negr is pejorative. I'm not sure what the Czech for 'cracker' is.

Having said that, I've encountered enough people who have openly said “I don't like...[INSERT MINORITY GROUP HERE].” Then again, who is to say this doesn't happen in thousands of private conversations in the US, UK, Canada and Australia?

So what are your experiences?

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