One of the troublesome things about living in the Czech Republic is not the alleged poor service, xenophobia, slowness of the bureaucracy or any other complaint we expats have. It is the tendency for Czechs to be negative, often exceedingly negative, toward their fellow countrymen and women. People have a right to their opinions and a certain self-deprecation is welcome over rampant national pride. In fact it can be refreshing. But over the years I can’t help but think the negativity might be a little too extreme and that it has implications for a country I currently call home.
Modesty vs. negativity
Coming from Australia, a country where boisterous nationalism is practically a default setting, I’m aware that any opinion about one’s country which doesn’t include people wearing flags as capes or reminding anyone who will listen how much better everything is at home will possibly appear slightly derogatory. Furthermore, there is a saying here, “small but ours”, which tends to play up the modesty. (Of course not all people live up to these ideas.)
But the negativity I have encountered was not misconstrued modesty; it was unequivocally hostile. A number of Czechs I’ve met have voiced a clear dislike for Czech people and/or the Czech country either directly to me or around me. The comments have come from a range of people who aren’t always connected.
A family friend upon meeting me at a gathering asked, “Why do you want to live in this s#!t republic?” An older man from the same social circle complained about having to drink with the Czechs, when he himself was Czech. I’ve had a woman repeatedly tell me she doesn’t like it here, though she’s lived here for the better part of her life and a younger man tell me he wished he wasn’t Czech. And I overheard one Czech colleague say to another Czech colleague “Czechs are stupid,” in Czech of course.
Some of the comments can be less severe. But it’s remarkable how often it comes up. I’ve been told numerous times how Czechs “know how to get around laws”. When going to a bank for the first time, the clerk warned me that Czechs steal. I’m not sure how that was meant to make me feel more reassured about leaving my money with them.
I thought that maybe it was just me and my skewed view. (I’m willing to concede that in part some of it may still be that.) But Ladislav Holý’s book, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation, contains research which corresponds to what I’m talking about. Holý pointed to two polls, one conducted in 1990 and a second carried out two years later, which asked Czechs to describe themselves. In the earliest poll, the most common traits were all negative: envious, conformist, egotistical, and cunning. Two years later, the results changed little. Cunning replaced egotistical as the third most common response and all the traits were remarked upon more often. Only one positive trait “hard-working” entered the top four responses in the later poll.
As much as the data seems to directly confirm the prevalence of negativity, the findings are over two decades old. What do more recent surveys show? While none address this question specifically, a number of other surveys reveal that negativity of one sort continues. However, the picture is complex.
Sixty four percent of respondents to a Stem survey in 2008 said they didn’t trust their fellow citizens. A poll from last year showed that more than half of Czechs wanted to live abroad. Among the young the figure is as high 70%. The old Czech saying “Všude dobře, doma nejlíp” (Everywhere good, at home the best) might not apply anymore.
Jan Červenka from the Sociological Institute of the Academy of Sciences (Sociologický Ústav Akademie Věd) was less concerned about the later point.
“This yearning [to live abroad] is, for young people who don’t have their own family, typical enough,” he said.
However, he didn’t dismiss the negativity toward the social and economic situation so readily. Though results show a drop from the pessimistic highs (or should that be lows) at the turn of the millennium when 72% of people thought the economic situation was bad or very bad, a significant chunk of society – 45% – remain pessimistic about the situation. A slightly smaller number (36%), admittedly from a different survey, are dissatisfied with the direction the country is heading. Even more, 41% said the country was heading nowhere.
This mood ranks the Czech Republic as the second most pessimistic nation on Earth in 2012. Greece, with its collapsed economy, is first. Even post-earthquake Haiti rated as less pessimistic. It can be argued that the economic crisis, which has left a record number of people unemployed, and the political situation are fuelling the feeling.
Yet, some data shows a silver lining around the grey clouds. The Center for Public Opinion Research at the Sociological Institute revealed that Czechs display pride in history, arts, music, literature, and above all sport. To that I would add – at least based on personal experience – Czech films, industry, and, of course, beer.
I was motivated to look into this because the negativity alarmed me but I also wanted to put that alarm into some context. I hope Mr. Červenka is right when he says that the feeling isn’t permanent. Even if it isn’t, it’s hard not to see the negativity as being a barrier to integration. It’s hard to settle here when a large chunk of the people you meet ask you constantly why you want to live here and don’t seem satisfied with the positive reasons you give.
It also has to impact on the economy and social development. Will people bother to be innovative and take risks – which improves lives for locals as much as expats – if they have ill-feelings toward others?
“As for the question of whether negative attitudes can affect the economy, I think it has influence because of our attitudes and expectations affect our behavior,” Mr. Červenka said.
I’m not suggesting flag waving jingoism is the answer, but a shift toward the center has to be better than the current mood. Maybe a little more pride is the missing ingredient.
What have been your experiences? And do you think the negativity has an influence on or is it merely part of the culture?