Formal and Informal Czech
Sinclair Nicholas examines the Czech language
Written by Sinclair Nicholas
Re-published with permission
When I was a teenager in high school I studied French, and there was one particular aspect of the French language that, try as I might, I just couldn´t understand: “Vous” and “tu,” the formal and informal pronouns for “you.” I couldn´t comprehend a formal and informal level in the French language. A Czech might think I am kidding, but try to imagine that, all your life, you never knew about, and never once used, formal and informal levels when you spoke your language. In my native English language there is only one word for “you,” and this made complete sense to me— after all, “you” is “you” and that seems right; why should “you” have two words to mean the same thing? It seemed strange and incomprehensible to me, like saying a dog is sometimes called a zog. I doubt that any current American high school student really understands the double pronoun usage of “you” in French.
American students can get the basic idea that formal language is supposed to be used when speaking to a teacher, etc., but they cannot comprehend the cultural mindset attached to it, so that it seems pompously silly and quite unnecessary. The reason I could not understand is clear to me now. I was learning the French language but knew nothing about the culture from which the French language came, yet French culture is inseparable from the formal and informal language used in French, so my ignorance of French culture left me trying to apply American culture to the French language. That was a doomed approach, but it stands to reason that I tried to do this since I had no other culture by which to understand the French language.
This is a natural mistake; I have seen many Americans (including myself when I first came to Czechoslovakia) make the mistake of applying American cultural norms to Czech culture. We end up thinking in a foolishly ethnocentric way. We feel condescension and a sense of cultural superiority, when in reality we are biased and ignorant. I viewed Czech society, and the Czech way of life, from a very American point of view for a few years before I finally began to lose some of my cultural biases. Likewise, I have heard Czechs apply their cultural norms to American culture. Using their Czech way of thinking, they point out something that seems ridiculous to them about American society. I don´t even try to explain to them that their viewpoint is ethnocentrically Czech. It seems a waste of time to do so, especially since they are simply not capable of understanding or seeing things from an American perspective. Direct experience, by living in a different culture, is about the only way most people can achieve any clear understanding of this natural human mistake. Strangely, some people can live many years in another culture and never let go of their cultural biases, others might live somewhere a short time and quickly gain a sense of cultural relativity. I probably belong somewhere in between. I still wouldn´t understand why the French have two words for “you” if I hadn´t lived here in the Czech Republic for many years. The “Vy” and “Ty” forms of “you” in Czech, which are equivalent to the “Vous” and “Tu” forms in French, now make complete sense to me. In fact, I instantly take on a different mindset when I speak Czech. For example, I think in a humbler and more respectful way when I use formal Czech; I also feel a little less confident, but I believe this is a natural consequence of speaking Czech. There are both obvious and very subtle differences in a nation´s social psychology within their languages, and this contributes to our stereotypes of national characters.
Many centuries ago, the English also acquired, from the French, a double pronoun usage, but it never really succeeded and eventually fizzled out until, ironically, what was originally the informal level of English became what most English speaking people now think was once the formal level of English (Thy, Thee, Thou, Thine, etc). The gradual literary elevation of Shakespeare, the reverence held for the King James version of the Bible, and the desire of Quakers´ to speak to everyone as equals, have tricked the rest of the English speaking world into thinking thou was always poetic, reverent or religious. But this is not the case. Initially, you was used in English like vous in French, while thee/thou was used like the French use of tu. Some linguists also speculate that the use of you in the second person singular may have begun as a result of using the plural pronoun to mark distinction when addressing Kings, Queens or other nobility, and that this then broadened to differentiate between social classes. But In French, tu became intimate, condescending or, to a stranger, potentially insulting, while the plural form vous evolved into something very reserved and formal. Meanwhile, the English language settled into using you for all occasions and, surprisingly, no one really knows why. How could such a huge shift in a language occur while even the best historians and linguists have ended up patching together various conflicting theories (by studying the English language´s oldest extant literature, personal letters, official documents, etc.) as to why English either never really had, or else somehow lost, formal and informal language levels?
Most Americans are not aware that English belongs to an extremely outnumbered minority as a contemporary language that does not have formal and informal levels. It is only from our ignorance of other languages that we Americans think it strange that a different language has two separate sets of pronouns and verb conjugations (depending upon whether it is a formal or informal situation). In reality, most languages are that way, and we English speakers have an oddball language. Russian and all other Slavic languages I can think of have it, as do all the Latinate influenced, Romance languages (like Italian or Spanish) and Germanic languages (except English) or Scandinavian languages. Even most (or perhaps all) Asian languages possess a formal and informal level, as does Greek, Yiddish or Turkish. The only world language lacking a formal and informal level is English.
The English language is probably the most mixed up and patched together language of all languages in the world, but it also has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. It is classified as a member of the Germanic family of languages, but that´s about like saying the average American came from The Black Forest. We moved out of there so long ago, and have travelled through so many other places since then, that we should forget about trying to classify English as a Germanic language. I estimate that more than half of all words in the English language have a Latin or Greek origin, while another 20% of English words have origins from the rest of the world´s languages, so it might be just as accurate to consider English a Romance language.
Because English speaking people have such a mysteriously mixed up language, they have a great deal of trouble understanding formal and informal levels. I now know the tremendous difference between the way a person who speaks a language with formal and informal levels thinks, and the way an English speaking person thinks, although the great majority of English speaking people do not know about those differences, and this unfortunately causes them problems in understanding or relating to the rest of the world (most of which uses formal and informal levels in their languages). We consider German and Czech to come from two entirely different families of languages, yet both societies are permeated with the social significance in offering another speaker to “tykat” or speak their informal language levels together. The psychology of those language levels makes Germans and Czechs much more alike than a German is to an American. But supposedly my language belongs to the same family as the German speaker´s language. Let´s at least admit that English and German are very distant cousins, linguistically, while German and Czech are more like in-laws.
I used to be completely blind to the meaning of these language levels, but now I even perceive the usefulness of formal and informal Czech; this would have been impossible for me were I to study Czech without ever having lived in the Czech Republic. The same in reverse is that, to a Czech who hasn´t lived in America, and hasn´t become familiar with American culture, we Americans probably seem baffling in our ability to use the same word (“you”) whether we are speaking to a complete stranger, the President of the United States or a member of our own family. A natural question for a Czech is, “How can they speak to each other without having a formal and informal level? And wouldn´t that be quite confusing?” My answer to a Czech asking this question is, “It would be confusing if only Americans knew it.” But we don´t know anything about formal and informal English since it doesn´t exist, so we manage just fine with our solitary “you.” It has its advantages and disadvantages, just as the Czech language´s formal and informal levels have advantages and disadvantages.
For example, the use of formal and informal language in Czech supports a cultural system of polite respect that English lacks; this lack sometimes causes Americans to get into bad situations, but they are not aware that formal English could help them avoid such situations (if formal English existed). Perhaps individualism works against a society´s possessing ingrained respect, so that at least part of the reason we lost formal and informal levels might have been due to a breakdown in class distinctions under democracy and modern society (although that is only an unresearched guess). In any case, if English had a formal level of language through which to express respect (and more psychological distance created by that formal level), Americans would at times have it much easier. Americans don´t respect authority or titles the way Czechs do. I found this lack of respect sometimes difficult as a university teacher in America, but at other times it seemed like a good thing since students actively disagreed during discussions and were more willing to think for themselves and form their own opinions. A good teacher is smart enough, and has enough leadership ability, to control the classroom environment and gain the students´ respect while managing to teach, but American teachers have to struggle for their students´ respect, it isn´t a given, especially in American high schools where education is still compulsory. Automatic respect is not a given elsewhere in American society, either.
Czech students have become less respectful towards teachers since the revolution, but they still have a higher level of respect for teachers than what I have seen in American schools. However, they also have less tendency to participate in their education and challenge ideas and think for themselves. Education under a democracy is about an open dialogue, whereas education under authoritarianism is about being told what to think (and about memorizing and repeating information). Under Communism, teaching students to think for themselves could get a teacher in big trouble. Writing a solid research paper about the atrocities that Stalin committed would have been highly frowned upon (if it had ever been written by a student). Also, this automatic respect might cause more conformity than what America possesses as a society. It is very important that a change occurs within the educational institutions in the Czech Republic, although thus far I have seen only small changes that have taken many years.
The first day I walked into a Czech classroom, I was unsettled and surprised when every student stood at attention, said “Good Day” in unison, then stood there quietly staring at me. I felt like a judge walking into a courtroom where the bailiff says, “All rise, the honorable Judge Nicholas has entered the courtroom.” I was not comfortable with such obligatory respect. It seemed too formal. I waited for the children to sit, but they stood there looking at me, and I at them. Some of the smart ones started giggling because they knew what was going on. After a long and very awkward pause, wherein the giggling increased, I finally figured out they were waiting for me to tell them to sit down. Although it may seem insignificant, I am still not so sure this kind of conformity is compatible with a democratic society. In an American high school, the kids continue talking and usually ignore the teacher when he or she walks through the door. A few of the students will start shushing the others to be quiet and respect the teacher. The teacher has to tell them to quiet down and pay attention. But they do quiet down. The students call the teacher Mr., Ms., or Mrs. Smith, but the teacher still has to earn a good deal of the respect he or she gets. That seems fair to me, though. I should earn respect by proving I am a professional and quite good at my job; I should, through my abilities and personality, cause students to feel respect for me. Why should I demand respect just because I am in some position of authority? The most common result of such a mentality is abuse and misuse of that authority.
It was normal when I taught at an American university that my students called me by my first name. The full professor is often called Dr. Smith, but sometimes this also is not the case and his students call him by his first name. Americans aren´t very comfortable with forced linguistic signs of respect, most of us feel like we are being arrogant or egotistical to use formal names. The professor who tells his students, “Please, call me Bob,” is trying to show his students that he wants to be regarded as a helpful friend rather than an educational dictator. He is saying, “I´m one of you, let´s have trust and friendship in our teaching relationship.” Sometimes this more democratic approach is quite effective, sometimes not. At best it gives students a feeling of equality and independence that drives them to challenge themselves and achieve excellence, at worst it causes students to disrespect and take advantage of their easy professor. Perhaps Americans fear the authoritarianism that could creep into society if we are too respectful of institutions, positions or people. Or perhaps Americans are suspicious of authority because of their strong sense of individualism; we are each of us our own greatest authority. A lot of us have guns to prove it.
I remember thinking how pompous and ridiculous it was when I appeared in court over a traffic citation, and the bailiff said, “All rise, the honorable Judge Smith is entering the courtroom.” I thought, “Who the hell do judges think they are that they get automatic respect?” I didn´t like it one bit because I do not respect authority just because it is supposed to be authority. I felt like not standing up, but I decided I should stand since it was probably a law and everyone else rose to the occasion. I wonder though, is it a law that you have to stand up when some pompous-assed judge walks into the courtroom? That is a typical American question; if I had known for sure it was not a law, I probably would not have stood up. I was going to have to pay a fine anyway, and I did not know whether this judge deserved my respect or not. Do I sound disrespectful to you? What are you going to do about it? The strong American sense of individualism inclines many Americans to resist institutional rules (unless it is a law that they must obey). Many Americans feel that way, and they also feel suspicion towards authority. We don´t much respect titles or authority, you have to prove to us you deserve your title or authority. Americans are less afraid of their government or policemen. Americans grant trust, but one must earn respect, Czechs grant respect, but one must earn trust.
In America, a person holding a doctorate title seems silly to us if he insists, especially outside his school or office, in being called Dr. Smith. We think of him as conceited and stuck on his own title (which he usually is). Here in the Czech Republic, we love using our titles and society still offers instant respect. This culture of respect gives Czechs the occasion to call people, “Mr. Doctor” or even “Mr. Engineer,” kind of like double respect. It is the same with the German “Herr Doctor (Mr. Doctor).” If a Czech with any title whatsoever receives mail that does not include the title before his or her name, the entire envelope just might get thrown straight into the trash can with a feeling of contempt from the insult of it. I have a university title that could be used in front of my name, as is the Czech way, but I have never been comfortable with using it like that since I would never use this title in America in the way Czechs use titles here. Here in the Czech Republic, anyone with a conferred title gets instant respect. But Czechs seem over-respectful to titles and authorities (the formal language level helps to maintain that respect), Americans seem under-respectful (the informal language level undermines that respect). Americans prefer using first names so as to avoid looking starched and unsympathetic.
It is the same in the rest of American society, most Americans call their bosses by their first names. “Mr. Smith” isn´t used so much in America, maybe at the dentist office when the receptionist calls your name (“Mr. Smith, the doctor will see you now,”) but this is in fact a sign of respect to the individual rather than respect for a person of title. We Americans are mostly on an informal, first name basis with each other. When we speak our English, which has no formal or informal levels, we are generally speaking informally with each other, like we´re friends. Dave and Bill, who just met, speak like they´ve known each other for years. We are sometimes disappointed by this later when the friend turns out to be not a friend, or when our boss, who perhaps has trouble earning our respect since we start out at such an informal level, suddenly behaves coldly authoritarian. Americans far more often get themselves into the position of saying, “I thought we were friends.” If a Czech´s boss, after several years, finally offers his employee to speak informal Czech, then it is significant, and is felt as a great honor and reward; there is also a very strong sense of trust and respect between the two. One Czech acquaintance mentioned to me that he had the impression, when he lived in America, that Americans were indeed quite friendly, but it actually did not mean so much and they quickly forgot about their friendships with others. I agree with that Czech´s viewpoint. Compared to the Czech concept of friendship, American friendship is much broader, but far less deep. I am not making a value judgement as to which is better because I see advantages and disadvantages connected to both mentalities.
Here´s a basic difference between Americans and Czechs: Americans start out three inches apart and sometimes learn (the hard way) that they belong three feet apart. Czechs start out three feet apart and sometimes learn (the pleasant way) that they belong three inches apart. Perhaps this is a direct result of having a formal level of language. This is the Czech speaker offering to “tykat” or speak to each other in informal Czech. I suppose that Americans have no idea what I am talking about. It took me several years of living among Czechs to become sensitive to the cultural system behind formal and informal language, there is a psychological mindset that becomes part of one´s personality once one becomes habituated with using formal and informal Czech. This is part of becoming Czech in one´s thinking, and I cannot express that to an American through a few sentences or a paragraph of explanation. But, basically, Americans operate on the premise that every stranger is a friend, whereas Czechs operate on the premise that every stranger is a stranger. Friendship or closeness is not a given, it is granted later if deserving of it. This has its good and bad sides, just like the American way— and again, one culture´s advantage is usually the other´s disadvantage.
Czechs have less trouble with issues of respect— which might also relate to friendship. Americans have a tendency to make quick friends without any thought about mutual respect, and they sometimes discover their trust was misplaced because they did not first build the mutual respect that a strong friendship requires. Czechs try to consider less people as friends, but they hope, and more accurately trust, that the few whom they consider friends are truly reliable friends. This is usually the case because they have, over time, developed a strong sense of mutual respect and trust for each other. We Americans consider nearly everyone our friends, we want people to like us and we like people, but our casual friendships are more frequently illusions. An American goes to a big party and everyone is his or her friend. Czech society is more realistic about people, I think also less trusting, but perhaps trust really is something that should be earned, or should it be? And what about respect? I think it best that trust is issued to each other in society like currency, and respect is the thing that should be earned, but this arrangement also produces some disadvantages. The quick and easy trust of Americans is good for society as a whole, it makes for a more open and friendly society; compared to the amount of conflict I experience in Czech society, American society seems quite kindly and encouraging. That is one of the positive aspects to open trust and a free smile; compared to the unapproachable and detached feeling that I experience in Czech society, American society seems more pleasant; but, Americans have much more trouble knowing who their friends are, especially since they have so many of them. It´s more difficult to detect what is sincere and what is not; even within the individual, heartfelt sincerity can dissipate after a few minutes, warm and friendly one moment, forgotten the next. We Americans want to win the popularity contest, and the presence of so much trust in American culture makes for a far more sociable society.
However, less trust is also pleasant in a way; the Czechs´ insistence on earning trust makes society less sociable, but they don´t have to keep up appearances the way Americans do. I have lived here many years and do not really know my neighbors. Czechs put it this way: “Come and visit us, we won´t go to your house either,” which means, “We offer you a friendly invitation to our home, but you and I both know this is being polite and I won´t bother you if you won´t bother me.” This is a prevalent Czech attitude, Czechs don´t feel a need to socialize as much (which perhaps originates in their lack of trust and a forty year habit of socially and psychologically hiding themselves whenever in public), Czechs want their little private family lives and prefer that even the neighbors stay out of it. The feeling that you don´t owe anybody anything is a freedom I can appreciate here in Cz. We like our neighbors (if they don´t burn tires or make too much noise), we give them a formal “Good day” when we see them, but unless we meet them at the pub we don´t talk much, and we don´t do neighborhood barbecues, camping trips or other social gatherings as much as Americans do. It seems to make life easier to have fewer friends and fewer obligations, but is there also less enjoyment in such an arrangement? I had a lot of fun as a child because we went on camping trips or had cookouts with the neighbors (whom were all much closer pyschologically) although this closeness sometimes caused neighborhood wars between families. Familiarity breeds contempt. With my American neighbors, it was either hot or cold (both at various times in our relations), with my Czech neighbors there isn´t even a thermometer to measure anything. Americans get to know each other and then move on if they don´t have that much in common, Czechs do not get to know each other, or get to know each other much more slowly. We Czechs generally go about our lives and leave each other alone, we don´t want strangers or neighbors bothering us. Not only is there less trust in Czech society, but we have managed to need less of it.
Perhaps general mistrust in Czech society was created by the totalitarian system, which created collective fear and an environment that inhibited trust or friendship. The mistrust came to the point that it was unhealthy, society became cold and anaemic from a lack of trust and casual friendship. I can´t help but wonder if totalitarian systems partly owe their success in a society because there was already too much respect for authority (reinforced by a culture with formal and informal language). Once a dictator gets a hold on power in a society such as China, the strong culture of formal respect itself might help the dictator to control the nation. The lack of trust between individuals and the respect for authority, as well as the strong social adherence to agreed upon standards (which has nothing to do with a society having agreed upon ethics), makes it an environment of “every man for himself,” so that to divide and conquer the society is much easier. Individualism in America works because the individual has never had anything to fear from those collective individuals who make up society. Maybe Czech culture is partly the way it is from the Communist era, a time when even your neighbors might inform on you, so Czechs stayed in their homes, raised their children, went on their vacations and minded their own business, hoping everyone else would do the same and leave them alone. However, friendship is highly valued in the Czech Republic, it isn´t conferred lightly— and under Communism it was also conferred very carefully. Even today, Czechs aren´t quick to call someone a friend. Formal Czech might still be maintained even between two people who really are friends, but this also comes back to a feeling of genuine respect.
There is this old Czech man, a neighbor I consider a grandfatherly figure, and once in a while he will ring my gate buzzer, or once in a while I´ll ring his, then we walk down the street to the local pub. Me and the old man like to drink and talk, the same pub patrons are all there at the corner pub, we all know each other somewhat and it´s comfortable. If the old man and I are both there, then we sit together. I always speak to him in formal Czech from a sense of reverence or respect. In conversation we are not really on a formal level at all, we speak to each other like two friends. I think he even mentioned once, after we´d had a pleasant conversation and a few Gambrinus beers (oh the pure gold light of Czech beer), how age differences can sometimes disappear between friends. He chooses to continue our formal level of communication because of our great age difference (the unwritten rule is that it is up to him to offer that we speak informal Czech, I cannot make the offer since I am the younger one who is obligated to respectfully use formal Czech until otherwise notified). As a Czech I feel the properness, the rightness of it. It would feel strange and improper were I to speak to him in informal Czech. I am quite fond of the old man, we always walk home a few hours later, stopping frequently to talk or look at the sky, we´re both interested in constellations and astronomy, but we have never wanted to cross the boundaries into informal Czech. I consider the formal Czech in this instance as something extra that the Czech language can give to me, it creates a special relationship with my old neighbor, for whom I have said I feel the fondness I might feel for a grandfather, plus the feeling of friendship, and the formal language somehow allows me to express and feel my reverence and friendship in a way that the English language does not allow. English is incapable of the same effect because it has no formal level.
On the other hand, the formal and informal levels of Czech also allow Czechs to show severe disrespect by the simple act of using informal Czech when it should not be used. I have seen this frequently downtown when a Czech speaks with a Vietnamese sales stand person. I cringe every time I hear some Czech using informal Czech with a Vietnamese person just because he or she is Vietnamese. Just as formal Czech can show obvious respect, informal Czech can show obvious disrespect. Contempt for foreigners is often expressed by Czechs through the simple act of using informal Czech. However, I can still appreciate the usefulness of the strict differences between the two levels of language. By learning the Czech language I have become transformed into a person who is more polite and who feels a deeper respect for others, especially for older people. One has to change like that in order to use formal and informal Czech properly. I feel this same respect for Americans when I am in America, but I got it from Czech language and culture, and it is a good thing for me as a human being.
Another positive aspect of formal Czech is that it can make communication impersonal in a convenient, pleasant way, as with societal transactions in business, in offices or work environments, or even in something as common as dealing with a store clerk when purchasing something. In America the store clerk can seem too friendly even for American standards. It´s the same when some telemarketer calls— a guy I´ve never met is on a first name basis with me and talking on the phone to me like we´re good friends: “Hi Sinclair, this is Dave over at True Value Insurance, how´s life been treating you lately?” I always politely answer such insincere questions, even though I feel like saying, “Don´t bullshit me, stranger, and get to the point.” At times, even though Americans are used to being on a first name basis with everyone, our inclination towards open friendliness with strangers can feel awkward and unpleasant even to us. Americans could use a little more formality and linguistic signs of respect sometimes. If an American employee started out speaking to his boss on a formal level, and respectfully called him Mr. Smith, he wouldn´t have to learn the hard way that they aren´t really friends. And they would feel satisfaction when one of their formal relationships evolved into a less formal one. The American way always seems to show a negative side when I point out some positive side to the Czech way, and vice versa.
Thinking about the issue of respect made me remember an incident that occurred years back when I first came to Czechoslovakia. One day I was taking a train from Prague back to my little village. There was no one sitting across from me and so I had my feet in the seat as I read a book. I thought nothing of it, in America it seems many people would put their feet on a chair or prop them on a desk or a bench or a box. We are merely creating makeshift Lazy-Boy recliners and do not make a big deal out of it; we Americans are an informal gang. I continued with this attitude even after a few Czech acquaintances told me I should not put my feet in train seats; I figured I would make Czechs change their behavior and thinking, so I continued with my American habits. This is much like how I decided to keep telling strangers “Ahoj” all the time even after a few Czechs explained to me the Czech way of doing things. I decided I would continue saying “Ahoj” and teach the Czech nation to be more friendly. I now see how silly and naďve such thinking was, but at the time I believed too firmly in my lifelong American habits, which was a significant part of my ethnocentrism. On the train, I was wearing leather Indian mocassins that had smooth, shiny bottoms, so it was clear that they had no discernable dirt on them, plus the seat was vinyl and would easily wipe off. I was aware of these facts when I propped my feet comfortably on that seat— and putting one´s feet on the opposite seat is not considered overly disrespectful from an American point of view (although it is usually a younger person who gets that comfortable in public).
The train conductor came collecting tickets and asked basically (in Czech that I did not understand) who the hell I thought I was to have my feet in the seat. I knew it was about my feet being on the seat because he kept pointing at my feet in an angry way, and he was fairly vocal about this, without exaggerating I could say he was yelling at me. And what was my reaction? American. I yelled just as loud, though in English, just who the hell did he think he was that he could tell me anything whatsoever? I left my feet in the seat, showing him flat refusal to remove them, and told him to quit acting like a stupid Communist. Just to make sure he understood the gist of what I was saying I pointed at him and said loudly, “Communist!” He waved his hand in that Czech gesture of resignation over inescapable stupidity and walked away, loudly saying other things that I did not understand, probably something like, “You unrefined, ill-behaved, barbaric American!”
I think the reason I thought of this incident as I am writing about formal and informal Czech and respect in society is that it really does get to the core of a basic difference between American and Czech thinking. From this incident I can arrive at one of the basic philosophies of my American self, and a basic philosophy of my Czech self, which are somewhat in opposition to each other. By now I accept such contradictions. Most of us, perhaps all of us, possess these contradictions. For example, double standards are one of humanity´s most common self-contradictions. If a man is intimate with a lot of women he´s worthy of admiration, but if a woman does this then she´s lacking morals, is considered a whore. This same man, who thinks it is acceptable to have sex with any desirable and willing woman, wouldn´t like it if his wife, sister, mother or daughter behaved in the same way. There are many other such double standards in every culture, and they represent internal contradictions with which we know how to live. So my personal contradictions in being Czech and American does not bother me. So what was my reasoning, albeit unconscious and assumed, for reacting to the train conductor as I reacted, and what was his unconscious point of view from which came his reaction? What are these basic beliefs upon which we two nations operate, and how had it brought us to this cultural clash?
Mine was based on one of America's fundamental principles; it is expressed in some of our most revered documents, including in the Declaration of Independence, and that is our right to the "pursuit of happiness." I felt as though the train conductor had assaulted the Declaration of Independence by yelling at me. Americans operate on this “pursuit of happiness” principle all the time without even realizing it, on that and, similarly, our belief that the individual is of primary importance. So, when I yelled at the train conductor, I was thinking, “How dare you tell me what to do!” I did not see how my feet on the seat was injuring his personal pursuit of happiness, so he seemed to me to be putting his nose where it did not belong, and his authoritative behavior made me think he had been living under Communism too long.
Had another commuter approached me and wanted to sit there, I would have immediately removed my feet and brushed the seat off with my hand because I do understand when I might be invading the other individual´s rights or pursuit of happiness, but Americans do not believe in or even understand some arbitrator, such as a train conductor, representing other individuals´ pursuits of happiness, so he seemed to me like he was aggressively invading my individual rights. This is because Americans don´t have a strong system of public behavioral standards and societal respect the way Czechs do.
I no longer believe the train conductor was behaving the way he did from some Communist influence. His reaction is much clearer to me now that I can consider it like a Czech. Because I now think like a Czech, I would never put my feet on a train seat. I even cower at the idea of putting my feet in the opposite seat because it is such an affront to our standards of decent public behavior, plus I know good and well I would get yelled at by the train conductor— and even if, by some miracle, this did not happen, all the other passengers would nevertheless think I was a rude derelict. As a young American, I had no feeling of rudeness or derelictness whatsoever; Americans have no strong, central code of behavior that all Americans believe in and enforce upon each other. I was devoid of the Czech standard codes of behavior.
The train conductor had a different unconscious basis for his thinking. Czechs do not think about individual rights in society, they think more about what is respectful, what are the correct manners or code of behavior for all society members to operate upon. This is the Czech way of protecting each individual´s pursuit of happiness. If everyone is afraid to put their feet on the seat, then no one is going to sit on a dirty seat. But again, public fear of doing the wrong thing is exactly what makes it easier to create a totalitarian system.
In America I never considered giving a senior citizen my seat, but in the Czech Republic on a subway or streetcar or bus, when an old person gets on, I will immediately stand up and offer my seat to the old person. It´s like a knee-jerk reaction, a Czech reflex that I developed by learning the codes of behavior in Czech society. I suppose Americans have less situations in which a senior citizen would need our assistance; public transportation, for example, is largely unused by Americans since each uses his or her own car. But in a large city like New York, where many use the subway, I do not believe younger people would consistently get up and offer their seat to an oldster the way it is here in the Czech Republic. The American perception of someone helping the elderly is of some boy scout, a do-gooder, who helps an old lady cross the street. I get up and offer my seat not necessarily because I really want to as much as because this is part of the Czech code of public behavior and I do not want others to think I lack good manners, although gradually I have felt more and more that I do this because I want to. This mannerly society may not be just Czech, actually, it may be a basic difference between Europe and America, so perhaps I should say I have become more European by living so long in the Czech Republic.
I even feel a bit embarrassed sometimes when I am around Americans who still think and act like Americans in the Czech Republic, they unknowingly blunder and do rude things without even knowing it, like me on that train years back. I do not think social behavior is as much logical action as it is irrational habit, our socialization is a very deeply entrenched conditioning that is not thinking as much as feeling. I would now feel embarrassed if I were traveling with an American who put his feet in the seat. I remember now that this and similar things have happened and I asked the American to please put his feet down because he is asking for problems. He looked at me a bit irritated, but he complied and I avoided a scene between him and the train conductor— or even some elderly Czech who thinks his seniority gives him the right to speak up on behalf of society. How much I have changed by assimilating into Czech culture. It is now easy for me to view Americans as uncultured, lacking in polite social behavior. But I easily forgive this because I also know we Americans did not grow up in a society where this was intrinsically trained into us, and there is also an advantage in our uncultured behavior: the American way promotes individualism and places no importance on conformity, the result is that it would be far more difficult to make Americans bow down to some authoritarian form of government. The only way to succeed would be to trick Americans by use of fear and propaganda to make Americans believe their authoritarian government is not actually authoritarian and that any authoritarian likenesses are necessary for public safety.
An American has good reason to put his feet in the seat, he´s just getting comfortable and means no harm to others by this. It´s our American right as individuals to do so and to argue otherwise is to go against our basic belief in the American way. To the average American, good manners are for pansies, only a Momma´s Boy is going to act that way. But I see this differently since my American mind assimilated into a Czech one. Manners are simply necessary in order to blend into the well-mannered society around me. Czechs have their unwritten rules, and to not obey these rules is to invite problems. Any American who plans on living in the Czech Republic would be wise to immediately start trying to figure out what those unwritten rules are (one of which is, do not put your feet in opposite chairs or train seats). It was easy for me to think I can put my feet in the seat if I damn well please, and to perceive it as my right as an individual, so I expect some other Americans to think this as well, but then that American must accept that it is also his right to be consistently abused by Czech society until he no longer dares to put his feet in the opposite seat.
The first thing I felt like asking that train conductor, as an American was, “Is it a law that I can´t put my feet in the seat? And if it isn´t a law, then why are you bothering me? What are you, some kind of behavior cop?” Americans can´t understand how there could be behavior cops. That´s because they don´t collectively respect some set of rules ensuring a polite society, thus no one can represent the rights of society since those rights reside in the individual rather than in the collective society; but, somehow we Americans have confused this with being a freer individual. Or maybe our sense of individualism stabbed those slavish manners right in the back, maybe it was necessary. As a Czech I am more worried about what people around me are going to think, I don´t like being picked out of the crowd, I want to be normal. In Czech, we all say, “Seš normalní?” (are you normal?) In English we would say, “Are you crazy?” Americans allow more leeway for abnormal thoughts or behavior as long as it doesn´t verge on the insane because we have that individualist philosophy ingrained into us, and so we say, “Are you crazy?” Czechs allow for less abnormality and try to keep individuals acting within a stricter range of normality, perhaps from the inforcement of their strong social code of behavior. And so they ask, “Are you normal?” Americans don´t want to be normal, being normal perhaps even approaches an insult, to be not normal is to be more of an individual, which is good from the American viewpoint.
For Americans the opposite of normal is actually something closer to supranormal rather than abnormal. But Czechs value normality, and it does work since Czechs don´t wish to be abnormal and wrongly deviate from the accepted code of behavior. It seems to me that Czechs are more concerned with conformity, in being considered normal, and this is the slight fear I travel with as a Czech, I am always trying to make sure I am conforming with those unwritten social rules so that I don´t stand out of the crowd and get jumped on by some official or by some other Czech who has a right to castigate me for my thoughtless infringement; but, I can see how this self-monitoring of one´s conformity would make a society easier to control from the top down. And isn´t it interesting that, after the 1968 attempted revolution was squashed by Russian tanks, the country went through a period of what they termed Normalization. Czechs already have the habit of trying to conform. Those who escaped from Communism and emigrated to America found what they were looking for: a society that refuses to fearfully conform and is based on individualism. American conformity mostly happens through style, fashion, what´s in or what´s the latest thing. We have to be tricked into conforming. We conform when it soothes our egos to do so, or when the evening news scares us into believing we should conform for our own safety or the safety of our country.
That American openness and mutual trust in society, plus our habit of not respecting authority or titles just for the sake of the title, would make it very difficult for some dictator to take control. The nation body can be one angry mass of protestors if the government too blatantly ignores the interests of citizens or obviously invades the individual rights of Americans in an unjust way. This also relates to the American propensity for guns. There are plenty of bumper stickers in America saying, “You´ll get my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” This mentality goes back to the founding of the country, the citizens wanted to make sure they had weapons to overthrow any government that became a dictatorship, they wanted to insure themselves the right to bear arms for any necessary revolutions. If the government gets out of hand, or commits treachery upon the citizenry, we´ll shoot the bastards. We got our democracy through battle and blood, through fighting together as a society to overthrow an undesirable government and form a government that we ourselves controlled, so we want to keep our weapons in case we have to do this again. This mentality is actually obsolete and dangerous these days because not every citizen can have a tank parked in his garage, a fighter jet in the driveway and a missile silo in his back yard, though many Americans probably would have these things if only they could afford them.
Consequently, we have had some tragic public attacks by our own citizens, and death by shooting is a much larger problem than elsewhere in the world. Americans need to give up their individualist mentality towards owning machine guns and flame-throwers, but that mentality overall, our philosophy that every citizen is his own master in a society where all those masters collectively control the government, is a good philosophy and a good American trait. Americans sacrificed a few things, including a well-mannered society based on unwritten rules, to come into their strong sense of individualism. And our language, with its lack of a respectful, formal level supports our sense of individualism. One of the basic foundations of the Czech system of respect is inherent in the formal and informal language levels of the Czech language; Czechs do not learn the rules regarding the use of formal and informal Czech through some rulebook, rather they learn through socialization, they learn how to operate with formal and informal Czech in their culture and society from the time they can speak. They have a tendency to conform to society and its code of conduct.
Americans generally obey what is law, but do not have respect for unwritten rules since they don´t have to be obeyed by individuals (As I said, “Is it a law that I cannot have my feet in the seat?”). Czechs have respect for unwritten rules because their society demands that they obey all those unwritten rules, but what about written laws? Americans disregard social rules and obey government laws, whereas Czechs obey social rules and disregard government laws. From a Czech point of view, laws seem to be made for breaking or getting around. Tunneling and fraud occurs from so much lawless behavior. The amount of crime in Czech society, and the amount of corruption in both business and government, is astounding. When I was in Colorado a few years back I realized that no one locked their cars, people didn´t lock their doors the way we must do here in the Czech Republic. This was in an American town much larger than the one I live in here in the Czech Republic, but no one feared theft or burglary. I had forgotten what that feels like, so very pleasant— if I could just get my sense of trust back, which I almost succeeded in doing, but then I returned to my Bohemian semi-paradise of corruption and crime and once again fell back on my habit of checking that my phone is in my pocket and my car doors are locked. But now I am truly digressing; crime and the reasons for it is a different chapter.
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