Communication issues between Czechs & Expats Staff

Written by Staff Published on 07.11.2005 12:32:53 (updated on 07.11.2005) Reading time: 5 minutes

Written by Terje B. Englund
Re-published with permission

Lots of foreigners who have come to the Czech Republic as managers of local companies tell the same story: after their first week in the job, they´re all pleasantly surprised by how eagerly and quickly their Czech employees carry out their directions.

However, within a month or two, most of them have a surprising revelation. Their subordinates, who overtly accepted all orders from the boss without a single word of protest or disagreement, have in reality done something completely different.

Such troubles can´t immediately be blamed on a language barrier. A foreigner and a Czech may both speak the same language flawlessly, but still have severe problems with communication. An extreme example is the Austrian military doctor who tried to diagnose The Good Soldier Švejk. After speaking with his patient for half an hour, he got so frustrated by the Czech´s evasive and confusing answers that he uttered the now classical sentence: ”Das ganze tschechisches Volk ist eine Simmulantenbande” – The entire Czech nation is a bunch of fakers!

This, of course, is both a coarse exaggeration and a literary generalization. Nevertheless, it´s not entirely without an element of truth (see: Jára Cimrman), because the Czechs generally communicate in a far more indirect and understated way than Western Europeans usually do.

To display strong emotions, for instance, be it raving anger or loud laughter, is often interpreted as proof of either mental instability or drunkenness (see: Alcoholics), and quite often, people say things that are only meant as an expression of courtesy.

A classic situation occurs when somebody invites you to his or her home and repeatedly insists that you don´t need to take your shoes off. This must under no circumstances be interpreted literally! The Czech is not saying that you are free to ruin his wall-to-wall carpet (see: Balkans) with doggy turd. He or she only wants to indicate a willingness to go to great lengths just to please a guest. Which they actually very often do – the Czechs may not be the fastest in the world to invite foreigners to their homes, but when they finally do, they tend to be extremely hospitable. Consequently, you are supposed to smile in a friendly way, and immediately take your shoes off.

The importance many Czechs attach to demonstrations of modesty (which should by no means be confused with real modesty) may also bring the foreigner into confusing situations. When a Czech is offered something, it´s considered blunt and ill-mannered to accept it without uttering something like Oh no, that´s too much, or Please, don´t make any special arrangements just for me. Again, this must not be interpreted literally. Afraid of being considered immodest or downright greedy, the Czech simply expects you to urge him or her to accept the offer with greater intensity.

This spectacle has been cultivated ad absurdum by Czech politicians. It´s almost unthinkable that he (yes, bar a few bright and thick-skinned ladies, they are all men) will say something like I am running for this or that position because I believe I´m the best. Instead, they will modestly point out that their personal ambitions are very, very small indeed, but that a lot of supporters want them to candidate, and, of course, it´s hard to let other people down, “so I´ll take the burden on my shoulders”.

How can a foreigner recognize that a Czech is doing or saying something just to express decorum? Unfortunately, there are no ironclad rules, but there are some clues – or rather patterns of accepted behaviour – you can cling to.

In addition to the widespread fear of giving an immodest impression, Czechs generally tend to avoid open confrontations. For instance, when somebody feels you have bothered him enough, he will – unless he´s a friend of yours – probably avoid saying something like Sorry, I have to go, or even worse, Sorry, I haven´t time to talk to you. Instead, he or she will use the fantastic Czech phrase Nebudu Vás už zdržovat (I don´t want to detain you), which actually might mean Bugger off; you´re wasting my time! Equally classic, when you ask a Czech something and the answer is To je na dlouhé povídání (That will be a long story), you are politely, but firmly, being asked to mind your own business.

Last, but not least: when communicating with a Czech, you should also remember that many people, because of their experience with the hard-hitting communist dictatorship, are still wary of sticking their necks out with a clear and unequivocal point of view. This, of course, doesn´t mean they don´t have strong opinions. There are few people on the planet who have such a rich history of anonymous denunciations as the Czechs, and local web debates are notoriously nasty.

The point is that many people tend to behave significantly differently when they´re accountable for their actions, and when they´re not. Admittedly, that´s quite human. The surprising thing, though, is the formidable spread of this phenomenon in the Czech Republic.

Take, for instance, the Czech Parliament´s election of Václav Havel´s successor as president in February 2003. Prior to the voting, all Social Democrats in the Chamber of Deputies solemnly declared that they would certainly vote for their party´s own candidate. But how did it turn out? Just to complicate life for the party´s chairman, almost 30 Social Democrats used their secret ballots to vote for the opposition´s candidate Václav Klaus, who subsequently won the presidential elections with a slight majority.

The Czechs are probably not more duplicitous than people elsewhere, but because of decorum, you should not take it for granted that a Czech really means yes when saying yes, or no when saying no. When it comes to sex, the old – and now pretty outdated – adage went that a woman, when answering no, actually meant maybe, and when saying maybe, indicated yes…

So, the only piece of advise that a foreigner can take is: look out for hints, don´t expect people to support anything controversial in public, and tune your social antenna to a frequency considerably higher than what´s used in Western Europe!

Terje B. Englund is a Norwegian journalist, writer and translator. Educated at the University in Oslo and the Institute of Slavonic Studies at Charles University, he has been based in Prague since 1993, covering Central and Eastern Europe for Scandinavian media. Englund is an affectionate cyclist, mountaineer and diver, and he also enjoys the company of his French bulldog, Gaston.

“Czechs in a Nutshell” can be bought via Internet at and in bookstores throughout Prague.

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