Don't Pee in the Street

Mr. Nicholas compares Czech and American cultures Staff

Written by Staff Published on 26.01.2006 16:16:55 (updated on 26.01.2006) Reading time: 15 minutes

Written by Sinclair Nicholas
Re-published with permission

In a world where globalism and globalization have become very common words for the entire human race, understanding the concept of cultural relativity is and will be increasingly important. Various people of many different countries or races or religions are going to come more and more into contact with each other, so understanding the true meaning and purpose of cultural relativity will help us all decrease the friction of those peoples with their different beliefs and traditions crowding into each other.

We each think we have the truest viewpoint and the most correct set of traditions or customs. That is the biggest problem I have faced in writing this book, realizing that my viewpoint is only formed by my own small set of experiences and knowledge. None of us have the perfectly correct viewpoint since humans aren´t perfect; by listening and thoroughly thinking, as objectively as possible to the ideas and opinions of others, our points of views can change. I could be wrong or unfair about my opinions. Bearing this in mind, I decided to take the risk of defining American and Czech national characters anyway. I feel certain that I am more right than wrong whenever I analyze and describe the various aspects that make up American or Czech national characters.

Understanding cultural relativity does not necessarily mean one must change one´s belief system, but understanding its meaning will naturally cause each person to become more tolerant of other peoples´ belief systems. One of the best ways to examine and understand the basic principles of cultural relativity is to look at some action and then look at the two different societies´ normal reactions; so, let me give some concrete examples to put under our microscope.

When I was recently in America driving down the highway I needed to urinate. In the last several years I had been driving up and down Czech highways where it is quite normal to pull over and urinate along the highway next to one´s car. I see people do this all the time as I drive to or from Prague, even guys in sharp business suits stand there talking on their cell phones as they urinate. Since they have a hand for each function they are performing, it´s no big problem. We Czechs consider urinating on the side of the road as quite normal. So I pulled over along the highway to urinate in the heartland of the USA and immediately a driver honked at me long and loudly as he passed by, and looked at me as though I were committing some offense. When this first car honked, I said in Czech to the rude automobilist, “Co je, ty debile!?”, which means something like, “What is your problem, you idiot!?” But after the third or fourth car honked I began to consider my action from an American point of view. They thought I was being very crude and offensive, they felt as though I were behaving like some dirty pervert who enjoyed showing his privates to people in public. At home here in the Czech Republic, I have never once heard any driver honk like that when I have pulled over to relieve myself but, in America, I had unwittingly become a depraved flasher. If I had lived in America all those years, I am sure I would have felt like a flasher instead of a guy trying to take a piss who has suddenly been surrounded by a bunch of motorists who don´t know how to mind their own damned business.

Just last week I took my son to the doctor in the center of Prague. I needed to pee, so I stood in the little park while men, women and children, as well as a few park maintenance men with brooms, all pretended I did not exist as I relieved myself on a tree. Czechs understand that when you gotta go, you gotta go, and perhaps the fact that public bathrooms are far fewer in the Czech Republic adds to this tolerance. But if this had been in America I would have seen three police cars jerk to a stop in front of me and arrest me for indecent exposure.

This made me also think about what Americans would think if they saw some Czech woman helping her child to urinate in public. Americans would be shocked and would think the woman was trashy and lewd to have her child naked where everyone could see his or her genitalia. They would think she must surely also sexually abuse her children if she exposes them in public like that. The neighbors come to visit and she probably says, “Show everybody your privates.” What a sick, unfit mother. Let this example be a warning for any Czech mothers who are with their children in the USA, do not pull the boy or girl´s pants down and help him or her urinate anywhere except in a bathroom, or perhaps deep in some forest where no other people can see.

Of course a Czech is going to think Americans are too prudish for being offended by a guy urinating next to his car or by a woman holding her urinating daughter in one of those mid-air squats. That is quite acceptable and normal here, urinating is a natural bodily function that shouldn´t be considered obscene, and anyway one doesn´t have to watch if it seems offensive. Czechs are right about this, aren´t they? That depends on which culture you are in, and to think otherwise is to think in an ethnocentric way. Should an American honk his horn at some Czech who is urinating on the side of a Czech highway? Of course not, and likewise a Czech should not urinate on the shoulder of an American highway.

Now put an American over here in the Czech Republic. If he is riding through the forest on his bike and comes to a lake of nude bathers, he is going to be shocked, most likely he will either feel embarrassed or ogle all the women in an inappropriate way- or another example: if that American goes to somebody´s house or apartment, here in the Czech Republic, he is going to walk everywhere without taking his shoes off. The Czech will think the American is quite ill-mannered, walking all over his living quarters in shoes that have dirt or maybe even dog shit on them, the Czech is going to think that the American behaves like an uncouth barn animal. Those dirty Americans, they probably even sleep in their shoes. An American is going to think Czechs are silly and overly prim, clearly too uptight since the Czech insists on visitors constantly taking off and putting on shoes when there are mops and vacuum cleaners to take care of such messes so that a guest is not imposed upon, and of course we Americans are right about this, aren´t we? That depends on which culture you are in.

When I was a student in America, I met a girl from Sweden. I liked talking to her because she came from such a faraway place and had a European viewpoint in many ways. One time I took her to a lake in the Ozarks (that´s in Missouri close to the Arkansas border) to go swimming. We found a secluded spot and she took her bathing suit top off to do some pleasant sunbathing. I don´t think it even occurred to her that this was unacceptable since she came from a culture where this was completely normal. I had no problem with her doing this because she had nice breasts; but, after a short time, several fist-sized rocks landed right next to us, these were big rocks that could have killed us or at least severely injured us if they had hit us. I looked into the direction from which these rocks came and saw two boys, maybe around twelve years of age, who started running as fast as they could through the forest as soon as I saw them. They had tried to stone the naked, scarlet whore of Babylon, they felt that if she was nude in public then she deserved to get hit with a rock for behaving so indecently. When it comes to nudity, Americans have a tendency to project their own dirty feelings onto the one causing them to feel this. I am certain a Czech boy would not throw a rock because he does not consider nudity to be indecent and has grown up swimming at lakes where lots of people are nude. Czechs are much more inclined to feel naturalness in nudity rather than shame in it.

Another time I rode my bike out into the American countryside and stopped at one of my favorite spots for swimming and sun bathing. The river was below this bridge from which cars could not see, so I took off my clothes and enjoyed the warm sun on my naked body. I was lying there for maybe half an hour when suddenly a policeman came crashing through the bushes; it was a very strange sight, lying so blissfully in the beauty of nature and then suddenly seeing a policeman in full uniform come rushing out of the bushes. It was like civilization had encroached upon nature. He looked ridiculous and was sweating because it was a very hot day and he´d had to climb down a steep hill to get to me. He told me to put my clothes on or he would arrest me immediately. I told him that of course I would, and I put on my shorts. I asked how he knew I was here and he said some truck driver had notified the police. Evidently trucks were high enough off the ground to see over that bridge wall, and some truck driver had felt it his moral duty to alert the police that a sex pervert was on the loose. Americans believe in the pursuit of happiness, but when it comes to nudity they are very prudish so that, in this case, society thought that my pursuit of happiness had infringed upon their collective pursuit of decency. Also, public nudity is against the law and is strictly enforced in the U.S.A., whereas in Czechia I doubt there exists a law about nudity and, even if such a law does exist, it certainly is not enforced.

I sometimes go for long bike rides here in the Czech Republic, and many times I have come to some small lake out in the countryside where half the people are nude. Old and young alike, three generations of a family playing volleyball in the nude, flabby grandmothers lying there nude, enjoying the sun. I quite enjoyed watching a nude grandfather with all his nude progeny playing volleyball. I became more interested in who would win the game and no longer even noticed that they were all nude. None of them felt ashamed or embarrassed, they had a Czech viewpoint about their nudity and were more interested in winning the volleyball game. There is no moral issue with nudity for Czechs, and I appreciate that since I feel the same way. Nudity is a good example for comparing these two different countries, it brings out clearly the concept of cultural relativity by showing such different social reactions to the same situation. It also defines one small aspect of each nations´ national characters.

Through such concrete examples of actions or behavior we can more easily see the two entirely different cultural attitudes and ways of thinking, for one action there are two different reactions. I am glad I can take a leak on the side of the road here in the Czech Republic without getting arrested for indecent exposure, but I was not particularly happy about taking off and putting on my shoes all the time. I finally came up with the idea of buying only shoes with velcro flaps, and half the time I walk around with the flaps flopping loosely. I just slip in and out of my shoes, which saves me from bending over all the time to put on and take off my shoes. But then I realized how much more comfortable my feet feel in socks or slippers, and every Czech, be it a man, woman, or child, has at least one pair of house slippers. When I last visited America I was always taking off my shoes like a Czech because I was used to the more comfortable feeling of not wearing shoes if one is not outdoors.

Shortly after my initial arrival to Czechoslovakia, I caught some European strain of flu, so I went to the run-down looking medical center in town and I noticed this strange box of cloth bags in the entryway into the building. Out of curiosity I stood there and tried to figure out for what they could possibly be used. After much thought, I concluded that maybe they were for people to put on their heads, kind of like the sanitary hair nets for American restaurant kitchen employees. I put one of these cloth bags on my head and it fit perfect, so I figured I had been smart enough to follow the Czech rules without needing to be told. I walked on into the building when some cleaning lady holding a mop started yelling strange irate things to me in Czech. I had no idea why she was upset. She was pointing at my hygienic hair net, then she pointed behind me, so I turned and saw some lady who had come in after me taking a couple of those bags out of the box. She then placed these bags over her shoes like cloth galoshes. I quickly removed the bag from my head and laughed, but the cleaning lady didn´t see any humor in it, she started yelling at me some more. I had never in my life seen a lady with cloth bags over her feet. I would have felt very embarrassed to put such ridiculous looking bags on my feet. I ignored the cleaning lady because, even if I was supposed to use these weird cloth footbags, it was nevertheless incredibly rude for her to yell at a client or customer (a very American point of view). The client is not the one to be inconvenienced or insulted ever, if at all possible, and here was some lady yelling at me like I should feel beneath her omnipotent custodial powers. In America, a janitor would never act that way, they are there to sweep and mop up after the customers or clients. They might ask you nicely to please not step on some wet place they have just mopped up, but yelling is something they would never do.

She kept yelling at me as I walked away. I thought, “Is there a law that I have to wear those footbags?” These days I realize I was being very ethnocentric and was not practicing the respectful principles within cultural relativity. I should have went ahead and put the cloth bags on my feet, even if I did feel ridiculous wearing them. The idea can be said in the well-known phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But it took me several months and several more custodial confrontations before I could get myself to put on a pair of those ridiculous looking cloth bags. Today I would feel fear and shame if I so much as forgot to put on a pair of those stupid footbags- which reminds me of the other day when I went to get my daughter from preschool. When I got to the car, as I opened the door, I looked down and noticed I was still wearing those silly footbags on my feet. So now I have the problem of remembering to take them off.

Another example of cross cultural conflict happened within the first hour that I came to Prague. I went to the subway restroom and was quite puzzled to see some old lady sitting at a table there in front of the entryway into the public restroom. I thought it was kind of weird, like maybe she was perhaps mentally imbalanced, or a bathroom beggar or something. Americans never experience having to pay some old lady some change in order to use a public restroom. All public restrooms had always been free for the entirety of my life up until that moment, so of course I had absolutely no idea that I should pay that lady some money; I walked right past her. She yelled something at me, I didn´t know what, but I felt sure she had said the word penis because the word peníze (money) in Czech sounds very similar to the English pronunciation of the word penis (just flip the vowels around), thus my original notion that she was a nutcase became grounded in strong evidence: the crazy lady was asking to look at my penis. I started urinating in the urinal. She came up behind me and again said the word “peníze” with her hand held out towards me as though she wanted me to put my penis in her hand, so I angrily waved her away like the crazy sex pervert that I assumed she was (in America a woman would never walk up behind you while you are urinating). I finished my business, then I walked out with her following me and yelling at me halfway out of the subway station. People were looking at me and I kept smiling and motioning to strangers that the lady was crazy and please just ignore the pitiful perverted creature who was following me and repeatedly yelling the word penis, but they understood what the lady was yelling and surely thought I was crazy. They ignored me lest I do something crazier than rip off some poor bathroom babička. These kinds of cross cultural conflicts happened to me for several years until I gradually turned into a Czech- a Czech who causes more cross cultural conflicts by shamelessly pissing on the shoulders of American highways. It seems I will never get it right.

About the Author:
Sinclair Nicholas washed up on the right bank of the Vltava as part of that first and biggest expat wave that was driven by the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution. In "91 he began teaching Czech children to speak English at an elementary school. At that time, due to so many questions from some of his teenaged students (questions like, "How is different, Mr. Teacher, between "fuck off," "fuck up" and "fuck over?"") Sinclair began writing scurrilous phrasal verbs in a notebook, which evolved into his first and most infamous book, Wang Dang American Slang. The book was printed in 1992 with a first printing of 40,000 copies; He used the royalties from American Slang to start his publishing house, WD Publications, and spent the next decade writing and publishing many more of his own books ( has all titles as well as an online ordering system).

His latest book, The AmeriCzech Dream, is currently available only as a Czech translated version (you can get it at Luxor), but he will publish the original English manuscript sometime this year (likely this fall). However, we have some of his original, as-yet unpublished chapters available right here at– in fact, these original English chapters are not available anywhere else except at this website, so we hope you enjoy the unique reading opportunity.

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