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

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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Nic(Guest) Published: 04:02:32 01.06.2011
You may not belive it, but here in Sweden 90% of the white people, saying the word "Neger" when its about blacks, we also have a kind of cookie in most of the cafs called "Negerboll" That means, simply "Niggerball".. its not on the sign, but we saying it without feeling like racists, BUT most of the people dont use this words when black people are around, but that just manners.
Milfmoney(Guest) Published: 08:30:54 24.05.2011
Czech Republic sucks. Bottom line. Don't worry about intruducing yourself. Let them learn English so these people too can be civilized. The best way to come here is as a tourist, stay a couple nights, visit tourist places, go to the clubs, brothels maybe, if you're into that. Then go back home to the US and tell everybody you had a good time. Don't waste your time trying to stay here and learn this. These people are old school. 15 million: 400 million is the cz: en language ratio. They are backwards and their fashion is about 20 yrs. too late. 'Wayfarer' style sunglasses was wayyyy back then. Sorry to break it to you. I came here with an open mind. If you think US sucks, come here for a few months and live the "real life" and you'll go back home with a greater appreciation. As they say, you don't know what you have until it's gone.
Bill(Guest) Published: 06:44:51 14.05.2011
This may be better directed to a different forum, so don't be afraid to suggest that I do so. I visited Prague from the US last summer, and observed these things. (1) Younger folks, mainly in their twenties, spoke very good English, and were generally more willing to talk to a visitor -- even one of my advanced age of 58 -- than folks my own age and older. (2) The only places that Prague residents smiled when they talked to me were in the tourist-oriented restaurants and shops. In the "real world," I often got blank stares. I observed both of these behaviors in the reservation staff of my hotel: blank-stare friendliness from one young man; gruffness and even rudeness from older staff members. No doubt there are interesting reasons for all of this (including the characteristics of my own perception). I wonder if anyone would care to comment.
Jan(Guest) Published: 09:10:50 11.05.2011
Eva, your post makes no sense, read again!
gman(Guest) Published: 09:33:22 10.05.2011
10 Do's and Don'ts: Do say: 1. 'The waiters are rude here, (as long as you follow with) - but you get that everywhere.' (A half truth if that). 2. 'Politicians are corrupt here. (Generally agreed but if there's an objection, just use the above tactic again) - but you get that everywhere.' 3. 'I've had better beer in Belgium and I hear Indian beer is the most up-and-coming bevvy these days actually, other than Czech beer which is generally the best. You know my last sentence? - I wasn't including Czech beer - I just want to make that clear.' (Don't mention the Germans bought it). 4. Do use monosyllabic answers, if on the off chance you are asked a question, which is highly doubtful beyond 'why are you here?' and 'do you like it here?', and blame a 'misunderstanding' if a disagreement gets out of hand due to you not following this rule. 5. Remember - no compliments or utterances that might remotely be perceived as obvious, except implied or telepathic compliments, which are allowed. Don'ts: 1. Expect much 2. Mention cultural or historical differences. We are all the same, i.e. 'normal', if you can work that out that is. This rule only applies if you are from a country north westerly of Cz which is neither Germany nor the dreaded and misguided socialist French. 3. Ridicule the president for his one-man crusade against Al Gore's documentary, denial of global warming or for his belief that only Margaret Thatcher is a supernatural celestial being whose outdated policies could sort out the Czech Rep, despite deriving from ever so slightly different origins - 1979 bankrupt Britain. 4. Accept an invitation to go to a cottage from someone you just met. It'll be a weekend long English lesson and it'll make a mockery of that saying 'only boring people get bored'. It'll be beyond rural and there'll be nothing there. NOTHING. 5. Worry about the crime and weird religious stuff you get back home because it just doesn't exist in Cz or forget it's also a great country because of the lack of religion (open-mindedness), beer and women. (Maybe leave out the women part unless you're overtly gay, otherwise you'll get some guy called Pavel take a swing at you, miss, spill his Gambrinus all over you and then slump to the ground and cry about how you, as a rich foreigner, stole his childhood sweetheart. That's right, the one you were under the impression was your wife. It's ok though cos the next day he'll invite you to his cottage, bizarrely). Other stuff just missing out - good and bad: Crossing a road at the wrong place can go horribly wrong, patronize Slovaks - (no-one will mind cos it's all east), the quality of pork is pretty high (Czechs know their pork), cheap wine etc..
Petr(Guest) Published: 11:58:47 10.05.2011
But nice to get know, what other people think of us:-) in common you are VERY right and i can find myself in the article:-)
petr(Guest) Published: 11:57:06 10.05.2011
hey daniegge, you are right, but we are not so but to voting/elections. we could vote during a comunistic period. we could choose from (i think) 2 or 3 other parties, whitch colaborated with comunist (actualy CSSD, KDU etc). Nowadays 40-80% of people vote;-) never 10%... maybe you think some referendum... fortunatly it is not so bad:-)
Antaress(Guest) Published: 08:43:47 10.05.2011
You forgot something that is not of minor importance when it comes to break the ice with any given Czechs. "you're not from around here" therefore you ignorant. As a foreigner in the CZ for over 10 years I pulled up with pretty much all and adapted. But one thing I can't get around and that irritates me a lot is the "I know better" attitude. Despite the fact that I might be qualified and skilled. There'll always be that look or comment; "what are you talking about?" "where are you from already?"
kakabus(Guest) Published: 10:56:25 09.05.2011
the whole article is just great, very fitting. As mentioned above, although there is a lot of corruption going on and the politicians are populist and sort of relying on the lack of interest of the general public, its by no means worse than in any other post communistic country, or even greece or italy. But the truth is people politics is considered to be something dirty and its one topic everyone will agree on...
daniegge(Guest) Published: 05:12:00 09.05.2011
I just have to disagree on the part about politics. It's really not fair to say their politicians are so bad. Most expats from poor and hopeless countries like mine (Brasil) and South America, some asian and african countries and even Spain/Greece have worse politics and much more corruption. We should encourage them to be more active in politics, if anything, because they have been able to vote for only 20 years now, and only 10% of the whole population votes, so it should be encouraged. Still, despite the populist and outrageous corruption and mindless speeches of some politicians, others are really as good as any would come: Havel and Schwarzenberg are good examples.
Kay(Guest) Published: 11:14:01 09.05.2011
"Most Czechs see themselves as having more in common with the West" - how true!! I would translate it, they like Běloch a lot! :) Being an Asian, this lead to a "not so nice" experience such as being ignored by waiter/waitresses during my 1st week in Prague. Was ignored for a while until i said "What a man need to do to get a drink here?" It works like a magic word, i got the attention because of the language :) Later that night, i learned from the waitress that they thought I am the local Vietnamese guy (which I have no clue at time what she meant by that) Lucky Běloch! BUT to be fair, it improves a lot for the last few years. No complain or what so ever now days Cheers, K
Eva(Guest) Published: 10:00:51 09.05.2011
Even in the first minute of small talk with complete strangers I have been asked about my impression of Czechs. Have a short and favorable answer ready, is my advice. They may even protest - so stick to your guns and accentuate the positive. An note: I believe you might have meant to say Religion is NOT a common topic, since you then said politics "on the other hand" is.