If you’re Czech, it seems you can’t stand me – or so a 500 page long thread on the Expats.cz forums titled “Do Czechs Hate Foreigners?” would have us believe.
And yet, despite this alleged hostility, the number of foreigners settling in the country is on the rise. According to the Czech Statistical Office, the number of residents from abroad has increased sixfold from 70,000 in 1993 to 426,000 in 2010. With a falling birth rate and mounting mortality, it’s only thanks to immigration that the country’s overall population level continues to grow.
So do the Czechs really hate us?
It’s a vast topic that begs to be explored in depth – which is why Expats.cz plans to make it a three-part series. In future articles I’ll tackle xenophobia and expat (non-)integration. First though, I’d like to begin with first impressions.
Let’s return to that controversial thread for a moment. A certain TEFL Teacher kicks things off by claiming that “waiters, service staff in post offices, government offices, and even ordinary Czechs on buses or standing with you in a queue” all start to get an attitude once they recognise you’re a cizinec.
What does the “Xenophobe’s Guide to the Czechs” (which was penned by three natives) have to say on the topic?
Apparently, this incivility “[…] is the first thing that a foreigner will notice after arrival at the airport, train, or coach station,” the authors Petr Berka, Aleš Palan and Petr Šťastný warn would-be visitors. “The surly Customs officer frowns at you […] The receptionist in the hotel glowers at you […] The sales assistant in the shop looks so glum that you want to ask her if her much-loved cat has died.
“It has not. She just looks like that. While members of other ethnicities need to have a serious reason to being sullen, the Czechs need none.”
So here it is: confirmation then that Czechs do, by their own admission, come across as a cantankerous and grouchy bunch – and regrettably, this is the first thing newcomers notice about them.
That’s just it though: Czechs are democratic with their dour glares and sour expressions. A piece of advice for any recent arrivals, especially those hailing from that country where the pursuit of happiness is a constitutional right: don’t mistake poor customer service for xenophobia.
“Ah,” says that irritating self-appointed expert Mr. Smug Expat. “But what you have to remember of course that this is all part of the Communist legacy.”
I am aware of the recent regional election results. However, I detest hearing the C word being wheeled out as an excuse for all this country’s ills. At the risk of repeating what I’ve already said elsewhere, if a twenty year old waitress is rude to me, surely that can’t be entirely blamed on a regime which collapsed before she was born?
Let’s replace that moody Czech girl with a perky American one. The reason for her super sunny demeanour isn’t better manners but a desire to top up her wages with tips. As “Halfman Halfbiscuit” points out on that epic thread, “American service is NEVER sincere. It’s an act. Always has been, always will be.” Some natives of the Land of the Free have told me they find the Slav grumpiness a relief after a lifetime of exposure to a chronically positive perspective. Better a sincere frown than a fake grin – or so the theory goes anyway.
There’s a silver lining to every breach-of-etiquette cloud. No-one can accuse the Czechs of being two-faced: what you see is, for better or worse, what you get. Their rudeness isn’t haughtiness; it doesn’t come from a position of presumed superiority as I felt those rather snotty bonjours I endured from many a stuck-up Parisian were. After all, politeness often involves a degree of hypocrisy. How heartfelt are all those ‘woulds’ and ‘coulds’ that the English pepper their sentences with?
Those amongst you who hanker after a long lost age of chivalry needn’t despair. There are some places where you can experience old-fashioned courtesy here in Prague. If you don’t believe me, just try shoving a pillow up your sweater, hopping on a tram, and then counting how many people leap out of their seat so you can take the weight off your pregnancy-induced swollen ankles. Unless you happen to be a man – in which case everyone will assume you’re obese.
I’d like to conclude by cordially inviting you to share your views in the comments section. So go on, share your opinion – but don’t forget to mind your manners.
Oh, and have a nice day.
As the sarcasm font is yet to be invented, you’ll never know if I really meant that.