Knowing the correct endings for the noun cases and the difference between perfect and imperfect verbs is one things, but even with a grammatically flawless delivery our expression may sound strange if we don’t follow some of the unwritten rules of Czech communication.
Below are the social rules I’ve observed. Before starting I would like to stress one thing – these are the social rules for Czechs when speaking Czech. It can be a little different (or not enforced so strongly) in English.
Using the incorrect salutation
When you are on formal terms with someone, i.e. you use ‘vy’, you should also use the more formal greetings and farewells, e.g. ‘dobrý den’, ‘dobrý večer’ and ‘na shledanou’. I was once chewed out by a Czech colleague for using ‘nashle’ with someone I didn’t know.
Failing to say good day…to everyone
When entering a closed yet public space, like a waiting room at a clinic or a train compartment, it is customary to say ‘dobrý den’ to the people there.
Not asking before sitting
On the topic of trains, it is polite to ask if a space is free (Je tady volno?) when entering a compartment, even when there is only one person, so it is clear that there is a free space.
Being too formal with friends
Once you are on first name terms (i.e. you have been invited to use ‘ty’) you should use the informal greetings and farewells like ‘ahoj’ and ‘čau’. I’ve encountered some people who got offended because I said ‘dobrý den’ after this informal relationship had been established.
Being too formal with kids
Kids are their own set of sociolinguistic rules. Even with ones you don’t know, you should always be informal. Kids, however, are expected to be formal with adults.
Not paying attention to pronunciation
Placing the emphasis on the first syllable of a word is an important rule to learn if you want to make yourself understood, as is correct vowel pronunciation.
Forgetting the all-important title
When speaking English, the use of titles is not so readily adhered to. But when speaking Czech, it seems more natural to use a person’s academic title or job position. Or better said, it sounds strange not to. Using a person’s title is particularly important in a formal email.
Cheers-ing too much
When out having a beer, it’s enough to say cheers (na zdraví or even ahoj) just for the first round not each time you drink. With shots it is more typical to toast with each shot.
Eating without saying “enjoy your meal”
In some dining situations, people are more relaxed about guests starting as their food comes. However, it’s polite to say ‘dobrou chuť’ before tucking in. It’s also polite to say it when you see friends or colleagues eating.
Speaking like writing
There is a significant difference between written/spoken-formal/informal Czech which is unique to the Czech language and rarely found in others (that includes vocabulary word choice and conjugation/declension). Especially in Prague where speakers tend to replace the written ý with the spoken ej (e.g. zelený vs. zelenej).
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