No matter how many times I travel to the Czech Republic, no matter how much time I spend there, no matter how culturally sensitive I think I am, I manage to make one mistake after another.
I newly arrived at the offices of my colleagues at Caritas College of Social Work early on a Tuesday morning, and the way the office area is constructed, I made quite a racket as I climbed the steps and greeted the first colleagues I saw.
Soon there were several of us gathered around, every one of us calling out greetings– here a hug, there a handshake–when one voice rose above the others and asked, “how are you?”
“I am excellent,” I said, in that expansive way Americans do, an exclamation point at the end.
Some voice in the back of the crowd repeated it, “excellent” with a surprised little laugh, and I didn’t give it much thought, but I remembered it because the tone was one of embarrassed surprise, or something else.
I thought of it again just as I fell asleep that evening, and it came to me.
When I said I was “excellent,” what I meant was this:
My flights were all on time. I had no trouble negotiating the train and the tram with all my luggage. I had slept well and felt rested. I am so glad to be here, and I am especially happy to see each of your smiling faces, and therefore, in this moment, everything is just perfect, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. The traveling experience that brought me from Owensboro to Olomouc had been an easy and, therefore, excellent one. And look! All of you!
What a Czech hears is this:
“I, Greta McDonough, am an excellent person. My life is excellent. Everything about me is excellent. I have no need for improvement, at all, ever.”
Well, you can see how this might come across.
At lunch that first day I sat with my colleague, Miluska, and I asked how she was. She wanted to know first, did I want the Czech reply or the American one.
As Americans, when we toss out the casual, “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” when we see you, we mean,
And we keep walking because we don’t expect (or want) much of an answer beyond, “I am fine.” When we toss a “how are you” in a Czech’s direction, he or she thinks you mean it, and they have already stopped to tell you how, exactly, they are. You, on the other hand, have walked past them and already turned the corner, leaving them confused, and I am going say, hurt.
I asked Miluska for the Czech answer.
She told me about her weekend (busy) and her general health (okay but she is tired) and also, I think, how she had slept the night before. Then we turned our attention back to our soup. As we were eating in the school canteen, other colleagues joined us, many surprised to see me, and this necessitated more greetings, more conversations, or so I thought.
I turned my attention to this person, asking how they have been, then I turned to the person on the other side, and before long I noticed I was the only one who still had food left on her plate. I was doing the polite table talk that we have been taught. I was doing the table talk I always do in the Czech Republic or at any social or business gathering where food is served.
But then my friend, Viktor, let me in on a little secret. It seems that Czech children are taught not to talk while eating. It is impolite, unsafe. You won’t choke if you don’t talk. You won’t distract others and cause them to choke, and after you master this rule of etiquette then you will be able to conduct yourself in polite society with confidence and consideration.
Well, who knew?
I wondered why the Czechs seem to fall on their food, why restaurants and cafes are so quiet, with perfectly behaved children whispering questions to their parents, if they speak at all. I imagine with some shame the hours of irritation and indigestion I have caused Czech friends with my mealtime prattle. What must they have been thinking?
“Won’t she ever shut up?” may be one thing. “Didn’t her mother teach her any manners?” may be another.
I have almost trained myself to say “dobry den” instead of “how are you?” Dobry den is a short, quite serviceable phrase that means, simply, Good day. It requires nothing but a dobry den in return.
Now, if I can just learn to shut up and eat…