My students often ask me about the differences between Czechs and Americans. I don’t get that question from Americans so much, but I’m not sure why. Maybe we assume that we know? Americans are known for assuming that we know better, right? Anyway, having to answer the question repeatedly has actually led me to think about it . . . so, here you go.
1. Tolerance to spicy food
The average Czech has very little. I’ve ordered things labeled spicy on menus, only to find that by “spicy,” the restaurant actually meant “loaded with paprika.” Now, I’m not one to ever think that a large amount of paprika is a bad thing, but it’s not spicy. Once again, the American diversity of food choices broadens our palettes here.
Americans are notorious for never actually saying what we think. Sometimes this is okay, like when it comes to political correctness, but sometimes it’s just silly — think about it, when was the last time that someone asked you how you were, and you actually told them? Even if it wasn’t good? This is the difference I always talk about it class, and the students always get a kick out of it. If a Czech is tired and has had a lousy morning because of the rain, you’re gunna know. I also include the American Fake Smile in this category — many tourists who come to Prague are astounded at the perceived rudeness from waiters, cashiers, etc., but this is just another manifestation of the Czech frankness, just another cultural difference. Why smile unnecessarily? When I used to work in that huge American chain restaurant, there were quite a few times when I would have liked to turn that smile off, but you just can’t do it in the States.
A car is a luxury here. It’s something you’re careful with, and you generally share it with friends, because not everyone has one, or even wants to have one. Not everyone has a driver’s license, and most people who have cars don’t use them all the time. Because why would you? The public transport is safe, useful, and cheap. I grew up thinking that if I even got on a DATA bus (the public transport in my hometown), I would be shot, but there was never any need to, because the system just wasn’t useful for where I would have needed to go. Students are generally curious about the fact that I’ve been able to drive since 15, about how I’ve had my own cars, everything. And one more thing — here, there’s an absolute no tolerance policy on drinking and driving. Sure cuts down on the number of people who step behind the wheel drunk . . .
Kids start learning English in, like, kindergarten. I’m not sure if this is across the board, but it’s definitely widely available, at least. By the time they reach the equivalent of high school, where I’m teaching, some of them are pretty good. Even the kids at my technical school generally have a level that’s at least somewhat useful to them, for example if they travel to a place where they can use English as a lingua franca, or if they want to keep up with American pop culture and things. Language study is always required, though, even for people who don’t focus on it, and for the more academic sets, usually two languages are required — English plus German or French. Languages are woefully unimportant in American education — we were only required to take two years of a language in high school, and only two again in college, although AP tests in high school even got me out of that requirement. Part of this could be the relative position of the two countries, and the two languages — Americans can reasonably expect to find someone who speaks at least a little English wherever they go, whereas Czechs, whose native language is spoken by only 12 million people worldwide, cannot.
5. The little things
Czechs always take their shoes off when they go into someone’s home. Most students also change into sandals or crocs or something at school, leading to the famous socks and sandals look, which, of course, has never been tolerated in the States. Czechs also always eat with both a fork and knife, even if they’re not cutting anything. I think that sometimes the way I eat — which is, I think, for the States, polite — must look barbaric, but luckily no one’s ever said anything. Yet. And finally, one of the things I love most — the hockey! Although I suppose that if I were Canadian, this wouldn’t be such a difference.