Closely Observed Trams and some thoughts on Czech Manners

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petrin may blog 2009 009

Stand on a busy street in Prague and close your eyes. You will hear all the usual sounds – the hum of traffic, the occasional siren – but listen carefully and you will pick out a few noises unique to this city. One of them is the distinctive clacking of a zebra crossing to let the blind know they can cross; another is the repeated ringing of bells, not from churches but from trams warning pedestrians to get out of the way.

People still associate the old red double-decker Routemaster bus with London even though they have all but disappeared from its streets; Prague has sensibly hung onto its own transport icon, the cream and red tram. Taking a ride on them is a much more pleasant way to get to know the city even if you’re just here for the weekend than getting on a tour bus. Sometimes if I start to feel like I’m getting cabin-fever in our flat but feel too tired to go for a proper walk, I just get on the 22 tram and do some effortless sightseeing. In less than five minutes I’ve gone from Karlovo Namesti to the National Theatre and then I’m flying across the river, through Mala Strana and then twisting and turning along cobbled streets before finally ending up a stone’s throw from Prague Castle. Not bad for 26 crowns. Don’t forget to validate your ticket in the little yellow machine though or your ride could wind up being almost as much as your Easyjet flight over from Blighty…

Trams are a great venue for people watching and therefore as good a place as any for would-be anthropologists to get some kind of insight into typical Czech behaviour. You will all be aware that many foreigners find Czechs surly or even just plain rude. What you’ll witness on the tram though if you look carefully enough are frequent examples of old-fashioned courtesy which you would rarely see in London. Everyone seems prepared to give up their seat for an older person – in fact, people practically leap up should someone with a white stick or crutches get on rather than dutifully dragging themselves to their feet as you might expect were it true that Czechs had no consideration for others.

There are plenty of other examples of Czech politeness to be found in other areas of life. For example, it is customary to say ‘dobry den’ when getting into a lift and then ‘nashledanou’ when you leave.  This kind of behaviour in England would mark you out as being, well, a little odd.

In fact, Czechs just love to ‘dobry den’ each other. They can be heard dobry-denning their neighbours when they encounter each other on the staircase of their apartment building; they dobry-den the receptionist when entering even a large office building; they dobry-den the woman behind the counter if they go into a smallish shop to have a look around.  Frankly, I find all this old-fashioned politeness charming.

Let me tell you my own theory about Czech so-called ‘rudeness’. In my experience, Czechs are very direct.  They don’t enjoy pretence. It therefore makes sense that if you’re only paying someone 50 lousy crowns an hour to sit behind a till at Albert, they’re not going to smile at you mindlessly just because some bloke at their induction training told them they had to.  Can you blame them?  Controversial as this may be, I’d rather be greeted by a genuine surly frown than a pasted-on fake smile any day. As long as I stay in Prague, I think my wish will be easily granted…

petrin may blog 2009 010


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18 Responses to Closely Observed Trams and some thoughts on Czech Manners

  1. What does dobry den mean? Unless it’s something similar to ‘hello’ they’re crazy, all of them.

  2. Ricardo

    “Let me tell you my own theory about Czech so-called ‘rudeness’. In my experience, Czechs are very direct.”

    Well, I spend the whole time which took me to read the post thinking I would write precisely that in the comment. You did it in the end, and I subscribe. Czechs are not rude. They let people what they think and how they feel. Not all of them, of course. But generally those labeled as “rude” are in fact beeing honest. And I can live with that. Actually, I apreciate that. Damn the false smiles. The stupid conventioned words. I like honesty more.

    P.S. – “the distinctive clacking of a zebra crossing to let the blind know they can cross”. This is not unique to this city. Actually, I used to think it was a world wide standard, but then I start meeting citizens from the USA who were surprised with the “feature”.

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Ricardo,

      I too find the honesty refreshing. In England I think we are supposedly more ‘polite’ but this so-called politeness can often result in a kind of hypocrisy where we don’t say directly what we think or feel. It’s led to some misunderstandings between Czechman and myself sometimes, but I think I’ll save more on that for another post…


  3. let me tell you guys something about the eastern european culture yeah. I am eastern european born girl but lived all my live in western countries.
    you can all see that or rudness or politness, beacuse you will find thorugh your live all kind of people every where.

    I think is just a matter of accept eveyone how he or she is and that’s it.

    by the way thanks for the info. great article.

    • dk200

      Haha I’m also Eastern European, and I find the Czechs to be extremely rude. They’re not only just unwilling to help, they’re spiteful, angry, etc. (not all, though most. I went to Ethiopia Cafe last week, and the disabled servers were about a thousand times nicer than the average Czech..I say, please, have such people working everywhere. The world would be a nicer place)

      It’s soo not true that you’ll find all kinds of people everywhere. Sure, there’s rude Englishmen, but there’s about one in a million. Don’t even get me started on customer service centers..

  4. I’m a Tram fan too, but the best are to be found in Blackpool. I’d love to have double-deckers here in Brno.

    Strange you mention dobry-denning, it’s non stop here. But they don’t please & thank-you as much.
    Yeah, Czechs can seem miserable, but they don’t get in your face and they mean well.


    • bberri

      Just a quick note. We (Czechs) really like to greet each other. It´s an acknowledgment of another person´s presence. To not greet someone is considered rude, to not respond to a greeting is a MORTAL SIN 🙂 So wherever you go, say dobrý den (good day) and na shledanou (good bye).

      • girlinczechland

        Hello bberri,
        Yes, I’ve noticed it’s a mortal sin not to respond to a greeting but when I ‘dobry den’ people in shops and receptionists in offices Czechman accuses me of being an asskisser 😉 There’s no pleasing some people!

  5. Marek

    Hi Girl,
    being Czech it is hard for me to comment on how you E.T. guys perceive us.
    Even though, here we go. I hope we, your followers, are allowed to make long comments too 🙂
    My generalizing little theory is as follows: Even under communism, there used to be a holy trinity of good manners most of our mothers used to drill into our tiny heads:

    1) Greet people politely!
    2) Give up your seat to elderly or disabled! (whatever is the PC term nowadays for people who can`t see or walk, etc.)
    3) Help old or disabled people carry heavy bags!

    Now, the third one has been abandoned in the past 20 years or so because most elderly would now fear handing their carton-milk loaded Tesco shopping bag over to any young person who might just run away with it (as seen in most TV crimi-series). Check this theory with Czechman 🙂

    You`ve nailed the other two for what they are – the last remnants of old time moral standards. I beg to differ, though, on the “refreshing frankness” point.

    I, personally, prefer what I consider the UK standard of a polite (possibly falsely polite) reply in shops or elsewhere, which opens the pathways to really solving the problem or any issue that comes up. I feel the attitude of the “direct” Czechs you mention is, basically, “I feel shitty so I will make you feel shitty too, unless you humbly acknowledge my superiority and apologize for bothering me and than, maybe, I might consider doing my job in a way that might be actually helpfull.” That, probably, is frank, but getting nobody anywhere.

    What do you think? 🙂

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Marek,

      Yes, my followers certainly are allowed to make long comments, especially if they’ve bothered to spend their time reading my lengthy ramblings!

      I know what you mean about the rude, unhelpful nature of staff sometimes who are supposed to be provided a service. I suppose if someone on the till at Albert (my chosen example) is a bit surly it doesn’t matter all that much but yes, if you need to interact with someone to resolve a problem and they’re moody and dismissive then obviously a major obstacle to getting things done and therefore, a right nuisance.

      I’ve only been in the country for two months so I don’t want to go making too many sweeping generalisations. However, I still feel that compared to my time in France, the Czechs really aren’t all that impolite at all. After two years of living in France, I got sick of being talked down to in the way you describe despite the fact that my French is pretty decent. So far, Ive always thought that Czech rudeness doesn’t come from a sense of superiority but more from just not really caring all that much about their low-status job, full stop. I could be wrong though and I reserve the right to revise my opinion once I’ve lived here for a couple of years.

      (Apologies to any French readers I may have. But come on guys, deep down you know it’s true…)

      Hope you think the last couple of posts are an improvement; I’m going for quality not quantity now 😉


      • Marek

        just to clarify – I did not mean superior in terms of “I am Czech and you are not, bow before me and tremble!” but more like “I am in power in this situation so you`d better be extra humble about what you want.” As you have already accurately observed, cashier at Albert has the power not to change your 1000 CZK bill, for example. Or at least make you feel miserable by rolling their eyes, making ugly faces and grunting noises. And so on.. you get the idea.
        I suppose, while you are in a detached, observant mood, it may be kinda cute and funny. After a couple dozen years it certainly gets on my nerves though 🙂

        BTW – you wrote once “I DO apologize” mimicking Czechman and hinting it is not a correct use of English. If I hadn`t read that post I would write “It DOES get on my nerves” .. Is there anything wrong with that?

        (Uff this reply is getting too long too. This is the only blog I respond to and I am really not used to one sentence replies. Sry :-()

        Your posts are just the way I like them now. Well done and crispy!

  6. girlinczechland

    Hi Marek,

    Actually there’s nothing wrong at all with saying ‘I do apologize’. We use the auxillary (do) in affirmative statements for emphasis Super Teacher informs me which means when Czechman says this he’s usually being sarcastic. What makes me laugh about this is his super correct use of English. Language learners just can’t win can they? 🙂

    I will post again soon…


  7. Marek

    Thanks Girl!

    Kind regards to Super Teacher.


  8. Pingback: Girl in Czechland one year on: is the honeymoon over? « GIRL IN CZECHLAND

  9. Elmar

    Hey Girl!
    You’re the best! I love you I do!
    You are wonderful and quite funny writer.
    I am a guy from Prague who lived in few English speaking places for many years, and the Czech “Albert” rudeness makes me always very sad, whenever I am back in CZ. I always wish I could explain to the people that what they put out, they will receive back. That’s the lesson I learned from the London Tesco girls, if you smile and joke with customers, they do the same back, and the day runs away more smoothly, and you come home happier… Happy go lucky! Maybe I am naive, but I love this about Brits, Irish or Americans, and I do think the lead better lives thanks to this attitude instilled in them by society they grew up in, as oppose to those sad miserable women in Albert. Yes it’s not as black and white as this, and yes there is a certain balance to it all, but I do prefer the face with smile, to the one with frown, since I do believe, that if they smile at me, I will pay it forward somewhere else, and in the end of the day we all be smiling…
    I swear I am not a hippie, but to me this simple concept holds true, and the fact that it, did not take in CZ is a big disappointment to me…
    Loooove ya though, and your observations! Thanks very much for the great entertaining job you do here! e.

  10. I’m laaate to this post, but really, I’m so glad you wrote this up and shared with the whole wide world. The getting up for older people on public transport is one of the little things I love about Czech Republic. It may be drilled old-fashioned courtesy, but there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned courtesy when it’s still practical in the world of today. And this is.
    Likewise for the greeting. We could do with more “prosím”s and “děkuju”s, though. Czech moms seem to still be failing in drilling those “magic words” into their children’s heads… I try to use them as often as possible, thanking people who hold the doors for me and so on. And smiling when I do. Nothing wrong with doing that: it makes ME feel better! It’d be different if I was forced to smile all day, but I’m not, so I can smile at people occasionally.

    And I love those cream and red trams. It’s a Czech thing, not just a Prague thing.

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