English Politeness vs Czech Honesty or hi-how-are-you-i’m-fine-thanks-how-are-you

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jak se mas

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How are you?

I know I’m asking but don’t go assuming that means I’m actually the least bit interested in the response. Apparently that’s because I’m English and for us, asking that innocuous question is just a way of clearing our throats. Often we don’t even bother to provide an answer before blurting out the same question parrot fashion. The French make things more convenient from this point of view; when you are asked ‘ça va?’ a simple ‘ça va’ will suffice in reply.

The Czechs do things differently. If someone bothers to go to the trouble of asking how you are, it is okay to assume they are interested in the response. You are allowed to say, “I’m feeling pretty shit actually” or go off on one about your bad boss, hair day or divorce. “Not great” is an acceptable answer here. In England, only “I’m fine” will do.

The linguists have a term for what we English do. It’s called phatic communication: language acts which have very little meaning or purpose other than to avoid silence. Perhaps the reason the Czechs I’ve spoken to about the ‘how are you?’ issue are confused about English ‘how-are-you-ing’ is that they misunderstand the true meaning of the standard response ‘I’m fine’. In fact, saying you’re fine doesn’t signify all that much, just that nothing terrible happened to you or your nearest and dearest that particular day, that you are alive, in reasonable health and not anticipating any imminent catastrophe. That’s all. You’re ok.

If you are feeling shitty and you’re speaking to someone English, my advice would be to keep a lid on it. Whatever you’re heard about the infiltration of U.S therapy culture, we still consider emotional incontinence bad manners. I only asked how you were, so don’t go spilling your guts everywhere: I don’t want to be subjected to a fifteen minute monologue.

I’m being deliberately provocative of course and I anticipate that you will agree or disagree with me as usual in the space provided.

I’m fine by the way. Really. Apart from having my mobile stolen on the 22 tram. No camera phone means no nice new pictures of bridges and mannequins and men eating sausages to put on my blog. But of course, I shouldn’t be telling you that as I’m sure you’re just asking out of politeness.

29 Comments

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29 Responses to English Politeness vs Czech Honesty or hi-how-are-you-i’m-fine-thanks-how-are-you

  1. Good analysis 🙂

    Looking from the opposite point of view, I found Americans’ over-positivity quite frustrating. “Great!” is a crap answer to “How are you” and wishing me a nice day when you are a shop clerk may seem polite, but to me it seems empty when you really don’t care 😛 I once answered “well, actually feeling a bit blue today because of culture shock and homesickness…” boy did I learn quickly to fake the answer that even friends would ask…

    All the fake smiles ALL the time were worst though. When someone genuinely smiles or tells you that they are having an excellent day, how do you distinguish it from the noise? The answer to how you are, should be “so-so/fine” by default for the reasons you described, and “great” only if you have a good reason for it. Positivity is more special when it’s authentic. Call me cynical but I find constant forced positivity to be way too fake. Suppressing all negativity with friends is precisely why the US therapy culture is so big. You HAVE to be positive with everyone and only negative if someone is paid to listen to you…

    That’s why in Czech people say “Dobrý den” so much. It’s just wishing someone a good day rather than asking them to lie about whether they are actually having one. Americans have told me that they find it strange that nobody smiles on trams in Prague. Why would they? They’re on the same dull tram they take every day, not a roller-coaster ride. When you DO get a Czech to smile, you can tell that it’s genuine and special 🙂

    It’s the same in lots of other languages; when people ask me How are you, it’s less common than in English but you can see that they genuinely want to know and will listen to you if you actually answer the question 😉

    “Phatic communication”. Never heard the term before, thanks for sharing 🙂

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Benny,

      Thanks a lot for your comment: you’ve raised lots of really interesting points here.

      I can’t really comment on the States but I think you’re right to find forced positivity grating. I also prefer the fact that Czechs are perhaps not the smiliest bunch on earth but at least when they do express happiness or pleasure you can be pretty sure it’s genuine.

      I wasn’t sure about whether to mention the phatic communication thing as I didn’t want to seem like too much of a big old clever clogs but according to the little bit of internet research I did before writing this, it means something like the activity of talking merely to preserve sociality rather than to communicate any real information. So there you are 🙂

      I’m very much enjoying your blog by the way: I’m going to use it with my more advanced students to get some discussion going about the best strategies for language learning. I’ll let you know how that goes!

      GIC

      • Thanks for the compliments – please do let me know how it goes 🙂
        I’ll be in Prague for just 3 more weeks before I move on to Brazil and my craziest 3-month language mission ever. I’m a bit busy with shite-loads of work at the moment but let me know if you want to join me for an OJ before I hit the road!
        All the best!
        BIP

      • Ella

        I think that it is a good point with our greetings when we walk somewhere. I always feel weird abroad – I always try to learn at least “Hello” in their language, because I think it is incredibly rude to walk somewhere without saying “Good morning/afternoon”. At least I was raised that way – “You have to say “dobrý den” everytime” – in shops, even buses, and say “bye” when I am leaving.

  2. czech girl who likes your blog

    When I’m asking somebody “How are you?” in a Czech language I am really interested in an answer and things that are in his/her life. So don’t ask if you don’t want a normal true answer. If you ask someone here, where people take this question seriously, don’t expect “I’m fine.” if a person is not in that situation.
    Czechs are more straight and maybe they less prefer this politeness with it’s sliding on a surface. They are not used to it 🙂

    sorry for mistakes, I think I’ve made some but I don’t see them now 🙂

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Czech girl,

      I think that’s excellent advice: if you don’t want a real answer, don’t bother to ask in the first place. And I also think you’re right about not complaining or expressing your true feelings coming from a strange desire to be polite. I would feel awkward saying that I was feeling shitty to someone I didn’t know well, like I was burdening them in some way and prefer to opt for the safe, fake ‘I’m fine’. Perhaps I should experiment with behaving differently and then post about the results…

      GIC

      P.S Your english is fine 🙂

      • Presle

        I think you should try “Jde to.” That’s the answer meaning “I don’t really want to talk about it but no catastrophy is going on.”

  3. bel

    The Czech way sounds so honest and refreshing. Here in the US, the exchange usually goes like this:

    “Hi! How are you?” “Good! How are you?” “Good!” “Good!” Usually the last two exchanges are done while you’re already walking away from each other.

    I hate having to force a smile; it looks and feels fake to me. But if I don’t, I’ve actually had people (even strangers!) say things to me like “Smile!” or “What’s there to be so angry about?”

    (Hi, I’ve been reading your blog for a while and I guess this post struck a chord with me…)

  4. Personally, whenever someone asks me that question, I always reply with ‘same shit, different day’….

    Although the owner of my local bar is Irish, so he prefers to ask “Whats the story?” when you walk into the bar.

    He appeared rather perturbed the night I was feeling mischievous and replied to his polite query with a synopsis of the novel I have just started to write!….

    The point of your post is valid though. We English do ask the question more because we were taught as children that it was polite to ask rather than because we have any interest whatsoever in the reply, and so feel strangely offended when our ‘polite’ query yields an actual honest response!

    • lol! “What’s the story” 😛 We say that because it’s a translation from the Irish Gaelic “An bhfuil aon scéal (agat)?” It actually means “What’s going on? / Anything new with you?” but word-for-word translations are so much more fun 😀

  5. gil (gvkb)

    I’m not entirely convinced about the idea that people in England don’t expect some sort of honest reply to “How are you?” I know that this is generally perceived to be the case but I have certainly noticed a change that is coming over at least my generation as regards this convention (I’m 67). Nowadays, when I ask a friend “How are you?” I want a proper reply and I accord them the same courtesy.

    The phrase “How do you do?” on the other hand is purely phatic. Lovely word 🙂

  6. RyanG

    Very interesting blog you have here! I’m looking forward to the next post.

    I found this post very amusing in it’s honest observations. My personal theory on this — being American, and quite accustomed to these “how are you” exchanges — is that it’s something we inherited from the English.

    When I was a teenager and later in my early twenties, I would sometimes reply with how I was actually feeling, although I still kept it to a few words (i.e. “good”, “fine”, “alright”, “eh”) and spoke with an emphasis and tone so that a response of “alright” was appropriately depressive. =) Oh, to be a jaded youth…

    AFAIK, young people now say “Sup.” or “What’s up.” more often than “How are you.”, but it has the same meaning. I have a friend who sometimes prods with “You didn’t answer my question.” after saying “Sup.” My first gut reaction when hearing that is that expecting an actual reply is pretty odd.

    Reading Benny’s post above about fake smiles got me thinking. If you don’t smile, people often take it that something’s wrong with you. Have you ever taken a family photo and made a straight face? Everyone will say the picture is bad because of that! “Smile! No, really smile! Show your teeth!” When Americans look at old photos where people had straight faces everyone jokes about how angry or sad they look. I have to wonder if this ties in with how often anti-depressants are being prescribed these days? I wonder if in American culture we’re expected to be happy all the time as the norm?

    • American smiles! We joke about them, we Czechs. The forced photography identical kind of smile that people are trained to make… We still say “sýr” when taking photos (literally, “cheese”), but it’s still a different kind of smile; we’re less likely to show our teeth that much because that just feels fake. I wonder when this practice started in the USA?

  7. ‘we still consider emotional incontinence bad manners’ >>>> that’s hilarious 🙂

  8. m0606

    Great post, GIS, as usual – funny and true. This resonates with me in a contorted way, being a Czech living in the US for 12 years now. Went through the phases you write about in the opposite way than the rest of the responders – to make a full circle: starting by getting used to how-are-you-ing here and now having hard time not to use it when speaking in my native toungue with fellow Czechs (which sounds really odd). Try to call an office in the Czech Rep and automatically blurt out “Jak se mate” right after you tell them your name – you can be sure you will get an ackward pause or a stuttered murmor…(meaning: why do you care how I am, just ask what you need and let’s move on). And cannot agree more with not recommending telling people in the Czech you are doing “just great” as is so common here in the states (same thing as not volunteering to them you went to Oxford, right GIC?). Not that people would not be doing great there at times but the common attitude is that things could be better…historical reasons mostly. If you read about the nation’s history, you will understand better where this may be comming from. Plus the Czech frankeness is also a factor, unlike in the U.S. fake smiling. I’ve had my own painful encounters with social unacceptability of telling exactly what’s on your mind just the way it is, here. You live and learn – trips home now provide a nice break for my “fake smile muscles”… fortunately only to give more room to the true lough ones, most of the times. Perhaps we will get to share one over a cup of coffee, GIC, next time I visit Prague, since it didn’t work out this time around. Keep writing and best of luck to you all in my good old homecountry!

  9. ajťačka

    After almost 3 years of having this conversation with Czechs every few months, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. My thought is that it’s not a question entirely without meaning; instead, I think it in a way calibrates the conversation. Example:

    * Alice asks Bob how he is.
    * Bob can a) ignore the question (or answer “fine, thanks”), b) give a brief, non-commital answer (“ah, could be better”), c) elaborate on the graphic details of his latest doctor’s visit.
    * Depending on his response, Alice can decide to either move on, or dwell more on Bob’s answer.

    Each decision is based on the relationship (friends, bank teller/customer), time available, purpose of conversation etc. None of those choices would (normally) cause offence – unless the doctor’s visit was particularly ‘intimate’. I think all of this is completely sub-conscious, which is why most English-speakers reply “Because it’s polite” when asked why we say it.

    This is, of course, ignoring the friend expecting the answer “Great!” every time, and being surprised when the answer is different.

  10. anon y mous

    Apart from having my mobile stolen on the 22 tram.

    That’s the only tram that really has pickpockets anymore. It goes so often that pickpockets can just exit and re-enter the next one. So many people pushing and bumping – quite easy to grab things.

  11. Marek

    You know, when hiking in the mountains, it is a nice old habit to greet the people you meet. Quite simple in the Czech, Slovak or Polish mountains (Zdar – Zdar, Czesc – Czesc). When hiking in the Rockies, to my surprise people do this too! Except they do the whole “hi-how-are-you-i’m-fine-thanks-how-are-you-great” act when meeting.

    It is usually about five steps from when it makes sense to start saying something to the point when the person passes you – that`s about two seconds. In the decisive moment when I was to reply fine-thanks-how-are-you there always was a surge of real feelings trying to get out. I wanted to tell the how-are-you-ing person “well, isn`t it beautiful here?! Listen, we have spent the night by this magnificent lake and ….” … and the guy was gone and I just quietly mumbled the rest of the proper `fine…. and you?`drill. I practiced, believe me, but never got it right!

    Czechs just don`t have the how-are-you-fine-thank-you-and-you gene. That`s why!

  12. terry

    I think there is too much put into this. it’s only a (?) greeting. The czechs would be better served not being so suspicious and yes smile more. The czechs have taken over the yanks role of being it, at the moment. The very fact that the tourists aren’t coming here for the smiles alone, It never was. Now they may be forced to be more pleasant. The germans are now more friendly than here and well deserved too. I’m a little tired of hearing here how we (czechs) are overtaking the english and now don’t want to speak the language(english)So really an inherently rude people ( and lets face it people only like or speak to you here if they know you)need to learn manners to a stranger.

  13. laszlo

    when i spent some time in britain as an exchange student, i often made the mistake to talk about myself when asked how are you. It took a few weeks to realize, that they are actually not interested at all. But that happened not only with this question, I felt that people who I met are totally not interested in how we live in hungary, or how other people live in other countries.
    Many of my friends told me that they felt the same in britain, that people are sitting in their armchairs and watch the rest of the world passing by on a big tv screen, and they switch between the channels without interest.

    I never felt the same in France or anywhere else in europe. Probably it is a special british attitude to the outside world, half ow which was/is ruled by their country. This ruling role is not really possible if you are emphatic with the ruled ones. You dont really want to hear their stories, you have your own story to live and not to vorry about those who are actually not fine.

    For hungarians talking about their problems and suffering is one of the favorite hobbies, so for us it is really hard to answer , im fine, thanks…

    • Adela

      Exactly, the same happened to me in Canada two years ago. There were times when I just couldn’t stand this “how-are-you-great!-and-how-are-you-also-great!” phrase.

      At the beginning I also made the mistake starting to talk about myself and I was suprised that even a strange person is asking me how I am. Why is he/she caring about it? Are really all the people here doing that great? Then I realized that people asked but they didn’t expect any answer and didn’t care at all. Everything seed to be a fake to me.
      After some time I just got just to it.

      I think we should just accept that like different culture habits and don’t consider people to be fake. Just be tolerant and enjoy the culture differences. It’s fun, isn’t it? 🙂

  14. laszlo

    actually as i think a lil more of it in hungary there is such a comon question: whats up? or: whats the news?
    but it is usually a nice way to start a conversation about what is really up.

  15. aurora

    eh, is this not a bit of a generalisation,
    here in Ireland, I think people do engage in conversation when asked ‘how are you’, I think its similar to Czech. It also depends what circles you are in,

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Aurora,

      Yes, it does depend of course: I was just trying to be a little bit provocative and create a bit of debate which I hope I managed to do.

      Hope you’re enjoying reading anyway,

      GIC

  16. alfredosax

    I live in Dublin since 2006. i had to get used to this different way of meaning the sentence “how are you”. Today I’m ok with it but I felt very strange as I was used to answer to the question back in my country, Italy, and I was used as well to get an aswer to the same question.
    It’s just a matter of different customs, there’s nothing bad with it. But it’s funny though!

  17. I live in CZ and I am English and I like the czech directness and frankness. You know where you stand.
    I dont miss the high incidence of cold politeness and fake political correctness in the S E of England at all.
    The Celts are however much like the Czechs in this way, and that is why I have so many Celtic friends in London.
    When I am in the UK on holiday, I have to adjust my communication, and put up that barrier of fake politeness again to avoid awkward silences, and it reminds me how czechized I have become after 6 years.
    Interesting debate, thanks Girl in Czechland 😉 Great blog 🙂

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Mike,
      I too find the Czechs’ directness refreshing although it took some getting used to and has caused the odd sticky moment between Czechman and myself! Thanks for reading 🙂
      GIC

      • Mike in Bohemia

        Hi GIC,

        Yes, at first it’s hard, but after a few years you are used to it and see the advantages. I have experienced much closer friendships in CZ than in the UK.

        Have a good weekend,
        Mike

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