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What is Czech?

Czech Culture (Česká kultura) | More on Czechs (Více o Češích)

Slavíková, J.: WHAT IS CZECH? A research paper, Joint Masters of Arts - Migration and Intercultural Relations (JMMIR), Jihočeská univerzita v Českých Budějovicích, 2010.

1.      Introduction

In the modern globalised world, we encounter cultures different from ours wherever we turn: we travel to foreign countries and foreigners travel to ours; we go to exotic restaurants; we buy exotic products; we surf the borderless Internet; we play foreign computer games and watch foreign films – in our language, or even in the original ones; we listen to foreign songs... We encounter foreign factors more and more in our closest surroundings. However, we may accept different appearances, even different customs and traditions, but when it comes to something more intimate and internal, such as routines, values and worldviews; when it comes to foreign factors in our everyday lives that differ from or even contradict something we are used to, something "self-evident” and "normal”, then clashes occur.

When a migrant moves to a new country, whatever the reason and motivation, they come across differences in areas they would have never thought possible. Nevertheless, every culture and every individual is different, and so is what they perceive as "different” about the host country, its nationals and their features.

I decided to find out what is generally perceived as "Czech” among foreigners from different cultural backgrounds. It would be preferable if these foreigners could be from different socio-economic backgrounds as well, but the scope of my research was very small.

There were 22 respondents in my survey: 11 in group discussions and 11 via an online questionnaire. I found the respondents among my friends and clients, and their friends and acquaintances (a snowball effect). The group discussions took place in July 2010, and there were three of them. There were only women in the first one – women who had or had had a Czech partner; there were only men in the second one – without a similar condition; and the two participants in the last discussion were "half-Czech” – they had one or both parents Czech, but grew up in another country, regularly coming back to the Czech Republic. All of the foreigners had lived in the Czech Republic for at least a year.

I recorded the group discussions on a voice recorder and asked a friend to record them on a camcorder as well. In addition, I asked the participants to fulfil a questionnaire before the discussion, to collect some background data. The online questionnaire consisted of these questions as well, plus questions regarding the Czech character, feeling of acceptance, integration, etc.

1.      Theoretical Assumptions

1.1.     National Identity

In my research, I asked the participants what they think Czechs are like, what they consider to be typical Czech customs or traits. So what is it "to be Czech”? What is "Czech”? Is it something internally inherent to people born in the territory of the Czech Republic? Is it transmitted in blood? Or is it learned in the process of socialization? Whom can we call "Czech”? A person who lives in the Czech Republic? A person whose parents were Czech, even if s/he grew up and lives in another country? A person who has the Czech passport? A person who speaks Czech perfectly?

There are as many perceptions of "Czechness” as there are people who have come in touch with anything or anybody "Czech”. On the one hand, there is the way people who are considered Czech perceive themselves; on the other hand, there is the view of others. The perception of what is and what is not Czech is "ethnicist and nationalist” (Wodak et al. 2009: 1), based on the contraposition between the national "us” and the non-national "others”, because "every search for identity includes differentiating oneself from what one is not.” (Benhabib 1996 in Wodak et al. 2009: 2)

I accept the following basic assumptions (from Wodak et al. 2009: 3-4):

·         Nations are a product of modernity; they "are mental constructs, ‘imagined communities’, which nationalised political subjects perceive as discrete political entities.”

·         "[N]ational identities, as special forms of social identities, are produced and reproduced, as well as transformed and dismantled, discursively.” Also, "there is – in an essentialist sense[1] – no such thing as one national identity. […] [D]ifferent identities are discursively constructed according to audience, setting, topic and substantive content. National identities are therefore malleable, fragile and, frequently, ambivalent and diffuse.”

·         ‘National identity’ implies "a complex of similar conceptions and perceptual schemata, of similar emotional dispositions and attitudes, and of similar behavioural conventions, which bearers of this ‘national identity’ share collectively and which they have internalised through socialisation (education, politics, the media, sports or everyday practices).”

·         "[D]iscursive constructs of nations and national identities [...] primarily emphasise national uniqueness and intra-national uniformity but largely ignore intra-national differences. In imagining national singularity and homogeneity, members of a national community simultaneously construct the distinctions between themselves and other nations, most notably when the other nationality is believed to exhibit traits similar to those of one’s own national community, similar to what Freud called the ‘narcissism of small differences’.”

To sum up, the participants of my survey did not have to be unsure and worried if they were right about what Czechs are like. "A typical Czech” is an abstraction, an illusion which can more or less be embodied in a real "Czech” person. And "Czechness” is a construct, continuously recreated and adapted to current goals and purposes.

1.2.     Culture

Differences between nations are perceived in terms of "culture”: people either use the name of nationals (such as "Czechs” or "Czech people”), or they speak about "Czech culture”, as opposed to their own "culture”. What is "culture”, then, and what is its association with "nation”? In my research, I tried to identify what foreigners perceive as "Czech culture” in the following sense:

Hofstede defines culture as "the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from another. The "category” can refer to nations, regions within or across nations, ethnicities, religions, occupations, organizations, or the genders. A simpler definition is ‘the unwritten rules of the social game’. [...] All human groups, from the nuclear family to society, develop cultures as they go. Culture is what enables a group to function smoothly.” (From his website)

Hofstede calls culture in terms of "patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting mental programs, or [...] software of the mind.” Culture also refers to "the ordinary and menial things in life: greeting, eating, showing or not showing feelings, keeping a certain physical distance from others, making love, and maintaining body hygiene.” An individual human being acquires most of her or his programming during childhood, before puberty. However, a "person’s behavior is only partially predetermined by his or her mental programs.” (From his website and in Hofstede et al. 2010: 5) Culture is "always a collective phenomenon” and it is "learned, not innate. [...] Culture should be distinguished from human nature on one side and from an individual’s personality on the other.” (Hofstede et al. 2010: 6)

"Cultural differences manifest themselves in several ways,” but Hofstede considers the following four as covering "the total concept rather neatly: symbols, heroes, rituals, and values.” (Hofstede et al. 2010: 7) Samovar et al. (2007: 18-9) highlight another set of components that define and distinguish cultures: history, religion, values, social organizations, and language. In their view, the best definition of cultures has been advanced by Triandis (1994): "Culture is a set of human-made objective and subjective elements that in the past have increased the probability of survival and resulted in satisfaction for the participants in an ecological niche, and thus became shared among those who could communicate with each other because they had a common language and they lived in the same time and place.” The "subjective” elements include "values, attitudes, beliefs, orientations, and underlying assumptions prevalent among people in a society.” (p. 20) In addition, they quote Huntington (1996), who adds that besides language, religion and values, "the heart of culture” also involves traditions and customs. (p. 21) (emphasis added)

As far as the "national culture” is concerned, Hofstede points out that "nation” is a relatively recent construct in the human history that should not be confused with the term "society”, an organically evolved social organisation. While we can speak about common culture of societies, "nation” is a politically created unit. (Hofstede et al. 2010: 20-1) Some nations are more culturally homogeneous, while others comprise culturally different regions; and culturally similar areas can belong politically to different nations. However, "[r]esearch by Geert and others has shown that national cultures differ in particular at the level of, usually unconscious, values held by a majority of the population. [...] Because values are acquired in childhood, national cultures are remarkably stable over time; national values change is a matter of generations. What we see changing around us, in response to changing circumstances are practices: symbols, heroes and rituals, leaving the underlying values untouched. This is why differences between countries often have such a remarkable historical continuity.” (From his website)

2.      Research

2.1.     Technical Matters

In order to detect a general idea of what is Czech, I decided to use the method of a group discussion (focus group), because it would allow the participants to react to others’ opinions and experiences. I intended to conduct three group discussions: one in Czech, one in English, and one in Russian. However, in the end, I decided to conduct the research in English only, as it was easier and I was able to gather enough English-speaking participants. In addition, to collect responses from people who were not available for the discussions, I created an online questionnaire.

The main questions the participants in the survey were asked were:

·         What surprised you most when you arrived and started living in the Czech Republic?

·         What do you miss when living here, or what do you find better?

·         What do you still find difficult to get used to / to understand? Why?

·         Do you think that Czech people welcome / accept foreigners? Why?

·         What are Czechs like? What is specific about them?

The group discussions were approximately 90, 60, and 30 minutes long, and they were accompanied by a form including some background questions, a list of which can be found in the appendix. The online questionnaire also included these questions, plus several core questions regarding the perceptions of Czechs, which can also be found in the appendix.

2.2.     Participants

2.2.1.        Gender, Age, Country of Origin

In the first discussion group, there were five women, 24 to 35 years old: one from New Zealand, one from India, one from Kazakhstan, one from Peru and one from the USA. In the second group, there were four men, 28 to 55 years old: one from Italy, one from the USA, one from Germany and one from Brazil. In the third discussion group, there were only two participants, 25 and 30 years old: a woman born to Czech parents who spent her childhood in Denmark, and a man who grew up in France, born to French father and Czech mother.

In addition, 11 people replied to my questionnaire on the Internet. However, two of the responds were not serious, so I eliminated them. A couple of other responds were rather short, but there were some interesting points raised. All in all, I must say that the Internet part of my research proved to be less successful: direct contact between the respondent and the researcher was missing, and so was the opportunity for clarification and additional questions or requests. On the other hand, the replies were already written, so I did not have to spend hours writing transcripts.

The age of the respondents from the Internet survey ranged from 27 to their 40s, there were 2 people from Russia, one from Australia, one from South Africa, one from Bolivia, one from Thailand, one from the USA, one from Ukraine, and one who grew up Hungary and whose mother is Czech and father Hungarian. In total, there were 12 female and 8 male respondents in my research. Only 3 respondents had a partner of the same nationality at the time of the survey.

2.2.2.        Professions, Education

As to the professions represented in my survey, there were 2 students, 5 consultants (4 in the field of finance), 3 teachers, 2 artists, an IT specialist, an office administrator, an economist, a project manager, a self-employed, a web developer, a pharmacist, and a software developer. All the participants except one had a university degree.

2.2.3.        Reason to Come, Length of Stay

6 participants came to the Czech Republic because of their partner (5 of them were Czech; one not Czech, but got a job here), 3 participants came "for a change” ("to try something different, to travel, and look for new career ideas”; "to travel, to see another country, culture and learn about other people”), 3 came to study, 3 came to work, and 1 for business. 2 of the 3 "half-Czechs” came because they wanted "to live here; it’s part of what I am”, or for "curiosity, need to discover my "2nd home” in depth”; one does not actually live in the Czech Republic, but she comes to regular visits. When the participants came to the Czech Republic, they mostly intended to stay for at least 2 years, but all of them have stayed longer than they originally intented. At the time of the survey, their length of stay ranged from approximately 14 months to 16 years.

2.2.4.        Other Intercultural Experience, Languages

9 participants had lived in another foreign country for more than one year before coming to the Czech Republic; 11 had not. When asked whether they parents were of the same nationality / ethnicity / religion, 13 respondents answered yes, 7 respondents said no. All of the participants spoke at least two languages, one of them being English. All except one have also been learning Czech.[2]

2.2.5.        Speaking Czech, Relationships with Czechs

For most of the participants, meeting Czech people took place in shops, restaurants, etc., or with the family of their partners. For some, it was also at work, but they mostly only spoke Czech with those who could not speak English. Only a few of them declared they had Czech friends and communicated in Czech with them. On the other hand, there were also a few who tried to speak Czech and complained about the attitude of Czech people: for not being helpful and patient, and for switching to English. Nevertheless, one participant pointed out that a foreigner trying to speak Czech tends to be received better by Czechs.

Comments on relationships with Czechs included: "Relationship is generally good but always with the language barrier there, even with fluent English speakers.” "People are people, I get on with some Czech, I don’t like some, as any other people.” "It’s good. I’d like to be able to get closer to some of them.” "Yes – both easy going and liberal.” "Yes, people like everywhere else!” "I would say it’s good. Mostly because I speak the language and am partially Czech, so I guess they don’t treat me as a total stranger.”

Some of the replies as to whether they speak Czech were: "It is hard sometimes to get them to speak slowly, clearly and simply.” "No. It’s difficult.” "Yes, always with Czech people. I like to fit in.” "Yes – respect the culture / nation.” "No. No point, they try in English.” "Yes, all the time.” "I try to speak Czech when meeting Czech people but I don’t like them to expect when knowing the length of my stay and the level of my Czech.” "Yes—it’s still difficult and awkward, but it’s helping! Czech people are more willing to be patient and help me when they see that I am trying.” "I never need to use much. The conversation generally switches to English.” "Yes. I have to as most of my colleagues don’t speak English and as I want to communicate with them, I have to speak Czech. Also with older people and with shopkeepers etc. I can’t expect them all to speak English. With my friends at times, although most of them like to practise their English, so we end up speaking English.” "Yes, I always speak Czech to Czeck people. But they never correct my mistakes :(”

2.2.6.        Feeling Integrated

When asked whether they feel integrated, only a few (3) participants replied yes without any reservations. Language was mentioned as the main barrier, but some also mentioned their foreign origin, e.g. being Russian (negative attitude to this particular nationality in the Czech Republic), being "not White” (eliciting staring), or simply not being Czech (e.g. being referred to as "the French” despite proficiency in Czech and Czech mother).

Some of the responds were: "Almost. I think to fit in I need to understand what’s happening around me – announcements, conversations etc. and I don’t yet.” "In most of times. However, I feel sometimes some barrier due to language and also the fact that I’m Russian.” "No, there is a big cultural gap and many Czech people are shy to talk to foreigners.” "Somewhat. I have many more acquaintances / friends than I did when I first came. I still feel bad making Czech people with low levels of English communicate with me.” "Partially. I am foreign and not very fluent in the language.” "Ehm... Yes and no – starting to understand them, but far from...” "No and probably never will.” "Yes (and no).” "Yes, but some time I am referred to "the French” which hurts me a bit...” "Still not much as long as I cannot speak with them as much as I want. There are some unfitted things that needed to be clearified.” "Not yet. Arrived too recently, staying working abroad for too long.” "No – I am not Czech.” "Difficult question. Sometimes. partly because I’m not White, so I can’t blend in. People always notice me and stare. I’m like so obviously a foreigner. But at other times, with my friends, I feel comfortable. I know them, they know me, so we can even forget that we come from different countries and just be good friends and that’s great.” "Integrated enough.” "Not really. It’s difficult. The only place for me to get to know people is the office. But Czech don’t make friends at the work place.”

2.3.     Outcome: What is "Czech”?

Before summarizing the main results of the survey, a few points should be raised: The participants did not quite represent the composition of foreigners in the Czech Republic. All of them were highly educated and residing in Prague – and all of them therefore speak of their experience with Czechs they encounter in Prague. Only one of the participants observed a difference between the attitude of Czechs from Prague and from Moravia – in her experience, Prague people were more open and friendly. Reasons were suggested by other participants: there are many foreigners in Prague, and they do not live in segregated areas, they meet and "melt”, because Prague is still not as huge as other capitals. Also, the knowledge and use of English might be better and more frequent in Prague – people are more used to communicating with foreigners. Nevertheless, Prague is a city, and that is also the reason why some of the characteristics the participants (especially those without a Czech partner) describe might apply to Czech people living in the city, but not to those from the countryside. Those with Czech partners might have greater insights from meeting Czech relatives or friends from other parts of the Czech Republic.

The first impression a foreigner gets when arriving to the Czech Republic is probably that Czechs are unsmiling, distant or even rude people. This impression is reinforced by generally horrible service provided in restaurants and shops. The respondents see several possible causes: a relic of the communist era, an unfavourable system of wages and management, or the tendency to separate work and private life, behaving differently in each of them. While Czechs might be unhelpful in shops and restaurants, a foreigner might be pleasantly surprised by their helpfulness in the streets. In business contact, however, they do not seem to be quite reliable.

Almost all the respondents have mentioned another feature: there are two sides of Czechs. When they do not know you, they are closed and reserved, but once you gain their friendship, you can rely on their help, they are sincere and loyal, and they invite you to their families. The respondents appreciated this feature especially in comparison with the "easy love” of Latin cultures, such as French, Spanish, Italian, or South American, where you get accepted immediately, but these ‘friendships’ can be fake and short-lived.

Many participants also pointed out that the ties and mutual support within families seem to be stronger in the Czech Republic. However, some counter-opinions also appeared, e.g. from Italy, or India. Language was a very important factor, as well as cultural background and differences, especially with respondents from Asia. Some participants have observed that gender distinctions and gender roles were stronger in the Czech Republic than for example in the USA, or in Denmark. Czech parents also seemed to be stricter to their children.

Another significant feature all respondents agreed on was the unwillingness of Czech people to interfere. Some thought it was associated with the formal and polite behaviour in public. While it was regarded positively in certain areas by some, it was generally disapproved, because it entailed lack of mutual interest and help in situations of distress, and lack of assertiveness and defending one’s rights.

Prague was prevailingly appreciated for general safety in the streets. However, the feeling of security was mostly not caused or helped by the presence of the police, whose attitude and behaviour was strongly criticized by the respondents: for pettiness, unhelpfulness and susceptiveness to bribery. Bribery was also mentioned in connection with the politicians and bureaucracy. On the other hand, some participants appreciated the flexibility of Czechs, compared with rigid following of rules for example in Britain, and their ability to come up with creative solutions to problems.

Some participants believed that there was greater freedom and tolerance of different appearance in the Czech Republic. While some of them praised that, some felt there should be more decency and social control in this respect. Unfortunately, some of the respondents with darker skin or Asian appearance have experienced encounters with skinheads and unacknowledged general racism. Respondents felt foreigners were in general not quite accepted in the Czech Republic, for language reasons or simply their ‘outside’ origin. In addition, one participant noted an enduring negative perception of the Russians. Nevertheless, another participant pointed out that the situation might change as the Czech Republic hosts more foreigners and Czech children get used to mixed collectives from a very young age. Thus, not only knowledge, but also practical experience with intercultural communication will improve.

A few participants noticed that Czechs show great appreciation for education and their culture. Some have also considered the level of general knowledge as higher than in their home countries. Other observations regarded Czechs’ love of sales and things given for free, or their generally relaxed approach to life.

All in all, despite not feeling quite included or integrated in the Czech society, most of the respondents managed to adapt. Those who felt their cultural background, personality or lifestyle were irreconcilable with the Czech reality might have actually already left the country (such as the Indian, Australian, or one of the Americans). As the Indian respondent complained, foreigners in the Czech Republic are required to adjust, but what about the Czechs? "If they would have at least tried to understand that this is a person from a different culture, that they have different thinking of certain things and try to adjust...”

4. References

Wodak, R., et al. (2009). The Discursive Construction of National Identity. Second edition.

Hofstede, G. Culture. Personal website. http://www.geerthofstede.nl/culture.aspx [accessed 4 April 2011]

Hofstede, G., et al. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: intercultural cooperation and its importance for survival. Third edition.

[1] For the difference between the essentialist and non-essentialist concept of culture, refer to Holliday et. al. (2004) – Intercultural Communication: An Advanced Resource Book. Pp. 5-6.

[2] In fact, that is how I had met many of them, as I teach Czech for foreigners.

5. Appendix

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