What's with Prague being so grumpy?
August 8, 2018 6:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm living in Prague for a short while. I've quickly noticed that the general public demeanor here is pretty grumpy. People are silent and sour-faced on trams and eye you suspiciously if you're being chatty with friends. Shopkeepers don't seem to like the fact that you've chosen their business. Servicepeople are surly. Etc. This isn't uniformly true, of course, but it's striking, especially given that I'm Canadian and used to the opposite. So, uh, what gives? Is this an arbitrary cultural setting? Is it adaptive in any way I can't figure out? Do people learn to be like this?
posted by insteadofapricots to Human Relations (31 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Don't take it personally. This is pretty normal for Central and Eastern Europe. It's not that people are necessarily unfriendly, they just generally don't have a cultural norm of putting on a fake smile or sugarcoating interactions for the sake of being polite. The 'friendliness' or 'warmness' in typical public interactions that a North American is used to is often interpreted as strange at best, and suspicious or obnoxious at worst in Central and Eastern Europe.
posted by BrandonW at 6:48 AM on August 8, 2018 [25 favorites]

I mean, the opposite is that some people go to North America and are nauseated by the culture of noise, Walmart greeters and HAVE A NICE DAY.

It is no more or less arbitrary as a cultural setting than your own is.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:49 AM on August 8, 2018 [27 favorites]

I definitely found this to be the case in former Soviet countries that I've visited. I can't say for a fact, but my hunch is, life hasn't been and still isn't easy and fun.
posted by namesarehard at 7:00 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think it's a cultural norm. I've certainly seen the culture shock from the other direction, where someone from outside North America is shocked/disturbed by the omnipresent smiles and fake-seeming friendliness they encounter here. There's an interesting illustration of this contrast in this radio story about one man's experience working at the first McDonald's in Russia, where he talks about the Russian vs. American service style:

CHEKALIN: You know, in school, we learned that American smile - that's not honest. That's just for show. There were, like, posters about those evil capitalists wearing top hats and smiling in that evil way...When you see your family or when you see your friends, that is when you smile. You don't really smile to anybody outside of that...When people smile all the time, it's kind of a bad character trait, like not willing to express your true feelings.

SPIEGEL: ...Because the state-run economy created severe shortages, at the time, the relationship between customers and service providers, like cashiers or waiters, was basically the opposite of the relationship set up in America because if you have stuff in a world of scarcity, you have enormous power.
CHEKALIN: In the Soviet Union, when you walked into a restaurant, the first thing they would look at is your clothes. And then they would, you know, judge if they want you in this restaurant or if they just rather take break.
SPIEGEL: In fact, it was common to show up at a completely empty restaurant and be told by a lounging waiter they simply didn't have space.
CHEKALIN: Just chase you away.

posted by ourobouros at 7:02 AM on August 8, 2018 [28 favorites]

Mrs. JPD "Mom, why is no one ever similing in these family pictures"
M-I-L (Polish Immigrant) "There was nothing to smile about"

And yeah - its a total cliche of North Americans that we're fake smile-y /happy.
posted by JPD at 7:02 AM on August 8, 2018 [13 favorites]

Part of it is living in close quarters with a lot of people - average European population density is a lot higher than American/Canadian, so culture norms form to stop annoying other people by taking up their time and attention by being loud yourself, basically the opposite of low-density car-bound populations where encounters with strangers are rare enough that people intensify them to satisfy their social needs. This is politeness - you know the other person will be having hundreds of these encounters throughout the day. A single-body tram fits about 200 people - imagine if all of them were chatty in this small enclosed space!
posted by I claim sanctuary at 7:02 AM on August 8, 2018 [32 favorites]

Nthng BrandonW's comment. Don't take it personally. I'd stick to being polite but not overly so and tone down the smiling. I'm not sure what part of Canada you're from but my part of Canada is not unlike that (though perhaps more civil). A culture of hard living & population density can lead to that.
posted by Ashwagandha at 7:04 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the helpful answers. The "arbitrary" bit in the question wasn't inferring that my cultural norm of smiliness isn't arbitrary, but rather meant "motiveless." The explanations relating to the communist hangover etc make a lot of sense.
posted by insteadofapricots at 7:08 AM on August 8, 2018

Is it adaptive in any way I can't figure out?

Well, it's an area of unstable national identity for the last hundred years, and seems to have suffered a fair amount of b.s. postwar under the soviet regime.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 7:11 AM on August 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Nthing that North American relentless happiness often reads as fake and weird in other parts of the world, especially when dispensed to total strangers. As DarlingBri says, it's no more arbritary than what you're used to - when you live abroad, you see cultural difference, adapting to this and not judging it as negative (merely different) is part of the experience of living abroad well.

Also - and I don't know if this is still a factor - but I lived in Eastern Europe in the mid-90s, in a place where things were still very much in the recent shadow of having been part of the Soviet Union. When everything was state-owned, and everywhere sold the same stuff, there was really no compulsion to try and attract custom by slapping on those fake customer service smiles so beloved of the West. And away from the service industry, people were living hard lives, so they didn't get about the place being particularly smiling and jovial. That may have fed into a culture that has persisted, even though the free market has moved in.

In terms of being chatty with friends on the tram - I'd suggest a volume check. What feels to you like natural exuberance might seem irritatingly loud to everyone else. If everyone else is sitting quietly, adjust your volume according to your surroundings, not according to what you would do at home (source: Living in a major tourist city and taking the bus every day. Damnnn those Spaniards are loud on buses. They're just enjoying themselves, but damn they're loud).
posted by penguin pie at 7:13 AM on August 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Moiraine, I accept this point, but I'll note that I've been to a largish number of places, and that this is unique to my experience so far -- it's not my North American framework, it's my Western European / South Asian / Southeast Asian / North American framework. I can't help but take averages and assume a default temperament, at least until it proves to be unwelcome, which mine is here. (I'm working on it.)
posted by insteadofapricots at 7:14 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

SPIEGEL: ...Because the state-run economy created severe shortages, at the time, the relationship between customers and service providers, like cashiers or waiters, was basically the opposite of the relationship set up in America because if you have stuff in a world of scarcity, you have enormous power.

My partner, who is Polish, has said this to me almost word for word.

But also, as queenofbithynia, things vary a lot across north america. My mom came to visit me in a place where people are very nice-nice, and was very creeped out by it. And she was from Chicago, where people are already comparatively nice.
posted by BibiRose at 7:18 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, I've noted a similar vibe in Japan. Not in customer service - there the cultural norm is very smiley and uber-polite - but in terms of pretending strangers don't exist because it's the only way to have some privacy in a crowd. It also seems to be much more intense in capital cities like Tokyo, Prague or Warsaw, especially in areas that suffer large influxes of tourists. Since you presumably speak English in public, you're probably catching a lot of "damned tourists coming here to get drunk and ignore our culture" glares.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 7:20 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

[Couple comments deleted. JudgeMe not helpful here; gonna ask that folks either address this (specifically about Prague/Eastern Europe) or just skip it. The point that Canada/US have their own norms has been made and you don't need to pile on OP about that. ]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:27 AM on August 8, 2018 [15 favorites]

Beyond the smile/no-smile question, there's a general Slavic bluntness or gruffness.

Student: "I'm really worried about this test coming up. I've been studying hard and taking the practice tests and almost all of the time I do okay abut sometimes I don't, and I just feel like——"
Polish professor: [scowling] "Stop being stupid."

An American professor would have said, you know, "Oh, I'm sure you're just overthinking it! I've seen your work, you'll be fine! Don't obsess over it, just do your best!"

The American's comforting tone and chirpy voice signify "You can trust me, I care about you and your happiness." Where in Polish culture the blunt voice and scowl signify "You can trust me, I'm being brutally honest and not sugarcoating anything." So the message is the same in both cases — "Believe me, I care about you and I'm telling you the truth, and I think you'll do fine" — but the tone and facial expression you put on to send that message is different.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:30 AM on August 8, 2018 [51 favorites]

Nthing this being a cultural norm, and often, at least in my experience, the read on people's moods and intent as an American or Canadian will often be off base. I spent some time working in a museum that had a lot of Eastern European staff and researchers, and it was months before I could read the kindness, attempts at making small talk, etc. behind the dourness, deadpan black humor, cynical expressions of total exasperation, etc.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:31 AM on August 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

I find places with a default grumpy setting reassuring, because if and when people do smile, you know they are actually happy, or they actually like you, not that they are just doing their job or being polite.
posted by lollusc at 7:33 AM on August 8, 2018 [13 favorites]

I'm from Ireland, have lived in many European countries and I found Prague to be shockingly unfriendly! Lovely looking city but I was blown away by how surly and unresponsive they seemed! At cash desks, in restaurants etc. One person in a group had alerted me that I had dropped my cardigan and I thanked them all and smiled, things like that - no reaction, they seemed just quite angry at me! (obviously it was nice of them to tell me that, but I'm commenting on just the communication - it was really angry and abrupt, all the time). I was so shocked that I bought a book called "The Czechs in a Nutshell" for further reading ;)

As to why - I can't help you! But I live in a place where, while not warm, people frequently at least smile at each other in public spheres or share a laugh if something funny has happened. So coming from a non-North American viewpoint, I also agree. Then again, we are very friendly in Ireland too!
posted by cornflakegirl at 7:43 AM on August 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Nthing it's cultural.

Also, The Atlantic had a piece on just this: Why Some Cultures Frown on Smiling: Finally, an explanation for Bitchy Resting Face Nation.

You'll note that Russia and France are pretty close, as in waaaayy off to the extreme end of "smiling people are stupid" and "smiling people are liars" (I am rewording the actual terms used – intelligence & honesty – in a truly French way). Having lived and worked in France for a while now, I have by necessity attained the resting bitch face that everyone is comfortable with (super duper bonus: NO ONE RANDOMLY TELLS WOMEN TO SMILE YAAAAAAAAY) and also the "people are idiots but do try to be less of an idiot" approach to life.

The downside is I can no longer participate much in conversations with Americans – see also MetaFilter – because the American interpretation of "you need to be nice to people" is so profoundly different from how it's enacted here. Not smiling is seen as being nice – in addition to views others have shared above, it's not foisting an emotional state onto strangers. And you can still "be nice" with a resting bitch face: hold doors open, give directions to people, grouch at the person in front of you that the metro gate is open because it's a pollution day and they grouch back "merci !" and that sort of thing.
posted by fraula at 7:44 AM on August 8, 2018 [31 favorites]

There's also a genetic component to facial expressions. People who are blind from birth tend to have the same types of expressions as other members of their families. I am an American of Eastern European descent and have been asked what's wrong my entire life.
posted by FencingGal at 7:55 AM on August 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

This FPP might be helpful. On phone, sorry for unformatted link

posted by bunderful at 7:58 AM on August 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Something else that might factor into it is the center of Prague has very few regular inhabitants.

In a city of 1.25 million people, only 29,000 live in the center. The vast majority of the regular population lives outside of the old city: in the districts around it or out in the suburbs. Once you start looking, the signs are obvious: try and find a regular-sized grocery store in the city center, for example. Or a hardware store. They're not there. In fact, all of the kinds of stores that support a regular local population are just...absent in the city center.

I believe this happened because the communist regime let the old town languish, because they didn't care about it. So it became fairly unlivable and people left. And then post-communism, the Czech Republic realized that they could spiff up the old city and bring in lots of tourist money, so that's what they did.

This means that Prague gets 20 million tourists a year, and they all flock to the city center.

This means that any shopkeeper who works in the city center is basically working in a sort of Disneyland: a place full of tourists, and tourists alone. Mostly traveling in huge groups and not speaking any of the local language. I'd be particularly cranky too.
posted by colfax at 8:02 AM on August 8, 2018 [22 favorites]

I'll just add that I noticed the same thing when I visited Prague some years ago, and have seen something similar in Central/Eastern European immigrant communities in the US. It's definitely a cultural norm. I've always tied to communism in ways similar to the comments above but I wouldn't be surprised if the norm was established even before that.

It doesn't particularly bother me, as I'm generally not a smiley-chirpy-smalltalky person myself. That said, I do find Eastern Europeans are surly in a way that I have not noticed with other cultures so I think this is a thing that is particular to that part of the world even if you adjust for North American expectations of cheerful, chatty optimism (which I mostly reject).

On preview: colfax raises a good point about Prague specifically. It's a beautiful place but the city center basically exists for tourists.
posted by breakin' the law at 8:07 AM on August 8, 2018

There may also be cues you are misreading. In Russian (and, I would guess, surrounding languages) the most basic, common intonational pattern for declarative sentences parses, to the anglophone ear, as "I'm not really interested." This kind of thing is often preserved even if the speaker has switched to English. A resource I just googled up to make sure I'm being fair says " Often this intonation is perceived by speakers of English as 'boring', but you should resist the temptation to 'jazz it up.'"
posted by Smearcase at 8:51 AM on August 8, 2018

Are you by any chance not-white? It could be compounding the culture.

I traveled in Eastern Europe and Russia a couple years ago. The surliness and general dearth of ...warmth, for lack of a better word, didn't bother me as much as the somewhat racist interactions I kept having. This was starkly evident because I (brown person) was traveling with a white male American, who was also met with initial sourness, but for whom prolonged interactions with the locals were vastly different from mine. This was fairly consistent across the board in those countries. The Czech Republic, Poland and Estonia seemed to be relatively friendlier places, compared to Lithuania and Latvia. Russia seemed, unsurprisingly, terribly unwelcoming of darker-skinned people. The Balkans were somewhere in between.

I'm fine with accepting this is a cultural norm for that part of the world. I'm not fine with how racist they appear to be (the older generations at least.)
posted by Everydayville at 9:42 AM on August 8, 2018 [7 favorites]

I'm not gonna wade into the "is this specifically Eastern European" (tho I don't think it is), but just wanna address this point:

Do people learn to be like this?

Yes, and you'll get used to it. I'm from a grumpy place (Luxembourg) and moved to a polite place (the UK) as a surly 20-year-old. I adapted fairly quickly and became polite, chirpy and friendly (so much so that my mum was outright shocked when she first witnessed me interact with people there).

Fast forward 20 years, I moved back to Luxembourg and OMG, did the grumpiness and lack of friendly greetings annoy me! I wanted to shout at everyone "it won't hurt you to say good morning!!!!" (not very polite either, I know). The other day (been here nearly 8 months now) I caught myself being grumpy, surly and not acknowledging people. Hooray, I've mutated back into a Luxembourger! </sarcasm>
posted by ClarissaWAM at 10:37 AM on August 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

Where in Canada are you from? In Victoria people are not exactly grumpy, but not exactly friendly, either. A polite but emotionally cold (or irritable) culture here.
posted by JamesBay at 11:18 AM on August 8, 2018

I am in the US but have worked extensively with a team in Prague for the past two years. The multinational company where I work has invested heavily in a tech center there and there has been a lot of work on promoting cultural understanding across the US and the CR as a result.

One of the maxims that we hear is that Americans are like peaches: soft on the outside, with a hard shell on the inside--but Czech folks are like coconuts, a hard shell on the outside but a whole lot softer inside.

I'm definitely a smiley/friendly/outgoing US type and many (but not all) of my team members there have softened up to be much more so in the time we've worked together. I take it to mean that I finally got through the coconut shell, so it can be done!
posted by Sublimity at 3:24 PM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

As a student I worked a little bit on the Holocaust Project that was gathering video recorded testimonies from as many survivors as possible, and a prominent academic who had been a camp survivor and then lived in the USSR/Russia for many years was visiting for a conference and was chatting over lunch with my professor who ran the project where I was, and a few of us students assistants had been allowed to attend, and I remember so vividly when he talked about a delegation of American students in the 1990s, carefully trained to do the interviews and fluent in Russian, came to tape the survivors talking about their recollections --

"And these flower-faced young Americans, smiling at us as we spoke of atrocities!"

He said it was flatly unnerving, especially since their voices and words were sad and appropriate, and it was several years before he got comfortable with the idea that Americans smile sympathetically even when they're sad, like to encourage you to keep talking, and that even at a funeral for her husband a widow will smile at you to show you she appreciates you coming. He said the interviewers would smile right up until they started crying! And then smile while they apologized for crying! He said after an initial period of shock he understood fairly quickly that they were sincere and serious people, they just had a dire smiling problem. But it took a long time to get comfortable with the cultural difference.

(Anyway they started training the students that they should try to look more stern or serious when interviewing Eastern Europeans, and warning the interviewees that Americans smile because they want to encourage you to keep talking, not because they don't appreciate the gravity of what you're saying.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:25 PM on August 8, 2018 [38 favorites]

I have a friend who lived in Prague for a couple years while doing graduate work. He found it to be much as the OP and others described, and was particularly put off about getting the cold shoulder from everybody who lived in his building. Until he got a dog. After that, things got a little better, And one day his formerly unfriendly landlord told him, "I believed you were an evil man, and then you got a dog."
posted by lagomorphius at 5:15 AM on August 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

I find it interesting that someone upstream mentioned Victoria, BC as being a rather cold place - compared to, say, Munich, it seems quite friendly.
posted by Nyx at 7:22 AM on August 9, 2018

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