Czech – like English, and I’m sure like many other languages – has some very nice phrases for referring to cultural oddities. Some Czechspressions, for example:
“Once in a Hungarian year” (Jednou za uherský rok) = “Once in a blue moon” = only once in a while
“Swedish table” (švedský stůl) = buffet
But a very literal Czechspression that I learned today is “americký usměv,” and we all know what that is. (Unlike “American potatoes,” which are always on Czech menus and I have no idea what those are.)
The pictures above show exactly how this mysterious “American smile” was shown to me by my Czech friends. This is a huge contrast from the Czech (and Slovak) not-smile, which is actually quite agreed upon (here and here, Czech only). And it’s true, it’s funny to look at these photos as an American, because people look so stoic. However, it’s just not the custom, mostly now of older generations but also some young people, to smile in photos.
I’m being a bit selective, but here’s how the first link puts it:
Proč se Češi neusmívají?
(Translated) Why don’t Czechs smile?
They don’t have a reason to.
Do Americans have a reason to smile? Who knows? It’s a cultural thing. In American culture, we must always act like everything is wonderful, just dandy, just swell, the absolute best it could be, amazing, awesome, A-okay! That’s why we often ask how you are, but really it’s just a greeting and we don’t necessarily really want to hear…. And unless you’re a close friend of ours, you’re expected simply to answer, “Great, and you?” and move on.
Why else do Americans smile?
- We believe we are #1 and live in the best, most prosperous, most charitable, most progressive country in the world
- It’s part of being polite
- We are covering awkwardness in a meeting or conversation
- We want to reassure you we are listening
- We are testing the waters of people-to-people connection
- We want to sell you something and do so by appearing to be the most helpful
- We do it to acknowledge you exist instead of saying “Hello”
- We want to look like we’re friendly
- We actually are friendly
- We are unhappy and want to look happy
- We actually are happy
- Donald Trump is our president and if we don’t find reasons to smile, we may go insane
And many other possible reasons.
But what I find most interesting about this is what implies about Americans and the culture as a whole, and in contrast what it can imply about Czechs and Czech culture. When I went to study in Israel, we received a list of cultural differences between Americans and Israelis. One was about our smiles – we believe we smile in order to appear genuine, while Israelis actually interpret it as superficial and fake.
What about Czechs? The biggest stereotypes about Czechs is that they come off as closed, unhelpful, uncaring, rude, cold, and xenophobic. I can say for sure that this is to some degree true as a result of the Communist heritage. However, Czechs are actually some of the warmest people I’ve ever met – but you have to work for their friendship. People do not open up to you quickly; you have to show you really care about making a connection.
I like to say that you can go from 0 to 100 with an American in five minutes – once we hit upon a common interest, we will ask personal questions about family, relationships, jobs, religion, etc., and you can meet someone and seem to be their best friend in minutes. Sometimes this really is genuine, but in many cases that person will turn out to be a “fair-weather friend” (speaking of idioms) – a person who is only there for you in the good times but otherwise disappears.
Put another way: Americans are genuinely friendly, but don’t let this cloud your judgment – being friendly to many people is the norm, and it doesn’t mean you’ve established something deeper.
See the waiter with the frown on his face, the expressionless supermarket cashier, the annoyed-looking florist, the openly rude train conductor? No, they’re not always satisfied with their jobs or with the customers (in Czech Republic, the customer is not always right), and often they could care less whether you patronize their business or not. It ain’t American customer service, but at least it’s honest.
And living in CZ now for nearly three years, I’ve come to appreciate this honesty quite a lot. Why should people pretend? Why should I hug someone I don’t know well or whose name I don’t even remember (another American thing to do)? Why should I be over-the-top nice to someone I don’t even like? It’s important to be hospitable, of course, but there’s a limit.
So, to smile or not to smile? That is the question.
Especially if you have fallen into a snake-wielding tourist trap in Prague.