The fog of jet lag clouds my mind, sending me tumbling through Wenceslas Square like a drugged rat in a maze. The air is filled with a language I know not a word of, the shops are covered with advertisements decorated with apparently random accent marks.
All around me, people from dozens of nations wander about, looking for food or the sights or a place on their map. Tourists like me are legion on Wenceslas Square, but Czechs still outnumber them as they pass through the heart of Prague’s New Town.
My eye is caught by a sign in English, “Palace of Books,” and rather paying attention to the roommate in whose wake I am following, my head swivels immediately around, gravitating to the trolleys of Czech books set before and apparently endless hall of bookshelves.
This is what I am looking at when I run headlong into a pair of Czech women.
That they are Czech is clear for two reasons; they appear to know exactly where they are going, and they completely ignore my terrified attempts to apologize.
The women off whose torsos I have just ricocheted barely spare me a glance.
This is one of many examples of the Czech attitude towards strangers, one a born-and-bred American like myself would categorize as rudeness.
Here, the waitress will not happily introduce herself and ask what you would like to drink. The cashier will not smile and greet you, will exhibit no interest in the content of your day. The trolley driver will not help you find your stop. If you smile and wave at a child, their mother or father will completely ignore you.
Even the dogs behave like this, sticking close to their masters’ whether wearing a leash or not, never barking, never slowing their pace, not exhibiting the slightest interest in you.
At first this is intensely off-putting. Smiles and pleasantries are so embedded in our culture that it’s hard to imagine a society without them. But in the Czech Republic, no one you don’t have a personal relationship with will ever smile at you.
However, early in my adjustment to this different culture, I realized an unexpected benefit, one which was first made clear to me when I was too confused to notice it, in the incident recounted above. Quite simply, if no one is going to go out of their way to be nice to me, I don’t have to go out of my way to be nice to anyone else.
The women with whom I collided with did not expect an apology, and did not want one—they just wanted to get on with their day. The waitress is not happy to serve me, and I don’t have to tip her (tipping is not part of the Czech Republic’s economy). The cashier has nothing to do with my life, and I have nothing to do with hers.
I don’t have to worry about the thousands of little rudenesses Americans can accidentally commit every time they go out in public. I can just go about my business and no one will pretend to care.
I find this intensely liberating, not because I like being rude or dislike talking to people, but because it vastly cuts down on the meaningless junk that fills the average day in the states. The fact is, an American clerk is no more interested in my life than a Czech clerk. Americans just pretend more.
Now that I am so far removed from American consumer culture, the sheer volume of insincerity embedded in that culture is impossible to un-see. None of the people who smile at me when I go out shopping care about me. None of them are my friend.
In the Czech Republic, no one is pretending to be my friend. We each have our own worlds, our own lives and tasks, and nothing requires that we pretend otherwise.
Sometimes this leaves me with intensely hurt feelings, like when I was sick and got zero help catching up in my classes. It may be the truth, but sometimes the truth hurts a lot.
Like the women in Wenceslas Square, we all just want to get wherever we are going. And in the Czech Republic, we are all honest about how little that matters to anyone else.