Časopis Slovo a slovesnost
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Understanding Czech conversation

Jana Slavíčková



Porozumět české konverzaci

When shopping in a bakery, you may hear: ”What is it, a baguette?” – ”A better white bread”. The Czechs like to assume a know–all stand and communicate that things are familiar to them. Part of the Czech conversation is sharing familiarities by referring to them. Rather than exchange opinions, e. g., on the election–winning party, the Czechs may indicate that they as–a–matter–of–factly understand and share the information.

If a brand is fashionable or generally considered of a better value you are often supposed to share the view if you speak Czech. When you ask for a bath–gel: ”We’ve got the jolly good Fa”.

If you want to buy a banana in the street and it is coming to rain, the vendor may let you waiting before catching your looks and comment: ”I have finished”.

If you ask in a bookshop for a copy which is not looked through by the customers, the shop–assistant may find your request formal, the more so if she only has to confirm at the manager that this is the only copy that has arrived.

Renowned firms employ staff who are supposingly trained in making conversation with the customers. Compassion and intimacy, though, may penetrate this conversation as well. The assistant in a cosmetics shop tells you she is new on the staff, while seeking advice on which paper to wrap your goods into, and you may purchase dummy instead of a perfume anyway.

When you complain about the service you may find the apology hardly eloquent and turning into negotiation about what you want for compensation and your greed is tested.

Buying the toiletries, instead of an offer, you may get the department’s supplying policy, manager’s schedule for next Friday afternoon, and a report on toiletries sale.

If you buy the golden–plated glass, you may be told that she must look for the box which she is sure is somewhere at the back as she put it there herself and your desparate looks at the ugly and dirty trophy are comforted: ”I should perhaps remove the price–stickers, shouldn’t I?”, and ”Shall I wrap it up for you?”

If the shop–assistant charges you less by mistake and you point to the difference you may receive personal compliments and regular greetings.

Buying the more expensive goods does not necessarily mean the conversation will be better. You pick a suitcase from the shelf, go to the desk, asking where you can pay: ”Here”. Your receipt is written and the shop–assistant asks you: ”This one is for 800?” You oppose it is 704, she looks at the lable and goes on writing.

The shop–assistant may completely refuse conversation leaving it up to you to decipher on a display the amount due.

You need not be given advice even if expressing doubt about the width of sleeves, but re–get the facts without the assistant’s taking your point of view.

The goods information may be approximate or confused. Asking about the contents of two advertising papers you may get a sympathetic: ”This includes, for example, flats or cars, the other one vacancies, dateline, …”.

The purchase need not be accompanied by the public service words but a message may be shared: ”I have issued this ticket for the passenger before but he realized later he could have bought a ticket to his further destination, and returned this one, which was advantageous for me. I should not do this but it is practical”. The Czechs need not follow rules closely: possibly, the rules are to be trespassed.

Selling the withered flowers a shop–assistant comments: ”Those will last you long, it’s a long–lasting sort”, pressing the buds to give you an idea of their freshness.

[226]Buying a paper at the stall, the vendor may grasp it badly and tear the paper. Instead of the apology, you get a blameful: ”Oh, God!” as she feels unlucky as herself made the damage.

The Czechs often lack the conversation pleasing another and contact for business or sentiment. Some Czechs try to impress by deprivations, and not hearing the pleasing conversation a foreign visitor may find the small talk empty or discouraging.

The Czechs often please each other by the shared knowledge or values and may be easy to please, not caring for detail or a rational and practical balance of action. The Czech small talk may also mean sharing of the negative.

The age–related abuse is easy to appear in small talk: ”What you know about life but you will when you grow older”.

A well–intentioned small talk may breach privacy as the Czechs mostly do not care for social introduction, but address each other freely and do not keep personal distance. We may suggest by command rather than ask about intention: ”Come on, you can manage and get inside the lift with us”.

The Czechs may find small talk undue and remain silent or cut conversation, or pressurize it not allowing another to sort out details.

The foreign visitor may find Czech humour rude, provoking, or privacy–invading.

When asking at the Old Palace of the Prague Castle whether you can take snaps of the city, you will get a permission from the guard, on a condition you will not damage plants next to the window, and a person is called to open the terrace door for you.

Negotiating in–between you the tip for the waiter you will raise suspicion that something has gone wrong.

If confusing your words, the waiter will assure you he knows what you mean and ”even if you told me anything I would understand as this is a bloody bad day for me”.

Social talk is hardly different from casual conversation. Standard and non–eccentric behaviour is usually expected. Communication skills are mostly not competitive.

Hiring a taxi you may feel you have been picked up by your personal driver and the radio is on the driver is supposing you to enjoy: ”Smashing, isn’t it?”

The taxi–driver may tell you about his disgust to picking you: ”Is it half four already? I must be somewhere else at five!”, drop you after a while because his car is out of order and ”you can hire another taxi around easily”, break into your conversation: ”Was this really built in the Capitol style? Did you really say this?”, or remind you that his rates are not advantageous as this is a hotel taxi.

Belated taxi is apologized by: ”There was a diversion there” and the driver may be curious about your unusual destination saying there is a parallel in his family.

You may be surprised that when at a pub, the Czechs behave in familiar manner; and although a customer you may feel you are penetrating the staff’s territory and have to subdue to their dominance. Some people may have firm and long established views on how to do their jobs best and are not quite sensitive to the needs of foreign visitors.

You will find a lot of good will from the attending staff, but possibly less skill in doing the job. The assistant in a coffee–shop may let you waiting until she counts the day’s profit, as she is expected to collect this to the manager. She apologizes by a guilty face, not addressing you but struggling and emotionally exhausted from remorse.

You may be addressed in German as this is considered to be THE foreign language by the middle and elder generations. The shop–assistant insists on her broken German even if a foreign visitor obviously cannot get a word of it and Czech would effect them the same.

Sellers in a tourist–sensitive street will probably charge you with multiplied prices for their goods, without any comment if you do not speak Czech.

Speaking Czech shows if you are anybody else but Czech. The Czechs are usually given sympathy, whereas if you do not speak Czech you are on the other side, not neces[227]sarily out of hospitality, but possibly shyness to contact ”other” people, or the business ambition.

The price lists may say different things in different languages. You are told in Czech that your entrance is free and in other languages that you have to pay. The difference is not formulated but tacitly agreed. You will probably not regret this money if you are a visitor, but may find it uncomfortable that different languages should put this gate in–between you.

People dealing with double prices may behave in a false way – either comforting you instead of giving reasons or coming up with curious or pretentious explanations: ”You know, Mrs. X, we have so few Czech visitors to our concerts that we let them in free”, or they may abuse you. You may, e. g., be accused of acting as a private guide for wealthy visitors, trying to get the most of it, and be threatened with a multitongue explanation that the foreigners will pay.

An abuse may follow your reservations about possibly slow, negligent, or poor–quality job–performance. The person affected need not understand reasons of your disapproval, as they need not be customary in her surroundings, and may find your protest biased and unjust, compensating with abuse.

When telling the way the Czechs seem not to explain it in detail so that you need not be convinced we know the way well.

Some Czechs do not use communication skills to complete their action or formulate logically or mataphorically. Czechs are not used to making devoted or venturing public speeches. We often think of not discrediting ourselves rather than speak interestingly or economically. Our lively speech is sometimes for close friends only and implicit through a long–term and fixed way of talk. Czech conversation may be discontinuous, rich in empty words and hesitation. We are learning how to formulate precisely and condense the idea. We may be too eloquent to either come to where we started in the end or not find a point at all. We may give non–relevant information, make apologies for selves, and indulge in long conversations as these are often considered successful rather than finding the point economically.



Porozumět české konverzaci

Když Češi ukazují zahraničním návštěvníkům cestu, uvádějí často tak málo detailů, že se může zdát, že cestu sami neznají. Toto je jen ukázka komunikačních způsobů v mluvené češtině.

Česká mluva se obecně zdá být plná opisů a váhání. Češi mohou být výmluvní, ale přesné frázování myšlenek nebo jejich precizní vyjádření nejsou nejsilnější stránkou českého mluvčího.

V konverzaci se Češi často vyjadřují familiárně a neužívají zdvořilé vyjádření, které by mohlo společenskou interakci strukturovat formálněji. Nepraktikujeme například společenské seznámení v takové míře jako Britové: vyhovuje nám spíše neformální způsob.

Češi jsou relativně přímí a často neusilují o to, aby svého partnera v konverzaci potěšili. Česká společenská konverzace v různých kontextech se pro cizince může jevit jako poněkud odrazující, protože Češi mají sklon zabývat se negativními aspekty situace spíše než zdůrazňovat její pozitivní stránky, jak je to obvyklé v Británii.

Česká společenská konverzace se rovněž může jevit jako porušující partnerovo soukromí, protože Češi mluví volně, jsou ve svém přístupu mnohem osobnější a nedbají na ceremonie.

Příspěvek přináší příklady české konverzace interpretované na pozadí konverzace v britské angličtině.

Ústav pro jazyk český AV ČR

Slovo a slovesnost, ročník 54 (1993), číslo 3, s. 225-227

Předchozí Dana Slančová, Miloslava Sokolová: The norms of spoken communication in East Slovakia

Následující Alena Šimečková: Zur Wechselbeziehung zwischen gesprochenem und geschriebenem Deutsch