Cultural gaffes

September 18, 2009
Choose your words tiles

The grammar and rules of informal vs. formal

Shortly into my Charles University Slavonic studies summer program, I remember being reprimanded midsentence by a fellow student, a Korean, who caught me addressing our teacher in the informal. I was the only student attending the course who lived in the Czech Republic (and was dating a Czech), so I probably should have known better. I knew most languages had a formal and an informal “you”, but with less than a year of exposure to Czech the details of the distinction hadn’t yet sunk in. It seemed fitting that the Korean student, with a native culture of polite respect for authority and years of practice formally addressing professors in her native Korean language, had corrected me. Having never had the custom of formal speech in English and having learned my Czech mainly from talking to Radek’s family and friends, my verbal skills in the familiar form far exceeded my skills in the formal.

The lack of a formal polite culture in my native language is brought home whenever I introduce myself to a stranger. Although the person I am meeting will offer his or her hand and last name, I can never get used to just saying, “Průcha” (and partially because in the Czech Republic I have what would be considered the male version of my last name), and I always say, “Emily Průcha.” I hope that my acquaintance will acknowledge that I am adhering to formal Czech traditions, but also see that I’m open to moving to familiar and friendlier terms.

In Czech, the rules for formal (vykáni) and informal (tykáni) speech are dictated by both grammar and culture, and initially it was difficult to get my head wrapped around the different situations where I, as a woman, can offer the informal to a similarly aged man, or where I, as a younger adult, should continue to speak formally to an older adult, even if she chooses to speak informally to me. Teenagers are the most ambiguous for me, as I never know whether I should speak formally, granting them the respect of an adult, or use the informal to make the relationship feel friendlier. Keeping both the grammar and the culture straight is an ongoing challenge, and I occasionally find myself accidentally slipping into the informal when a conversation goes beyond a superficial level.

Throughout Europe, Americans are stereotyped as monolingual, culturally naive, unsophisticated travellers, and I know that I fell right into that paradigm when I arrived. Each time I visited the corner market, I took it personally when the disinterested shop attendant grumbled her good morning. If she was going to be so unenthused about saying “Dobrý den”, then I wondered why she bothered at all. After living in Prague longer, I realized that every Czech – regardless of age, gender or socioeconomic status – exchanges a formal greeting and goodbye in public places such as doctor’s offices, shops, public offices, or apartment buildings, though only people who are on friendly terms will go beyond to inquire how the other is.

On the flip side, shortly after we’d moved to America, Radek accompanied me to a doctor’s appointment one morning. I nearly burst out laughing when he turned to a full waiting room of female patients at the gynaecologist’s office and said, “Goodbye”. I didn’t know whether I should respond with my American self, which thought that given the context, Radek’s greeting seemed almost flirtatious or with my Czech self, which was surprised that no one responded with a greeting in kind.

During our years in America, as soon as someone heard Radek’s accent, my husband became the centre of attention, inundated with inquiries and questions. Although he enjoyed the immediacy and spontaneity of the American culture, he also pointed out that a culture of excessive friendliness can breed superficial relations, even when intentions are good. He noted that whenever I talked on the phone, I adopted a seemingly “fake-friendly” voice and I tended to exaggerate every story I retold. He might be right, but, to me, my overly cheerful phone voice and penchant for remembering big seems no more out-of-place in America than the unspoken understanding that I will address my children’s dance teacher, even though we chat in a personal manner, using the formal Mrs Teacher title of respect while I’m here in the Czech Republic. While neither my native culture nor my adopted one is perfect, the benefits I’ve gotten from experiencing both are well worth any cultural faux pas.

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