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Lauren Nemec photo The Czech Republic is an incredibly beautiful country with a rich history, fascinating people and an abundance of business opportunities. Yet the country remains relatively obscure and unknown to Americans, many of whom still call it “Czechoslovakia.”

Whether you are enticed to the Czech Republic by its dramatic castles, famous beer, luxurious spas or cheap labor force, this modest guide to Czech culture should provide you with a deeper understanding of the country and its people.

The Czech People

A common first impression of the Czechs is that they seem cold and impersonal. To us warm and open Americans, this can be quite disheartening. It shouldn’t be taken personally, as Czechs are very private people. They have a smaller boundary of personal space than Americans, but they guard it very closely. Though Czechs are used to being in close physical proximity to each other, they tend to keep others at an emotional distance and will not usually smile at, make eye contact with, or engage in small talk with strangers.

Americans are known for their ability to quickly and effortlessly form casual relationships, so it should come as no surprise that Americans are often frustrated at the difficulty of forging relationships with Czech people. In addition to their strong sense of privacy, years of foreign invasions and occupations have perhaps made the Czechs slightly distrustful and fearful of strangers or foreigners. Therefore, it takes a long time and a great deal of trust to overcome a Czech’s boundaries and fears and develop a friendship with him. Once you do, though, it will be a rewarding and lasting friendship.

When you do get to know them, you’ll find that Czechs have a unique sense of humor, best described as ‘mischievous’. Jara Cimrman, for example, is considered to be a national hero, having been the first man to reach the North Pole and the inventor of dynamite. Actually, Cimrman is no more than a figment of the Czech imagination, but Czechs still enthusiastically pretend he existed. They’ve even built a museum in honor of Cimrman, which often fools tourists into believing this extraordinary person really existed.

Money Matters

Czechs have not always lived in a consumer-oriented society. During the communistic era, goods were scarce and stores offered poor selections. People had to make do with what was available and everybody usually had the same things. For example, many Czech families have the same china collection, called the “Blue-Onion” pattern, because it was the only nice china collection available for a very long time. People who had something rare, unique or expensive were often the object of gossip and envy.

When my husband was a child, he was taken to the store every year on his birthday to choose one toy. When his mother took him to the store for his birthday after the Velvet Revolution, he looked at the wide selection of toys and burst into tears sobbing that he would never be able to choose just one thing. When Czechoslovakia entered a free market economy, more goods were available than ever before and Czechs suddenly needed to develop the ability to make complex purchase decisions. This proved difficult, as Czechs wanted to buy everything they had been denied for so long, yet they did not have the purchasing power to buy it all because salaries remained very low. Unfortunately, this caused an envious mentality and lust for money to emerge among Czech people.

Doing Business with the Czechs

The Czech Republic is an attractive offshore location, primarily because of its cheap but highly educated labor force. However, the differences between American and Czech business cultures can often cause frustration for American businesspeople.

Communism adversely affected the way Czechs do business. For example, customer service, quality and efficiency weren’t highly valued under socialistic rule, so Czech businesspeople have had to learn (or re-learn) how to do these things that we Westerners take for granted. You may find that these concepts aren’t yet up to Western standards in some situations. Processes might not be clearly defined and the pace of work and decision making may be slower than what westerners are accustomed to. However, one should not assume that the Czechs are in the Dark Ages. Though they don’t have as much experience in the free market economy as Western countries, the Czechs are quick learners and seem to be adapting quite well.

Czechs have a strong aversion to the unknown. In business, this certainty avoidance means that Czechs tend to need lots of time to consider their choices and weigh the options in their mind before making a decision. Plans are made slowly and methodically and details are pored over. It also means that Czechs tend to be nervous about taking risks and making changes. A French expatriate manager of a large financial institution in Prague once described to me his difficulty finding Czech managers willing to relocate to France.

The company wanted the Czech managers to go temporarily to learn how to successfully run the company on their own, but most of the managers refused. It was an excellent opportunity with a generous salary and benefits package, so the French managers couldn’t fathom why any reasonable person would refuse the offer. When you consider the Czech fear of uncertainty, it becomes a little easier to understand their hesitation.

Though the Czechs have a relatively egalitarian society, they are formal people. Formal Czech is spoken in business situations and it is very important to address people appropriately. The Czechs strongly value academic achievement and are proud of their academic accomplishments, so it is important to use correct academic titles, if known.

A Final Word

This article contains many generalizations of Czech people and culture. Generalizations help us determine what to expect from people in certain situations, but should never be taken as absolute truths. I think you will find, as I have, that the Czechs will never fail to surprise you.

About Lauren Nemec

Lauren Nemec is the Marketing Manager at Translatus, Inc. She is a proud Texan and an alumna of The University of Texas at Austin. Lauren has been living in Prague, Czech Republic with her Czech husband for nearly two years. Lauren maintains a highly informative blog about important translation current events.

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