Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Importance of Body Language

I have already noted that people here generally assume I am Czech (until, of course, they hear my interesting grammatical errors and unusual word choices; I am told, for instance, that in Czech, batteries do not “die” and older people will be startled if I say they do).
I had not really devoted much thought to why people assume I am Czech. After all, I am a white person of northern European descent, I am not obese, and I don’t go around spouting English sentences unless I have a companion. Furthermore, while there are European fashions that many Czech women wear and which I would never consider putting on my body, plenty of Czechs dress in pretty much the same way as I do. Consequently, it seemed plausible that people might think I was Czech. (Even Americans do; they walk up and hesitantly inquire if I speak English.)
We may now have a solution to this mystery. On Friday night I ventured out to visit a pal who had invited me and Fulbright Scholar Deborah to dine and watch a (subtitled) Czech DVD. During dinner, we got onto the topic of why my hostess and I, who are superficially not all that different, get vastly different receptions from the populace. (While I am sure she would not mind my using her name, I will refer to her here as “X”.)
Consider the evidence: that “X” and I are almost exactly the same height, wear glasses, have medium brownish hair somewhat past our shoulders, have normal though rather different figures, wear unobtrusive clothing most of the time, are both PhD students, and have a similar level of fluency in Czech. But “X” insists that no one ever speaks to her in Czech; rather, they always start in English and try to stick to it, and no one ever tells her (as museum guards and cashiers are forever telling me) that she speaks beautiful Czech. (I can verify that her accent is quite acceptable and her grammar is certainly better than mine.) Furthermore, she says she gets bad restaurant service, and it is true that the only marginal service I have experienced since arriving this fall has been in “X”’s company.
I did have my suspicions that this was because “X” is much more visibly assertive than I am. Those who know me are generally aware that I am reasonably assertive and, in the right circumstances or mood, loud. But much of the time it is more convenient and less taxing to fade quietly into the background. (Explainable astrologically as due to my chart being so strangely divided between Leo and Virgo influences.)
Well, Deborah is a social scientist and it was immediately obvious to her—even more than to me—that the difference in demeanor was to blame. One look at “X” and you can tell that she is about to tell you what she wants. She is a straightforward person who dives right into a situation. (As one of my Czech teachers used to like to say, everything has its plus and its minus, and this is certainly a case in point. What could possibly be wrong with being decisive and forthright?)
People usually seem to regard me as straightforward as well, but in a different way. As Deborah pointed out, I stand back and scope out the situation. She then gave an uncanny (not to mention hilarious) imitation of my demeanor in which I meekly survey the scene prior to stepping forward and asking for something. (I hadn’t thought I was so obvious, but then Deborah is a trained observer.)
I couldn’t really say to what degree I behave differently abroad than at home, but it is my intention to blend in here, whereas that is generally not my intention at home. Having spent a good deal of time here before the revolution, I am accustomed to the idea that one speaks quietly in public so as not to attract attention or be overheard. It is quite obvious that (with only rare exceptions) the only people who talk loudly on trams before midnight are foreigners. Americans, Germans, British, Australians, Dutch, Scandinavians, and even Russians tend to be louder than Czechs, although unquestionably Czechs can be loud given the right circumstances. Also, most Czechs grew up standing in lines waiting for this or that, so unless there is a choice of which line to wait in, they are resigned to the idea and expect that others will be too.
Thus, Czechs respond well to strangers they perceive as being quiet, patient, and willing to let others go first. This sort of behavior will encourage postal clerks to invite you to come to their window even though they can see that your business is something not normally transacted there (Yes, I only sell stamps, but you’ve been waiting so patiently to pay your phone bill that I’ll let you pay it here instead of letting you suffer through another fifteen minutes of that other customer’s problem.). If you wait agreeably while a cashier struggles to explain in English what the German couple wants to know about the cloister, and then explain pleasantly in Czech that you will take the Czech map but would prefer the English pamphlet, the cashier will think you are just wonderful.
It would be nice, however, to have all the right words and phrases come into my head properly when I step forward and get past the obligatory introductory niceties and have to state what I actually want. After all, part of my reason for waiting so patiently is that I want to rehearse my lines before going onstage.



Blogger Kristen said...

Interesting! I am frequently approached here for directions or whatever, but I don't think I am necessarily reserved. From your description, I imagine I am more like X, plus I'm tall and obese, which should mark me as OTHER. However, yesterday an older woman asked me to read the tiny print on something in the store for her. I did and she was clearly startled by my accent, but asked me my opinion of the product (a paring knife) anyway. Later in another section of the store a saleswoman tried very hard to get me to purchase a French shampoo, because, "As you know, French cosmetics are better than ours." I just smiled. A few years ago I was with my mother in Montreal. People in stores would speak to her in English and me in French. They were surprised when I had to explain I don't speak a word of French. I don't much get it! I do, however, know exactly what behaviors of yours Barbara imitated. ;)

November 06, 2005 8:35 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

I'm guessing that you look more Russian than you realize, just not like those excessively slender young Russian women in the expensive outfits and scary shoes (or are they only in Prague?). I don't know about the Montreal experience, though. And when I went there, I was with an English-only speaker. Still, it was good for my French.

November 08, 2005 8:28 PM  

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