3 Culture Shocks in Prague

Anna Ketterling is a student at the University of Denver and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Prague, Czech Republic

View of Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic, Ketterling - photo 1
View of the famous Charles Bridge on a typically mesmerizing fall day in Prague.
  1. Smiling . . . yea, not a thing

In the United States, it is strikingly common to smile at every person you see throughout the day, whether you know them or not. It is almost perceived as rude to not return another’s grin or not to produce at least a half-hearted smile to someone you take a seat next to on the bus. For some reason, the U.S. has determined that all times of the day should be paired with a smile. It is our way of extending a little kindness wherever we go, even if it tends to be disingenuous or lack-luster.

Here in Prague, the “stylish U.S smile” is not so trendy. At first, it doesn’t feel good to not have your chipper American smile returned at all hours of the day! A common misconception, inspired by this lack of reaction, is that Czech people are angry or an unfriendly culture, both of which are not true. In Prague, it is unusual to extend a grin if it is not sincere or earned. Are the Czech’s doing it right? Is it better to save our precious smiles for moments and people that truly and genuinely merit them? Perhaps,  we need to start treating our smiles as valuable commodities.

But nonetheless, if you are an American in Prague, prepare for some chilly times in the public interaction department!

2. Europe actually cares about environmental sustainability

Climate change is something Americans love to debate. It makes headlines and produces protests against “unclean” companies. Americans get up in arms about pollution; yet we almost all drive our own cars, we fail desperately at separating out trash and recycling, and we don’t see any issues with creating vast amounts of food only to then toss it out.

Europe is very different. Prague is navigable almost completely by public transportation. The city has an extremely fast and effective metro system and trams that can get you anywhere. Most of the cars seen on the streets are delivery trucks or taxis. Czechs don’t see the purpose of wasting gas and polluting their city. The public transportation system in Prague is one designed to be efficient and environmentally conscious. They also take great care to separate out their trash and recycling. Everything has a different bin, and the mixing of paper and plastics and glass is an absolute no go.

So all you foreigners venturing whimsically into Prague: prepare for an environmental reality check!

3. Fashionably late is not so fashionable

Perhaps the one piece of advice most reiterated during orientation at Charles University in Prague is that Czechs are extremely punctual.

Typically, in America, being late is almost seen as cool. You never show up to a social event at the start time, and being anywhere from five to fifteen minutes late is socially acceptable. Whenever I schedule meetings back in the States, I always make sure to tell everyone it begins about ten minutes earlier than the actual start time, knowing at least half of the attendees will arrive fifteen minutes late. Punctuality is simply not taken seriously in America. It has become a popular trend to always be fashionably late, and if you are a college student and show up early, it’s simply embarrassing!

The Czech’s hold one another to a standard of timeliness. As a student in Prague, your teachers are not so forgiving of tardiness as they are in the States. Everyone’s time is valuable; it’s a respect thing, and I happen to be a big fan. I am a notoriously late person, and I am hoping that through my next few months here, I acquire this valuable skill. Clearly, it is going to take some work to break that “casually five minutes late” habit, seeing as I showed up about ten minutes late to my first class. Oops!

BONUS HINT: don’t order mashed potatoes and a salad together; your waiter will think something is wrong with you (from first hand experience)!

Want to read more about Prague? Check out “8 Breathtaking Photos of Prague“!