I say black. You say white. You say beer. I say wine. I say happy. You say sad. You say dog. I say cat.
And always with a knowing wink and an ironic nod.
This is the Czech Republic. A country and culture of contradictions, the meanings of which are often inaccessible to outsiders. For the past ten days I have immersed myself in the Czech Republic. I explored Prague (it is too beautiful to miss), Brno (it is too desolate to disregard) and Beroun (it is too quiet to forego), each with ethnographic treasurers abound. I visited three ad agencies: Leo Burnett, McCann and Ogilvy – Agency of the Year, and two global clients: Mondelez and Unilever.
The more I learn about Czech culture the more normal the awards wall at McCann appears.
It is my third visit and still the cultural contrasts, the irony of nearly all things surprise me. This land was invaded and occupied during World War II, and on and off in the centuries that preceded the war. World War II was followed by a brief glimpse of democracy from 1945-48. Then communism arrived. Not until the velvet revolution of 1989 did the Czechs breathe anatomy and freedom. Its history fuels a deep and abiding cultural distrust, with displays of apathy from silence to brusque irony. But the truth behind these markers is not what you think.
As Clotaire Rapaille, author of The Culture Code, has said, people do not tell you what they actually think. Czechs are no different. But they are more extreme in this regard. No self-respecting Czech will tell you his or her personal truth. In fact, no self-respecting Czech is even likely to admit to speaking English, unless they are working and it is required or they know you. And even then, there will always be a wink and a nod.
This is not just an us versus them behavior. It is a cultural norm that pervades interactions among themselves. I once termed it “cultural shyness.” It may be. But on my third visit I have come to think of it as an all too knowing nod to the absurdity of their history, to life as they know it.
It shows itself in their advertising with over the top ironic self-deprecating humor. Consider Bohemia chips sending a Czech guy to Austin Texas, behaving ridiculously while handing out bags of Czech potato chips unavailable in America. It bubbles up in a barrage of characters and creators in sectors we Americans would never dream of. How about a cheetah (think Tony the Tiger) for Gepard mortgage services? And it reveals itself in the repackaging of the Clavin capsule (Czech Viagra) in the upright position. These are Czech, spreading joy wherever they go.
Suffice to say that the contradictions that surround you as you travel this lush land are beloved. They amuse the Czechs. And so, there is no surprise when riding the bus across the country the attendant rattles on in Czech, while the screen in front of you provides the following English translation: “Dear Passengers, please pay attention to the announcements that is being broadcast. Thank you.” You smile and think, but of course.
Nor was I surprised when in Brno two beautiful baroque buildings frame a lovely modernist structure. Indeed its colors compliment its neighbors and the rectangular shapes on the facade rather musically play off the windows of the adjoining buildings. Yet, it is a massive contradiction to the nearby structures. It is so Czech.
In the end it is the escalators in Prague’s metros that perfectly signify the Czech cultural code of contradiction. The stairs move at one speed, while the rail travels at an all together different speed. But, of course, it is subtle. Keep your feet on the step and your hand on the rail and – with a wink and a nod – you will arrive at your destination on your face or your derriere, surly not upright.
In the Czech Republic you must always chose. In the metro the Czech generally choose their feet.