Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Jack-in-the-Box of Culture Clash

Hi Guys,

You can become comfortable in a different culture. You can work your butt off to learn the language. Maybe on a good day you are even mistaken for a native. You can teach yourself the habits of that culture and even start to adopt them as your own. But when you live in a different culture or even interact with one on a regular basis things are hard. There are days when cultural differences pop up like a Jack-in-the-Box and yell in your face: "Remember me!? I am back! You thought you had the hang of this, but you don't!"

That happened today when we went to Tesco, a British chain of supermarket. My family has a long, fraught history with Tesco. It the often the precise place where our cultural Jack-in-the-Boxes (CJITB) surprise us. One reason Tesco is a prime place for CJITB is because it reminds us of home. We have been able to find rare products like Caesar salad dressing there. It is therefore even more jarring when we have an misunderstanding with a clerk, like today. We say to ourselves, "We thought we were operating on American customer relations standards!" But we weren't.

Czechs and Americans view the customer-proprietor relationship vastly differently:

American Customer-Proprietor Relationship Mentality:
When a customer enters an American supermarket they are king. They are the one paying the money and making the business thrive, therefore the proprietors consider it in their best interest to treat you with respect and deference. "You don't like our service? We will quickly adapt to your wishes, if we can, because we need your business."

Czech Customer-Proprietor Relationship Mentality:
The Czech customer sets foot in the kingdom of the supermarket proprietor. They are the ruler, because without them you would not have groceries. It is therefore the customer's job to adapt to their rules. "You don't want to adapt? Fine. Leave."

I recently shopped for a couple groceries with my younger brother, Isaac. A clerk became extremely impatient with me when I struggled to figure out the self-check-out machine.

In my mind I was like: "This woman can see I am struggling. She should help me. She is not doing her job as a proprietor."

But she probably thought: "This woman is being inefficient. By holding up the line she is costing our business valuable time. She is not doing her job as a customer. "

What do you we do? Cultural differences, which bring up your deep beliefs of right and wrong, are going to sneak up on you sooner or later. It is not going to be pretty. But taking away the element of surprise helps lessen the blow.

I have learned to say: "I am entering a different culture. It is not easy. In fact it makes easy things hard. I will get hurt and I will hurt. But I will also have gains. I will know that there is not one way of living life. I will learn to be more humble and respectful of different views. I will get to enjoy spots of rich cultural exchange and I know that I will have to work through all the hurt to get to them. Will it be worth it? Yes."

What do you guys think about this? Do you agree with me? Have you experienced this kind of thing recently?

Thanks for listening to me on this. I know I haven't touched on every facet of this issue.
Lucy Rose

Here is a post about a Czech lady whom I greatly admire.
Here is one about when I took the SATs in Prague.


  1. Again, this is perfectly written. You captured something that I think a lot of us have felt and sensed - but you put into words. I love that you are noticing the little moments of life - hard, good, beautiful and everything in between.

  2. I agree with Claire! You hit the nail on the head, and eloquently to boot!