Culture · Prague

Inside the Box

You know how in movie theatres they’ll assign you seats as a default on your ticket, and in most places in the world it means nothing? Well, not in Prague. Here, they assign you seats and you are expected to stick by them. Even if the theatre is totally empty. True story: if you happen to be sitting in a Czech person’s assigned seat then they’ll make you move. Even if it’s totally empty! It’s so bizarre. I wonder if it’s a throwback to Communism? I mean, back then you had to follow the rules or the Secret Police would cart you away. That said, it feels like there are a number of aspects of Communistic behaviour that are still alive and well, apart from theatre ticket fascism.

For example, lunch times. My husband was the first to report this to me, and then I saw it firsthand at my last office job. Typical Czech people, especially those who have never lived anywhere else, go to lunch at exactly the same time every day. On the dot. They eat with exactly the same people, usually the ones they directly work with. They go for 45 minutes and return back to work. While at lunch they will only eat at a Czech restaurant, usually the exact same one every day. And they always have soup with their meal. Even in the summer. Same thing every day. Same people every day. Same time. Without fail. The only thing that changes is the kind of soup.

In a more Western atmosphere, outside the box thinking is welcomed because it helps make (office) life more efficient or better in some way. If you come up with ideas on how to make things run more smoothly at work, you’ll usually get commended. In Prague, it is the opposite. One of my Czech friends told me that a surefire way to get on everyone’s bad side in an office environment is to make suggestions on how to improve things. This is partly because they’ve always done X in X way, and to propose changes is seen as arrogant (Communism, anyone?). But also, X is fine the way it is. The main point is, why bother changing it to make it better. Fine is fine is fine. Great is unnecessary. Change is bad. Change means more work.

People here appear very comfortable thinking inside the box, and many of them actually live in box-like apartments called panelak. Coincidence? I think not. What’s amazing is most of the people I’ve seen or heard of participating in inside-the-box behaviour are all young people — 20 or 30-somethings you’d think would be mentally flexible enough to adjust to a more open and post-Communist lifestyle that involves thinking for yourself and not just following the herd.

Then again, maybe the experience of living in Communism was so traumatic that it takes more than a couple decades even for young people to get over. I wonder if this evidence of residual Communism will eventually subside, or if it will be a part of the Czech psyche indefinitely.