Talking Back


You may well ask why I always manage to dwell on this country's unfortunate past - the Communist era. The reason is that even sixteen years on, it still shapes almost everyone's attitudes. The older people one sees on trains or trams still have, a lot of them at any rate, that cowed, beaten look that one had to adopt then to survive. Look fresh and alive and you look challenging: and the System couldn't cope with challenge. Don't stand out from the crowd, or you'll be in trouble. Last Sunday I saw an old man cycling, right ahead of me - and suddenly he took a tumble.

I stopped and helped him up. He was badly shaken, but luckily nothing broken. His precious bike, however, was in ruins. The local council had failed to tar round a new drain cover. "This is Uvaly District here," I said to him, "Do you know who you have to complain to? Maybe they'll buy you a new bike." (And a damn sight cheaper than a three million dollar lawsuit as it would be in the US). He shook his head. I knew what he was saying: You don't complain! And he walked off, dragging the remains of his bike behind him.

But the main thing under Communism was that you might be submissive - but you were not servile. You were equal with the next man, and that at least was the one thought that buoyed you up. So now that the country's slipped into the service economy, that presents certain difficulties.

Visitors to Prague get a bit of this, as waiters are the most common interfaces between the served and the server. But it was a Czech friend of mine who, having asked a waiter to bring some salt, got rounded on sharply with the rebuke: 'It's salty enough!' Or recently, when I was out with some Czech friends: having waited for over an hour-and-a-half for our order, I called the manager over. He looked duly concerned and went off to the kitchen to investigate. When he returned he looked me in the eye and stated: 'It wasn't an hour-and-a half: it was twenty minutes'.

I explained to him that calling a customer a liar was bad form, and in fact arguing at all with customers was commercial suicide. I hoped this would at least get us a round of free drinks, since as business advice it equalled anything Warren Buffet might tell him. This only raised his ire to new heights!

An English friend complained to a waiter here. A surly man who'd been behind the bar strode over: 'I am the owner,' he said, 'I have seen the whole thing. I have a gun behind the bar. Now pay up and get out.' Customer Relations are obviously a somewhat new concept in these parts.

I've some American friends who are serial, compulsive complainers. How dull is their life! Everywhere they go they find nodding heads: "If Madam says so...""If Sir would like a replacement..." Where's the fun it that? Come to Prague, is what I say. Have a real fight! - a real ding-dong rather than some pushover wimp from Customer Support. Agro-tourism: it could be a good business to start. Aren't there EU grants for it?