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Culture Shock: Less prosím, more non serviam needed

On Easter Sunday in 1997, the owner of a pub in the southern Slovakia village of Tekovské Lužany was summoned to his establishment by a waiter who was struggling to contain a conflict between patrons that threatened to explode into general drunken mayhem. On arriving, however, the owner was seized by the collar by one of the combatants, and told to get lost if he didn't want a punch on the nose.
He left.
Despite such incidents, people don't often challenge authority in Slovakia. The police, notwithstanding their poor public image, are treated with great ostensible respect by the average citizen, as are bureaucrats and clerks in state offices, teachers, waiters and anyone with a job title making them the head of something. Even doorkeepers (vrátnici) are commonly referred to, only half-jokingly, as the most important link in any firm's chain of command.


Authority figures such as these policemen still command - and demand - tremendous respect.
photo: Spectator archives

On Easter Sunday in 1997, the owner of a pub in the southern Slovakia village of Tekovské Lužany was summoned to his establishment by a waiter who was struggling to contain a conflict between patrons that threatened to explode into general drunken mayhem. On arriving, however, the owner was seized by the collar by one of the combatants, and told to get lost if he didn't want a punch on the nose.

He left.

Despite such incidents, people don't often challenge authority in Slovakia. The police, notwithstanding their poor public image, are treated with great ostensible respect by the average citizen, as are bureaucrats and clerks in state offices, teachers, waiters and anyone with a job title making them the head of something. Even doorkeepers (vrátnici) are commonly referred to, only half-jokingly, as the most important link in any firm's chain of command.

Many foreigners first encounter Slovaks' profound respect for authority in the classroom, where instead of the lounging louts you see in Hollywood films, foreign teachers are greeted by ranks of attentive, expectant faces. They aren't quite sitting to attention, but they aren't rolling joints from the pages of their history books either.

As you get to know the country better, you notice other expressions of this curious respect for officialdom. Few people complain about restaurant service, for example, even though there's plenty to fault. You get the feeling an average customer would actually have to find a cigarette butt in his soup, or a spectacular impurity in his Gordon Blue turkey, before he approached a server with a tremulous 'excuse me, Mr. Waiter, but...'

Nor are many people fazed by rude, boorish or incompetent treatment from state employees, such as post office clerks, bank tellers and utility company employees. In the West, if people paid from taxpayer dollars take liberties with taxpayers, they can expect a come-uppance; in Slovakia, the weight of the entire state apparatus is deployed to prove the taxpayer wrong.

People's attitudes to authority were described in a study published last year by sociologist Vladimír Krivý from the results of a January 1999 representative survey of 1,806 Slovak citizens by the Focus agency. When asked what changes to the pre-1989 political system had been needed, 42.3% of people answered "only minor changes". Almost 34% of people either completely or somewhat agreed with the statement "every government should control and direct the electronic and print media"; 50.3% either completely or somewhat agreed with the statement "the man is the head of the family, and other family members should respect him completely", while 71.1% responded in a similar way to the suggestion that "when parents forbid a child to do something, the child should obey without discussion."

Krivý's survey, of course, didn't 'prove' anything, but it did correspond to what many foreigners have noticed about attitudes to authority in their host country - that feelings about what is appropriate in politics and social interaction seem to agree with feelings about how families and marriages should work. In other words, the boss is a male figure (with stereotypical male attributes such as decisiveness, strength and self-sufficiency), while everyone else plays a supporting role. Thus the paternal state, with its bureaucratic father-proxies; thus the self-sufficient waiter, who runs the show in the restaurant and brooks no quibbling from the customer-children; thus the self-important vratník, who in the metaphor of patriarchal families is the wife who is allowed to believe she 'wears the pants' and 'controls the purse strings' as a sop for not holding any real status whatsoever.

It's interesting to see how vigorously this power structure is defended by Slovakia's 'fathers'. President Rudolf Schuster, for example, has laid charges against a journalist who made fun of him recently; the former Mečiar government won a multi-million crown suit against the daily Sme paper for 'psychic trauma' suffered from an article published following the murder of police informant Róbert Remiaš. And how else can we explain the greedy behaviour of pigs at the privatisation trough, and the complete lack of legal consequences, unless the shield of public authority in Slovakia was still enough to deflect criticism by less important members of the national family?

It is beyond doubt that change is coming. The 84.3% turnout in the 1998 elections, and the thousands who attended demonstrations against Mečiar's excesses, show that the charm cast by authority is beginning to fade.

But such political protests have not yet made their way into daily life, nor has the emotion that underlay them been harnessed to the task of forcing change. Too many people in 1998 thought that defying authority was a matter of releasing feelings, rather than patiently and consistently opposing political excesses - which is precisely why these people feel so betrayed by the current government, and why the methods of Dzurinda's crew broadly resemble those of their predecessors. You see the same thing everywhere - a complaint over a purchase or a service received often winds up in a shouting match, rather than a purposeful debate between equal parties, customer and vendor. A law guaranteeing free access to information becoming snarled on bureaucratic obstacles.

It's not easy to buck authority when custom, tradition and the law are ranged against you. For Slovaks who refuse to serve, as for Lucifer, the decision may also precede a descent into chaos until a new order is established. But the alternative remains an authoritarian heaven forged over centuries to suit the patriarchs, not the common weal. As President Schuster knows full well.

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