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Culture Shock: Deodorant-shy Slovaks are slow to change

Lots of Slovaks say that they can distinguish an American in a crowd very easily. "Almost every American wears a backward cap, shorts, a backpack, white socks, drinks Coke and eats hamburgers," say Slovaks when you ask them to describe a 'common' American. Yes, the description's partially right, I agree. However, what if a Slovak wears the same clothing, drinks the same soda and eats the same food as the American?
One could say that what really makes them different is their different languages. That's right. But in Slovakia, there is something even better, a tell-tale distinguishing mark which works even at night. It's a smell. A bad smell. A bad armpit smell of many Slovak men and women over 30 years of age, which strengthens during summer and becomes a bit less dominant as winter comes.


Even the nicest people sometimes could smell better.
illustration: Ján Svrček

Lots of Slovaks say that they can distinguish an American in a crowd very easily. "Almost every American wears a backward cap, shorts, a backpack, white socks, drinks Coke and eats hamburgers," say Slovaks when you ask them to describe a 'common' American. Yes, the description's partially right, I agree. However, what if a Slovak wears the same clothing, drinks the same soda and eats the same food as the American?

One could say that what really makes them different is their different languages. That's right. But in Slovakia, there is something even better, a tell-tale distinguishing mark which works even at night. It's a smell. A bad smell. A bad armpit smell of many Slovak men and women over 30 years of age, which strengthens during summer and becomes a bit less dominant as winter comes.

No, I don't want to say that Slovaks are pigs and Americans are roses in bloom. Nothing like that. I'm a Slovak myself and I have no plans to leave this beautiful country. At least not for now. However, the truth is that socialism, apart from the huge sculptures of its leaders and ugly-looking administrative buildings, has left behind an attitude in its people to not look too far beyond their daily needs for existence. Among the less important, commonplace, or even banal things on the list of an ordinary Slovak person is for sure a little thing called deodorant. Simply speaking, thousands of Slovaks have not yet realised that this little 'something' could be much more important than a bottle of beer or another pair of fake Chinese Nikes.

Americans adopted the habit of an everyday deodorant application a long time ago. It became a part of their culture. Unfortunately, Slovak culture, although very rich and interesting, has not made room for deodorants and anti-perspirants until now. This results in crowds of stinky people on the streets, in stores, offices and mainly on public transportation vehicles, like buses, trams and trolleys. The smell gets twice as intense during summer. Hence "smell-based" culture shock for Americans, or many other non-Slovaks who come to this country for a summer vacation, is much bigger and visible during this season than during any other time of the year.

Despite my origin, I have come through this shock as well. In 1995, I taught Slovak language here in Bratislava. My students were Americans - freshly minted MBA graduates. My "boss" told me I should teach the Slovak language, culture, and a bit of Slovak history, and he also added another bit of advice, something that wasn't in my written contract. "It's important that you use it every day, at least once," he said. The 'it' was naturally deodorant. So, I bought the first deodorant in my life at the age of 23.

It's unbelievable how sensitive my sense of smell became after one week. My nose could smell other people's smells. I realised I was being alleviated of the 'crowd syndrome', which states that if one does something, others do it as well. In this case, it means that if one stinks and can't smell his own stink, he also cannot smell the stink of others. But if he steps out of the crowd, he can break the barrier, which in this case would have a negative consequence for his nose.

Having come through such a good and instructive experience, I decided to share it with my mother. This handsome woman in her 40's reacted very positively. "Yes, you are right, people should do something about that," she said. So I thought she understood what I was trying to say.

When I saw her again after a month, I realised it wasn't going to be that easy. I asked her if she had bought a little anti-perspirant: she said she didn't need it. "Do I smell, or what?" she asked me [classic example of the crowd syndrome]. I said "No, you don't," and went out and bought her a deodorant stick. She accepted it and started to use it.

When I got back home for Christmas, I was hopeful that things had changed. Then I saw my 'gift' almost untouched on a bathroom shelf. "You don't use it?" I asked my mother. "Sure I did in summer, but now it's winter, so why should I use it? And by the way, it must have been expensive [another leftover from socialism]." So I explained the whole philosophy of armpit hygiene to my mother again and hoped she would finally get it right. And she did. After six months of my systematic work my mother stepped out of the crowd and realised that "people somehow stink on the buses."

To review: It's been four years since I bought my first deodorant, but despite the never-ending deodorant advertisements on TV, radio, and in magazines, many Slovaks can still be very easily distinguished from Americans at night.

Do you have an idea for Culture Shock? Send it to us at slspect@internet.sk or by fax at 50 24 97 35.

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