The Metro Face: A blank, non-expressive face that one only wears when on public transportation.
There’s a lot of different explanations for it, but it all comes down to one thing: in Prague, you don’t smile, laugh, talk loudly, talk to strangers, or make eye contact on public transportation. In short, when you step on a tram, the metro, or a bus, you need to put on your metro face.
Maybe it’s because I’m from Minnesota (and after traveling around the United States and now Europe I’ve come to realize that “Minnesota nice” is not a stereotype, it’s real!), but being packed in a tram, metro car, or bus with lots of people and making no eye contact whatsoever felt very unnatural at first. I take the bus almost every day in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, and it’s not like I get on public transportation and immediately start befriending people—but if there’s a cute dog or baby or something funny happens, it’s pretty common to make eye contact or share a comment with a stranger. Not in Prague. Just having a conversation with a friend when on the metro feels like you’re disturbing everyone and breaking an unspoken rule. Even little kids talk in low tones on public transportation, and I’ve yet to hear a baby cry or a dog bark during a commute.
There’s a couple explanations I’ve gotten for this from locals, and the most obvious one is that we’re in a city of 1.2 million people, and as a global phenomenon people in the city tend to be less friendly than people in smaller towns. But the other reason (which is more interesting I think) stems from Prague’s days under the Communist regime. Prague was under totalitarian rule for decades, first under the Nazis and then under the Communist Soviet Union. In both regimes, people were never sure who they were able to trust, and did whatever they could not to draw attention to themselves in public. This led to very little warmth between strangers in Prague, which you can still see today from the service in shops or restaurants: with the exclusion of the touristy Old Town area, waiters and shopkeepers tend to be kind of rude by American standards (or, at least incredibly straightforward and aloof).
However, in order to escape the constant pressure of being watched by the authorities in the city, it was very common for residents of Prague and other cities in (then) Czechoslovakia to leave town during the weekends and go to their place in the country; either a chata (cabin) or a chalupa (cottage). This was where people could relax, destress, and get away from the city pressures. People were also much friendlier and more trusting with each other in the country. These legacies of the Communist days live on today in the attitudes of people in the city, the friendliness of people in the country (a stranger in a Czech village a couple hours outside of Prague actually smiled at me, which would be unheard of in the city!), and, of course, how people interact (or, rather, don’t interact) on the metro.
The funny thing is, however strange it felt to have zero interaction at first, now if someone deviates from the norm I am immediately put on guard: if someone smiles at me I instinctively hold my purse tighter, and if someone leans over and says something to me I jump (quite dramatically, I might add).
It may have taken two and a half months, but I think I’ve finally found my metro face.