This week and last week I took a book full of cartoons of the Suicide Bunnies to every class I teach. Most of my students are Slovak women.

I keep being surprised by how sensitive this country is, how hard it is for Slovaks to deal with anything out of the ordinary.

Some – not all – were genuinly shocked by the cartoons. I think they are hilarious, they are absurd, clever, and so over the top you can’t possible think they are meant to hurt or shock anyone, to me they are just hysterical.

Not so for some of the Slovak women in my classes. They gasped. They didn’t know what was happening. They were less active during the lesson and looked at me strangely.

I know by now that I shouldn’t try anything experimental in Slovakia.

If you want to please a Slovak student you just have to dump a truck load of repetitive grammar exercises on them. Only the very best of them appreciate creativity.

A lot of them are deadly afraid of having to use their imagination. They just can’t do it. They can only repeat. They find it very hard to generate something on their own. Their preferred topics are very mundane, and what they love most of all is to fill in whole pages of repetitive exercises. And they actually believe that this is an ok way to learn a language. As though those exercises are real life. They are not. Using a language is mostly about being able to react to novelty, to improvise, to be quick and fast and to use your imagination. Being good at filling in repetitive grammar exercises will not enable you to communicate in the new language you’re learning. They are too disconnected from how the language is really used in day to day life.

But it’s safe, so they like it.

I have only one group that is so clever and adaptable that they can really appreciate an original, mutually creative class. They are also not afraid of making a mistake, so they’re not all cramped up.

A Slovak person likes nothing more than to be given a set of rules and then repeat and apply those rules, eternally.

That’s one reason why Slovaks would be defeated in any war against a creative, flexible enemy. They would invent some doctrice, more rules, and they would stick to those no matter what the actual situation on the battlefield is telling them.

Some people blame this on communism, this shocking lack of initiative or ability to improvise, but is that fair? Communism has been gone for about 30 years. The rigid school system around here will of course stamp out any originality.

Slovakia is above all a country of ‘keeping up appearances’, of not taking risks, of not even trying to stand out, of blending in, of being reckoned ‘normal’, of avoiding criticism, and to never ever risk ‘losing face’.

Are these people massively repressing their true selves or is this conformist, safe, predictable facade really all there is?