Остренькое по-русски – Russian With a Bite

There’s a part of Russian culture that I haven’t yet been able to absorb and mimic.  The way in which Russians communicate with each other still surprises me to this day.  I’m still unable to predict and prepare adequate responses to phrases Russians throw around relentlessly. 

For example, I was in a store that sold sandwiches and baked goods.  The woman in front of me asked the salesperson, roughly translating into English, “Your sandwiches with meat…are they gone?”  Now in my American mind, there are two possible answers.  Yes and no.  But the salesperson came up with a third, unexpected answer.  “Who told you that?”  I was completely flustered. 

Not too long ago, I was in a cramped supermarket with my wife.  We needed to get by a woman who was blocked the aisle.  My wife asked her to move in the most polite way possible, roughly translating as “Can you please be so kind as to let us pass.”  Again, in my American mind there are two responses.  One is to move and the other is to not move.  But this woman actually had a third response.  “I’m not in your way.”  If I were alone, I would have stood there for several minutes trying to figure out what to do next.  But my wife,  a pushy Russian when she needs to be, moved ahead with our cart and politely ran over the woman’s feet.

I was in a pharmacy.  The person in front of me put his money down in the cash tray after ordering something (another interesting note:  in the U.S. it’s rude to put the money on the counter.  You hand it directly to the cashier.  In Russia it’s rude to hand the money directly to the cashier.  You put it down in the cash tray.  Strange, but not blog worthy).  He got his change and – as it sometimes happens – started to walk away, forgetting the little bag of medicine.  The pharmacist had to stop the guy from walking away without the purchase.  In America, you’d probably here some variation of the following phrase:  “Sir!  You forgot your medicine.”  But, in this case, I heard a magical phrase: “Hey!  Who’s going to take the treatment?  Me?!”

Not too long ago, I overheard a conversation between two people:  a chef and the chef’s assistant. 

“Masha, is the cheese far?” 

Masha: “No.”

Chef: “Then why isn’t it here?”

Masha: “I didn’t know you needed it”

Chef:  “I need it.”

Masha: “Should I bring it?”

Chef: “Yes”

Why she didn’t simply say, “Masha, please bring me the cheese” is beyond me.


And this got me thinking.  Why create such difficult, indirect, snarky responses?  There has to be a cultural reason behind this.

Perhaps it’s rooted in the language.  Russian language is complex and allows for many interpretations that often hide messages.  Try reading Bulgakov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, and Pushkin, and you’ll see what I mean.  There is even a Russian proverb – brevity is the sister of talent – meaning that it takes skill and talent to be succinct in Russia.  Since brevity is also not a trait found in the Russian language perhaps brief conversations are just as rare.  But I want to dig deeper.

What is really going on here is language is being used as a stealth weapon.  While the person says one thing many hidden messages are being sent as well.  The receiver might not physically hear the stealth messages, but he surely picks up the nonverbal bombs. 

So, what’s the point to of throwing non-verbal bombs, then?  There is a prevalent notion in Russian society that in order for me to prove that I’m better I must make you worse.  The proverb “what is bad for my neighbor is good for me” comes to mind.  And this is exactly what people do when they create conversations like this.  They aren’t interested in answering the question or finding a solution.  They’re one big walking sign screaming “[I think] I’m better than you.” 

And now I’m back to a familiar theme.  This is another way how Russians try to assert superiority to prove they are above you, better than you.  After all, if you’re better than the rest, it’s simply another path to privileges.

And this is just another reason why machine translations can not be trusted you need an actual human to do your English Russian translation

Author Max Tucker at http://www.snob.ru/profile/blog/23008/36764?commentId=357945

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