Politeness in Russia: Don’t Be Offended!

May 6, 2012

Taking a quick break from “Things To See in Yaroslavl,” I’d like to address an issue that I think a lot of people have faced during their time abroad in Russia. This is the issue of not only being polite in a way that’s understood cross-culturally, but also interpreting (or misinterpreting) well-intended speech and actions directed at you.

If you were to translate certain things you said in Russian directly into English, you could risk sounding pretty rude:

Дай мне ручку.     —     Give me pen.
Закройте дверь.     —     Close door.

Even with a пожалуйста[1] at the end of the phrase and articles successfully added, the intonation that Russian speakers tend to use comes off as quite curt in English. The thing to remember when speaking with Russian speakers is that this is not rude in Russian, so try not to take it that way! If you were to directly translate your English into Russian or to use English intonations in Russian, you would sound silly at best and not understandable at worst. When you’re speaking with Russian classmates and someone says Дай мне ручку, they’re really asking quite nicely Could you pass the pen? When your teacher says Закройте дверь, they’re asking Could you close the door? And most of the time, you will hear a “please” from these two groups!

Studying in Russia, there are a number of things that people from Western cultures often interpret as rude that really are just normal here. Take for example:

  • Instead of asking for you to move aside on the bus, a бабушка[2] will actually move you aside so she can get through to the door. Woops! There goes Granny!
  • People won’t smile without a reason. They’re not scowling at you or angry, it’s just that overt smiles in public when you’re alone reflect a person being stupid, mentally unstable, or foreign. It makes it wonderful when you do get a smile—you know it’s sincere and special.
  • A man will frequently open a door for a woman, carry her bag for her, compliment her looks, etc. He’s not trying to be sexist and he’s probably not trying to run off with your bag—it’s just that old-fashioned chivalry that’s still very alive here.
  • People will comment on your weight. Coming home on a train from Ukraine, a passport control officer commented to me that I’d lost weight since my passport photo was taken—my face was a lot fatter in the picture. I laughed. Thanks, officer!
  • People will ask intimate questions about religion and money. Meeting strangers, I have been asked, “What religion are you?” “How much do you earn?” “How much do your parents earn?” and so on. While I still find it hard to not feel uncomfortable talking about money (that cultural quirk of mine has been drilled in hard), I can appreciate that for them, it’s normal–and they’re just trying to have polite conversation with me!

Invest time during your semester or year abroad to just observe the dynamics of the people around you. How is that person speaking to the other person? How is the other person reacting? Try to step into the shoes of the people you’re living with. Imagine you’re acting out a role in a play and sit on the bus and scowl like the best of them! You’re not changing yourself as an individual, you’re experimenting and experiencing study-abroad to its fullest. But don’t take this as an excuse to try to drink vodka like a Russian. There are some things foreigners should leave to the pros!

One final parting note: it’s also very worth while considering how you come across to the Russians you’re with. Beaming at the woman who collects the tickets on the bus might leave her feeling like you were making fun of her. Not finishing the food that your host mother made–even if it was practically a six-course affair–might leave her feeling like she doesn’t cook well enough for you. Be sensitive to these things. You can start out by being polite to people in the way that you know best, and after some time abroad you may be able to show people in their way that you care.

Still learning,


[1] Thank you

[2] Grandmother or simply elderly woman


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