Saturday, 19 March 2011

from walking to talking

I find another aspect of Russian everyday life much harder to fathom. In England, it feels as if most conversations between people are 'contractual', based on individual negotiation, exchange and the making of agreements. Everything is flexible and has the possibility of change, of future improvement (for one, the other, or both). We talk by making offers, suggestions and arguments, by competing and/or collaborating.

In England I don't really notice I am doing this. But in Moscow such an underlying conversational logic only infrequently gets off the ground. This may be because people are just being very polite. But it feels like talk itself is often structured differently. So, for example, if I ask a question it is often treated as an unclear instruction, rather than the beginning of a discussion. If I frame a sentence around 'maybe we could do this/maybe we could do that' type arguments, all I do is confuse.

So, on the one hand, people seem to expect very direct, and straightforward statements, and prefer  explicit structures and rules. But, on the other, being direct (well, as direct as I can, which is not very) offers the opportunity for the other participant(s) to ignore what I say, make a non-committal and/or sideways reply, or just go off and do something different. Having rules or being given instructions does not mean you need to obey them.

Of course, there is potentially a very obvious point here; about the difference between the political and cultural histories of democracy and consumer society, versus Soviet communism and Russian capitalism. I have met this thing about rules everywhere; lots of them but nobody really takes much notice unless they have to. So drivers don't have licences; banks want an address for your account but don't care if it is the real one; authorities want some kind of stamped form but are never quite sure which; lots of guards watch over metro stations, but don't bother much when people jump over barriers without paying, just blow their whistles absentmindedly.

I wish I could pin down these 'talking' differences better; not because I think the contractual mode of conversation is preferable, but only to understand a little more about what is going on.


  1. This is a language barrier I come across quite a lot in Russia. Teaching ways of making suggestions (I'm an English language teacher) is difficult at times, because my students often see it as pointless. At least in their own society.

    Especially in business English, I often find I'm not only teaching the language of negotiation, but a whole concept as well.

    A lot of Russians I meet who communicate in English or other European languages at work complain that their European colleagues sound indirect, ie making several suggestions and presenting facts, rather than giving or asking for instructions.

    A colleague of mine who has also worked in S Korea suggested that people in authoritarian societies feel a bit vulnerable when a verbal transaction is too open.

  2. Miriam - that's really useful, although I am a bit embarrassed it has taken me a whole year and a half to work this out!