Categories: "Cultural differences"


October 12th, 2010 — posted by Don

When you learn a foreign language, one of the things that causes problems are false cognates, which are words that sound similar but can have quite different meanings. The classic example for Spanish students is ‘embarazada’ which sounds like the English word ‘embarrassed’ but actually means ‘pregnant.’ If an American woman tries to say that she is embarrassed using ‘embarazada,’ the reaction of her cohorts will teach her her error promptly. She won't make that mistake a second time.

It's a little trickier when the meanings of the false cognates are much closer in the two languages. In that case there is much more likely to be continuing confusion and cross-cultural mis­com­munication, and that miscommunication can be both on the dictionary-meaning level and on the emotional level. A case in point are the words туалет and toilet. In American English toilet means the actual device one sits upon, and in Russian туалет means the room in which the toilet (but usually not the bathtub) is located. Since the Russian word is so similar to the English word, American students of Russian only have to hear it once to remember it forever, and they promptly start producing sentences like:

Я хочу пойти в туалет. I want to go to the toilet.

In terms of grammatical communication it is a perfectly adequate sentence, but the student hasn't said quite what he thinks he has said, and there is a very good chance he has just committed a cultural faux pas. The sentence is a little too direct for polite company, and simply saying you want to go to the toilet summons up unpleasant images of... well, you get the idea. In American English we avoid those images because the word “bathroom” focuses on the ‘bath’ idea; that is, there is a subtle association with cleanliness, not urination or defecation. So to avoid being quite so direct, the Russians have several ways of euphemistically expressing the idea. The one I use most is «помыть руки», which word-for-word means “to wash the hands”:

Можно, я помою руки? or
Можно помыть руки?
May I use your restroom?

If you say it that way, there will be a bit of ambiguity to the Russian, who won't necessarily be sure if you need the toilet or the sink, but since in a Russian apartment the room with the toilet is usually right next to the room with the bathtub and sink, they will lead you right to where you need to go for either purpose. Of course, if you are not directly discussing bodily functions, it's perfectly fine to use the word туалет:

— Где в этом здании находятся туалеты?
— На втором, четвёртром и шестом этажах.
“Where are the bathrooms in this building?”
“On the second, fourth and sixth floors.”
— Ваня, почему ты опять курил в туалете?
— Потому что на кухне было много народу, некуда было сесть.
“Ivan, why were you smoking in the bathroom again?”
“Because there were a lot of people in the kitchen, and there was nowhere to sit.”
Люба вошла в туалет и заметила, что не было туалетной бумаги. Lyubov walked into the bathroom and noticed that there was no toilet paper.
Рядом с туалетом находится ванная. Next to the bathroom there is a room with a bathtub.

The social contexts that affect the direct use of the word туалет are complex. My friend Tanya assures me that if she is at a restaurant with a mixed group of men and women, she never uses the word туалет. Instead she would just stand up, say «Я сейчас приду» “I’ll be right back,” and then leave. But if she is with just her female friends at the restaurant, she might well say «Я пойду в туалет» “I'm going to the bathroom,” and since she is with her friends she might add to one of them «Ты хочешь со мной?» “Do you want to come with me?” Similarly a Russian man in mixed company will use euphemistic phrases like the ones mentioned before or «Я отойду на минутку» “I'll step away for a moment.” (But unlike Russian women, a Russian man won't ask a buddy to go to the bathroom with him.)


June 10th, 2010 — posted by Don

The Russian word for last name or surname is фамилия. Фамилия does not mean family. Let's say you are in a post office, and the worker there needs to know your last name. He might ask your last name by saying:

Как ваша фамилия? What is your last name?

Russian last names tend to end in -ин, -ын, -ов, -ев, and -ёв. Those are the masculine forms. You can also have feminine and plural forms as well:


Many Russian last names also end in -ый, -ой or -ский. Those are the masculine forms. You can also have feminine and plural forms as well:


The declension of last names is discussed in these entries:

Note for Russian readers: the word 'surname' is not used very often in the United States. I have seen it on a few official forms, but for the most part we say 'last name,' not 'surname.' The one time I visited Britain, I did here 'surname' used.


June 8th, 2010 — posted by Don

The word for name in Russian, in the sense of “first name,” is имя. A beginner might assume that the -я ending means that the word is a feminine noun, but in fact it is one of the ten third-declension neuter nouns that end in -я in Russian. It declines like this:


If say, at the post office they need to know your first name, they might say:

Как ваше имя? What is your name?

But that is a really officious and unpleasant way to ask a name. Normally people will say:

Как вас зовут? What is your name?

Russian names often sound quite curious to the American ear, and of course Russians also have patronymics that complicate the situation:

Древние русские имена для мужчин иногда включают в себя корень -слав, что конечно обозначает «слава», например Ростислав, Мстислав, и Владислав. Ancient Russian names for men sometimes include the root -slav, which of course means “glory”: for instance Rostislav, Mstislav, and Vladislav.
— Я недавно читала повесть, в которой одну женщину звали Улиткой. Как это странно. Я думала, что улитка — это гастропод.
— Ты правильно поняла. Улитка — это маленькое пакостное животное.
— Правда? Как можно назвать человека в честь такого существа?
“I recently read a story in which one peasant woman was named Snail. How strange. I thought that a snail was a gastropod.”
“You're right. A snail is a nasty little animal.”
“Really? How can you name a human being after such a creature?”
В России мало употребляют слова «господин» или «госпожа». В формальных обстоятельствах люди обращаются друг другу по имени-отчеству. In Russia they don't use the words ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ very much. In formal circumstances people address each other by first name and patronymic.
— Певец Фрэнк Заппа выдумал оригингальные имена для своих детей. Дочку он назвал Мун Юнит, а сына Двизил.
— С такими именами дети наверно возненавидели отца.
“The singer Frank Zappa thought up unique names for his children. He named his daughter Moon Unit, and his son Dweezil.”
“With names like those his children probably hated their dad.”

Улыбка (часть вторая)

May 31st, 2010 — posted by Don

Previously we discussed the word улыбка and how Americans and Russians perceive smiles differently. This last month I have seen once again how this affects us. On this occasion it was a comment made by a Russian woman of my acquaintance working at a major university in the US. She said:

Я хожу по коридорам и просто ненавижу этих людей. Они автоматически улыбаются, как роботы, но в них нет ни человеческой души ни искренности. I walk through these halls and simply hate these people. They smile automatically like robots, but they do not have human hearts nor sincerity.

She was suffering from profound culture shock, and part of that shock was due to her inability to process the American smile. Despite the fact that intellectually she knew an American smile meant something different than a Russian smile, her emotions still tried to perceive those smiles as if they were Russian smiles. Having known her for a while, I suspect that she will eventually return to Russia, embittered and depressed, convinced that Americans are terrible human beings. Alas, she will also return ignorant, completely misunderstanding what she was seeing.

I always teach my American students how to interpret the lack of smiling in Russia. Today I'd like to suggest to Russians what they need to understand about American smiles. Probably the most important thing for a Russian to realize is this: whereas Russian smiles are mostly meant to convey joy, American smiles have several other uses.

1. If you are in a store, when you walk up to the cashier, the cashier will probably smile at you. In this context, the smile means “I am ready to deal with your purchase.” This is not an insincere smile. The cashier is really ready to deal with your purchase. If you think, “The cashier is smiling because he/she wants to be my friend” or “The cashier thinks I'm sexy,” then you will most likely be mistaken. The cashier smiles that way at two hundred people a day and for the most part does not want to establish a new and lasting friendship with those people. For the most part the cashier does not think those customers are sexy. The cashier is ready to deal with each of their purchases. That's the purpose of the smile, and in that context it is sincere. The smile means: “I am ready to deal with your purchase.”

2. If you have an American acquaintance who is dealing with grief or illness or pain, and if you go to visit that acquaintance, he/she will probably smile at you when first seeing you. This smile can mean either a) that your acquaintance is happy to see you, or b) that your acquaintance is ready to pay polite attention to you despite the miserable circumstances. In the first instance, the acquaintance is sincerely happy to see you. In the second, the acquaintance is sincerely ready to be polite. The trouble for a Russian here is that Russians may assume that the politeness is an insincere attempt to be friendly or an insincere attempt to pretend that everything is okay. That would be a mistake. Most Americans sincerely want to be considerate and reasonable even to people they do not know, even in the midst of grief or pain. It is a sincere desire. But to assume that (b) means (a) would be a profound error.

3. If you work with Americans, then most every time you see your American colleagues, they will smile at you. In this context the smile means that the American is ready to go through the initial greeting ritual and then get down to work. Most of the time the smile does not mean that the American wants to deepen his relationship with you. About the greeting ritual… when Americans meet each other, they expect to go through the greeing ritual, which may take four to six sentences. They say “Hello, how are you?” The expected response is something like “Doing fine, thanks. You?” Do not give a negative response in this context unless a) there is something wrong that may inhibit the business you are there to discuss, or b) you are in such emotional distress that you really need the listeners to set aside the business for the moment to deal with your crisis. Generally, do not choose (b). Americans consider it childish, immature, unprofessional or simply tacky to bring personal emotions or relationships into the workplace.

Once again, a Russian may perceive an American smile in that context to be insincere. That's a mistake. The American sincerely wants to get down to business and sincerely wants to verify that there is no hindrance to that. If a Russian thinks “This smile means that my colleagues want to hear me detail my personal feelings right now,” then the Russian misunderstands the intent and the sincerity of the smile.

4. When walking down the street in the US, a Russian may meet the eyes of a stranger, and then the stranger smiles. This does not mean that the American wants to be the Russian's friend. If someone meets my eyes while walking down the street in the US and does not smile, I become immediately uncomfortable and wonder if the person has something against me. If the person smiles, then I assume the person is not hostile. That's right: the generic meaning of the American smile is “I am not currently disposed to be hostile toward you.” When the stranger smiles that smile, he is sincerely expressing the idea that he is not hostile toward you. The smile is sincere. The message it sends is sincere. But it is not the same message intended by a Russian smile.

Please bear in mind that whenever you meet someone from another culture, they have a completely different set of emotional cues. The things that they use to signal happiness, sadness, embarrassment, irritation or anger—that is, their facial expressions, tones of voice, and body language—are different than what you are used to. And all those things are processed by us mostly unconsciously. Thus it is very easy for us to completely misunderstand the intent of a foreigner, even after years of knowing them or their language or their culture. So when dealing with foreigners, always use your mind to step back from your initial reactions and consider whether your emotions might be misperceiving the foreigner's sincere intent.

Я тебя люблю — to say or not to say

February 26th, 2009 — posted by Tatiana

When talking about emotional life, there are differences in how Russians and Americans express emotions. Upon arrival into the US, it was striking just how often people used the phrase “I love you”, even in a casual phone conversation. I thought, "Wow, people here are capable of experiencing such intense emotional lives; we say it seldom in our country, so, we lag emotionally behind".
After living a while in the US though, it became obvious that saying this phrase so often does not imply wider (or deeper) range of emotions that people actually experience. I was told by native English speakers that they use "I love you" phrase as a part of cultural traditional politeness rituals rather then in a sense describing their trully experienced emotions. Well, that makes sense.

In Russia, on the contrary, we don't talk much about deep emotions; when we feel them, we let it come forward through actions rather than through words (показать любовь на делах, а не на словах). I think in our culture there is an unspoken consensus about the power of silence (or silent action), sort of like “Silence (or actions) speaks louder than words”.

Известный русский поэт Ф. И. Тютчев изрёк однажды сакраментальную, часто цитируемую и ставшую впоследствии знаменитой фразу: «Мысль изречённая есть ложь». The famous Russian poet F. I. Tyutchev once uttered a sacramental phrase which later became famous and is often cited: “A thought expressed in words is a lie.”

That seems to capture the national sentiment about pouring into words our deep emotions.
So, in the light of said above (в свете вышесказанного), one can sum it up like this: if you fall in love in the US, say "I love you" to your beloved, the more often the better! :D However, if you fall in love with a Russian, that would not be so necessary. Instead, be ready to act in a loving fashion and to demonstrate your love not with words but with deeds! Like, get her the moon from the sky if she asks for it, instead of just saying "Я люблю тебя"!!