Like all good stories, this one starts with a pretty girl. She was sitting on the bus, and there was an open seat next her. I sat down and the predictable happened. She put her head phones in, and looked away into the window. Fairly typical behavior in Russia and just about anywhere else in the world, I would venture to say.
Russians get the reputation for being cold, and unapproachable. The reason for this is primarily because, as Westerners, we tend to be accustomed to a breezy politeness that is common in most cities in the West.
(Youâ€™re sitting on a bus when a passenger turns to you and says:)
P: Sorry, but which stop is Tenleytown?
You: Oh, sorry, but Iâ€™m not sure. Maybe its the next one.
P: Oh thank you so much, sorry for bothering you.
You: Oh its no problem
Pretty typical exchange. Politeness and pleasantries abound. Here in St. Petersburg however, things are quite different.
You: Sorry, but which stop is the â€œSquare of the Struggle.â€
Her: *slow turn of the head followed by a long stare*
You: *nervous grin*
Her: Itâ€™s in a couple of stops.
You: Sorry to bother you, thanks for the help.
Her: Why are you sorry?
At this point, the conversation has taken a turn for the interesting. To those of you reading along at home in the States, this answer of hers should raise an eyebrow. If not, you arenâ€™t paying close enough attention. The exchange of information has already concluded, therefor the conversation should have ended. She should have turned away to look back through the window, putting her ear buds in as she did so, while I pointedly made an effort to look straight ahead, lest she think that I am a weirdo, creep or god forbid, want to continue a conversation rather than stare aimlessly ahead. That is after all, the polite thing to do.
But it didnâ€™t play out the way that I was expecting it to.
Instead, she continued to look at me with a look of mild disdain, as I struggled to come up with an answer. After all, why did I say I was sorry? Why do I, and everybody around me in the West say it so goddamn much? Are we really sorry? And if so, why? Do we feel that having a small conversation with someone is so painful for that other person that we must apologize for even opening our mouths? What is going on in our thought process that we feel we are somehow in the need of forgiveness? Perhaps it is just a language parasite, a word without meaning that we just insert into our conversations, for one reason or another without really thinking about it.
Who knows, but I explained that it was simply something that we say in the West, to be polite.
She arched her eyebrows and asked, â€œso youâ€™re from America?â€ I replied that I was. And again she just looked at me, with that stern metro face. It took a lot of willpower on my part to not slip into my American default of saying, â€œsorry again for bothering youâ€ flashing my 6000$ smile, and staring pointedly ahead. Instead, I stared right back at her for a bit.
A Tarzan and Jane moment if ever there was one.
Her face eventually relaxed a bit, and she complimented my Russian. â€œYou speak good Russian for a foreigner,â€ she said. And just like that, I passed the test, and the conversation began to flow like the swift running waters of the Jordan, (iâ€™ve never actually been, but Iâ€™m working on my similes, and it sounds biblical doesnâ€™t it?), like the pent up water behind a dam suddenly being released, like a trip to the urinal after a long night of drinkingâ€¦ you get the point.
And it was an interesting conversation. We talked about the city, about her life and about why Americans spend so much time in the gym. (see calhoun’s beautiful rats) It was incredibly uninhibited, especially considering that we had just met. She criticized and corrected my Russian mistakes, all with a straight face and a shockingly pleasant rudeness. When it was time for me to get off, we exchanged numbers, she flashed me a smile, the first one in the entire conversation and said goodbye. (I could hear the wedding bells tolling.)
It was only afterwards, upon reflection, and several other similar encounters, that I considered what I had inadvertently stumbled across: the different understanding of politeness found in Russia vs. the West and the reason for our perception of the Russians as rude people.
Politeness that comes from a position of weakness is not respected here.
Artificial self-abasement is not encouraged here.
Artificiality is not the norm here.
People donâ€™t go online after a day of pent up resentment and post passive-aggressive Facebook rants or snarky Twitter comments with those nauseating hashtags (#gagworthy). They just up and call you out on your bullshit, right then and there. And they expect that you will hold your ground, and defend yourself, again right then and there. They expect you to tell them what you actually think, not mouth off polite platitudes as we are accustomed to in the West, where we are encouraged above all else to be civil. The world might be burning to pieces around us, bombs might be going off on the front lawn, Lenin and an army of commie-zombies may have risen from the grave, but for godâ€™s sakes watch what you say, you donâ€™t want to offend anybody do you?? There are children around who might hear you! Letâ€™s be sensitive and remember that not all commies are zombies!
You get the point.
In short, I have come to the realization that we simply have different value systems, Russians and the West. One peoples values honesty, the other politeness and propriety. And to be completely honest, I think every American should have a conversation with a Russian in Russia, just once in their life. They might find it, funnily enough, deeply liberating. Just gotta get past the metro face.