Lost in Communication

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Francesca Carlin, an American actress from New York, has been living in Moscow for three years and has no plans to go back. "I think I've been very lucky," she said. "I've made some really wonderful friends here."

But things have not always been so easy with the language and culture. "The first couple of moments were a little bit of a shock," she recalled. "I've met Russians who are very savvy and friendly but they definitely ask questions that would be considered taboo for us during the first meeting. That would be: 'Are you married?' 'How much do you make a year?' 'Where do you work?' Sometimes Russians can seem to get very intimate upon the first meeting."

Marina Pliskina, a self-employed Russian teacher and English translator from Moscow, advises turning awkward situations into a joke.

"One of my students was asked this money question, and he just asked back: 'What about you?' The Russian was so shocked that he clamped up," Pliskina said.

A safer option, however, is to change the subject politely for some small talk. "Again, when you're asked about your salary, you could always expand on making money in general and say something about the level of salaries in Russia and abroad," she said.

In any case, Americans do much more small talk than Russians.

"We can talk for hours about really nothing -- and especially upon the first acquaintance when you always have to keep the conversation going," Carlin said.

Small talk was something that Mikhail Spivakov, a Moscow-born biologist, found very frustrating when he moved to London five years ago. "Socializing with Brits is intentional communication about nothing," he said.

A good way to feel comfortable in a chat with the British is to copy their conversation habits and patterns.

"You just need to be attentive and see how the locals do it," Spivakov said. "But, anyway, for a British you will always be a bit different no matter how well you speak English or copy their habits, and it's not necessarily a bad thing."


Viktor Bogorad / MT

Viktor Bogorad / MT


It took Spivakov two years to grasp the basics of the game. "First you need to learn how to weave a web of a conversation without touching upon important points and wait till the people let you in," he said.

Masha Karpushina, a London-based illustrator, also noticed that it took much longer to achieve intimacy with a British person than with a Russian.

"It was like a slow-opening lily," she said, referring to her partner of two years, Steve Paton. They are expecting a baby this month.

Paton agreed that Russians were more ready to open up: "I generally find the closed nature, emotionally, of English girls pretty frustrating and to a degree unattractive so it was something I was immediately drawn to in Masha."

A Russian friendship or relationship is more than just about another level of intimacy, Carlin said. "There's the idea of having only one or two really good friends and you call them a 'friend.' That's absolutely different from us when we call a person we've met a couple of times 'a friend,'" she said. "When you're a friend with a Russian it means that it holds so much more responsibility and has so much more meaning."

But how can you build this kind of friendship? "You've got to understand that you're in another culture and be ready to compromise," Pliskina said. Be open about what you find unusual or simply annoying.

"If it's with someone you know well -- discuss it with them," she said. "If it's with someone you've just met, it's the same thing -- if you don't like the question, you can always say so in a polite way and explain what you're not happy about."

Carlin said she feels quite comfortable in Moscow, and she thinks she knows why. "To be honest, I think a lot of Americans come here, and they insist on speaking on their terms," she said. "People from another culture need to be sensitive, and to hold a conversation with a Russian, to really seek to understand first and then to be understood."