Politeness Is Not a Plus, But Tone Really Matters

The right tone. Either you've got it, or you don't.

As foreigners, we used to be able to get by with an accent, a spasibo and a prayer. But now that you've been here a while, you've probably noticed that Russians don't say spasibo until there's some result to be thankful for. Being over-polite is no substitute for proper tone.

Take, for example, the following joke, derived from a conversation between two passengers on a crowded bus, one of whom wants a ticket.

Peredaite, pozhaluista ("Pass this [money] along, please.")

-- Pozhaluista. ("Certainly.")

Spasibo. ("Thank you.")

-- Ne umnichi. ("Don't get wise with me.")

Poshel n. kh. ("&/$#@!")

Where did it break down? At some point, the politeness factor was too high for a normal Russian bus conversation.

Take comfort in the fact that Russians often fall into the tone gap. A friend tells the tale of a poor conscript from an intelligentsia background who, in his first days in the Russian Army, declined a main course at mess in the following manner:

Ya salatom ogranichus' ("I will limit myself to the salad.")

Alas, the choice of tone was so high as to sound positively smarmy, a no-no in any army.

"They beat him for months for that one," laughed my friend.

Of course, the trouble with the right tone is that recognizing it is one thing, producing it is another, as I find out every day in my hapless efforts not to offend the native speaker.

There I was, babbling along idiomatically with a friend, when I referred to another person who was present in the third person, ona ("she"). The ensuing broadside of invective could have stopped a charging elephant.

Still, Russians don't always get that one right, either. Last Thursday's issue of Moskovsky Komsomolets carries a withering attack on the tact of Russian actor Alexander Abdulov, in part for referring to the writer as ona in her presence. "Educated people don't speak that way," she wrote.

Which leads us to President Boris Yeltsin. I don't know when the Kremlin host began using this tool, but lately, every speech he gives is punctuated regularly with ponimayesh', ("you understand"). To understand the tone of this phrase, imagine one of Jimmy Cagney's gangster roles.

Take, for example, Yeltsin expressing indignation at his opinion being ignored in the matter of NATO strikes against the Bosnian Serbs.

Prezident, ponimayesh', ne pozvolit miru ne schitat'sya s Rossiyei. ("The president, see, he won't allow the world to ignore Russia!")

"You dirty rat," Yeltsin's guest, Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, could have said. "Nobody brings me all the way here to tell me that, see!"