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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Art of Conversation: Not Having to Say Sorry

Foreigners who feel that life in Moscow means an inevitable daily dose of undeserved verbal abuse are not completely wrong, but they are not as right as they think they are.


Thin-skinned Westerners bristle with indignation at being scolded by Russians, especially when they don't think they've done anything particularly wrong, and it is certainly true that there are days when avoiding markets, metros and telephones can mean the difference between a normal day and a terrible one.


But before we abandon all hope and give ourselves over to a life of self-pity, an objective hour or two in the field will reveal this simple truth: Russians are just as brusque with each other as they are with anyone else. What's more, they don't take it badly at all. Just what are we being so sensitive about?


Language and tone are the primary culprits. An upwardly inflected "Could you pour me some tea?" in English is linguistically no more polite than a "Pour me some tea" in Russian, but the difference to tender, literal-minded Western ears is obvious.


Other remarks like "I already told you that," "What do you want?" and "Why are you doing it that way?" pop up regularly in Russian conversations and are enough to ruffle any defensive foreigner's feathers, but don't be offended -- such statements bear no ill will.


To console yourself, adopt a "when in Rome" attitude, sharpen your tongue and say whatever you have to say as though you were completely annoyed. It will relieve all of your frustrations and at the same time win you a status of normalcy among your Russian conversation-mates.


Indeed, the thing that Russians often find most bothersome about English-speakers is their oversolicitousness. English conversations can be so riddled with pleases, sorries and excuse-mes that Russians can lose their patience pretty fast. "What did you say thank you for? I haven't done anything yet! Maybe I won't do anything at all!"


They have a point. English speakers apologize when they haven't done anything wrong, express flowery gratitude at the slightest of favors and sometimes get so caught up in politesse that they excuse themselves for having said thank you too much or not apologizing nearly enough. We naturally think this is what makes us so nice; what Russians think is that we are wimps.


This image of bullying Russians and cowering foreigners is both distasteful and inaccurate, because we are each just doing what comes naturally. And in Moscow, unfortunately, we've fallen prey to a vicious cycle: The more they scold, the more we apologize. The more we wheedle, the more the ferocious they become. It's exhausting for everyone. Just toughen up and stop being so sorry.