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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

To Russians, a Promise Is Something to Keep

A foreigner living in Moscow is jolted out of his sleep by a 4 A.M. phone call from abroad. The caller, a man he barely knows, accuses the foreigner of failing to deliver a letter to the caller's grandmother in St. Petersburg. He adds that if the letter is not delivered soon he will come to Moscow personally and break the foreigner's legs. The foreigner hangs up.

A fellow foreigner, hearing this story, gasps at the brutishness of the caller, particularly for dialing at such an inappropriate hour, and then gently chides the foreigner for not having delivered the letter.

A Russian, hearing this story, bristles with indignity at the thought that a foreigner could be so lazy and careless as to ignore a letter given in trust, especially one to a helpless old babushka, and says stoutly that under the circumstances the threat was completely in order.

The Russian is obviously right. It is reprehensible to leave a little old lady hanging while you cool your heels in Moscow, putting off that eight-hour train ride north. It is despicable to carry over someone's invaluable message from home and fail to deliver it, even though what it invariably means is long hours spent in transport, on the phone and searching dark alleys for the right person.

But it is what foreigners do. Not all of them -- so don't get huffy if you pride yourself on being intrepid -- but many. Westerners are masters of the empty promise: "I'll call you," "We should really get together," "I'd be happy to take a letter to your grandmother," etc. This is an annoying conversational trait, and it says nothing particularly positive about the speakers, but it is usually quite harmless because everyone involved is on equal footing: it's a you-make-me-an-empty-promise-and-I'll-make-you-one-back sort of dance.

With a Russian, however, foreigners with a vocabulary full of such seemingly friendly phrases may find themselves in over their head, coming up with explanations for why they did not call or why the lunch date was never made. It is an unflattering situation to be caught in.

Some foreigners learn to become true to their word instantly, and others simply avoid the problem by refusing to give their word in the first place. Either way, you are better off than you were in the first place, but obviously you are especially better off if you take the high moral road. The discipline involved in giving and keeping your word is enormous, but it's worth your while to try. Friends and neighbors will be amazed by the new you when you get home.

Back to the letter: A Russian will carry anything, anywhere, for almost anyone. It wouldn't hurt to try to do the same, especially if the alternative is suffering the wrath of angry letter-writers. He could just deliver the letter himself, you think, if he's so hot on coming over here to break your legs, but it's just the principle of the thing.