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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: Using the Art of Bluff To Verbal Advantage




A former Russian teacher of mine famous for her quirky sense of humor used to greet new students with a sign on her door: "I can teach you Russian in 10 lessons. Failing that, I can teach you to speak English 'with thick Russian accent.'"


This was, perhaps, an exaggeration. I still cannot speak English with a convincing Russian accent. But it raised a valuable point for the student of Russian desperately trying to hold his or her own in conversation: bluff.


Indeed, with the right attitude, a man of few words may be able to pass himself off as a native speaker. I recall one friend of mine, a fellow student swallowing his case endings, who had half the city of St. Petersburg wowed. His vocabulary may have been no larger than that of a 3-year-old, but what he said fooled everyone from our phonetics instructor to the old ladies who stand guard at the Hermitage trying to jack up the ticket price for foreigners.


He swore by one turn of phrase: "Kak vam skazat'?," or "how should I say?" He had learned this seemingly bland expression while visiting friends one evening. He was seated next to a particularly listless fellow who answered every question with a question: "Kak vam skazat'?"


At first, my friend waited patiently, expecting his slow-witted dining companion to find the words to answer the simplest of questions. But, while to some "Kak vam skazat'?" may appear as an opening line, to others it is the beginning, middle and end of the conversation. How do I tell you? I don't know, so don't bother me again, was the message emanating from this in just three words.


So while our temporarily confused student of Russian might have been taken aback by his neighbor's lack of conversational prowess, he secretly rejoiced in the acquisition of this new secret weapon - one that he could employ anytime he lost track of the conversation.


This was, in fact, a step up from his previous method of pretending to know what was going on. Whenever someone asked him a question he did not understand, he would


merely raise one eyebrow and blurt out a belligerent: "Chevo?" A simple "What?" would not do. He had to use his voice and every muscle in his face to say:


What the hell?


If only he had learned more polite forms of bluffing his way through a conversation, he might have made more friends during his brief stay in Russia. A well-placed, "Da ladno," or, "Yeah, right," can be particularly useful when you are trying to indicate to your speaking partner that you are not only still breathing, but well on top of the situation.


I, personally, am very fond of the expression v smysle - or, in what sense. It is an appropriate bluffing tool in response to just about any question directed your way. How do you like Russia? (In what sense?) Is this your first trip here? (In what sense?) Where are you from? (In what sense?)


That is one way to keep the conversation flowing.