Friday, November 8, 2013

Russians Don’t Believe in Euphemisms

While Americans have a predilection for positivity (false or otherwise), this is decidedly not the case in Russia. In Spain, I would breeze through miscommunications with an apologetic smile; in Russia, this only serves to make me appear more idiotic. A Russian guy explained why, introducing me to the saying “Смех без причины - признак дурачины,” which means “Laughter for no reason is the sign of a fool.”

Despite this cultural insight, I am still on a crusade to bring “grinning like an idiot” to Russia. After an old woman laden with groceries pushed me on the metro, I contemplated how I should respond. During my first stint in Moscow, I would have thrown an elbow without hesitation; there’s no shame in laying out an old biddy if she wants to get physical. But this time, I decided to go for some foreign positivity and I smiled at her instead. While she initially responded with cautious skepticism, I eventually coaxed a smile out of her.

In addition to smiling more selectively, Russians don’t mince words. My new Russian professor has proven to be a font of brutal Russian honesty. Within an hour of meeting me, Evgenia said, “Jessica, in my opinion, you belong in a lower class.” I was having an off day, but did nothing to raise her opinion when I confessed to not finishing my homework. “I’m sorry. I’m a bad student!” I had meant it hyperbolically, but she pursed her lips, corrected my gender confusion, and said, “Yes, I can see that.”

While this direct style might discourage some students, I was properly shamed into working harder. I’ve doubled the time I put into my homework assignments and Evgenia hasn’t made any moves to kick me out of her class yet. She even called on me to translate a passage from a Russian story that the class was having trouble understanding. After rendering a fairly difficult paragraph about an unrequited love into English, I looked up expectantly, desperate for a scrap of praise. Evgenia waved her hand dismissively and said, “Dzhessika, your English is so American that I couldn’t understand a word you said.”

But don’t think I let Evgenia’s below-the-belt dig get me down. If anything, I’m more desperate than ever to impress the old battleaxe. I’ll start doing British elocution exercises if that’s what it takes to garner a compliment from her. And if not, there’s always the metro tactic of Jessie circa 2005—when in doubt, just shove a babushka.


  1. “Jessica, in my opinion, you belong in a lower class.” Totally read that as she was kicking you out of the aristocracy. Oops.

    I kind of appreciate Russian forthrightness as I'm really terrible at hiding what I'm feeling!

    1. Hahahaha, I didn't even think of it like that, but I like your interpretation even better!

  2. Ah, I don't think I'd survive then, as I think Spaniards are too forthright with their "You look fat today" shenanigans.