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Apr 14, 2014

Hey, you

The politics are getting darker, and war is still looming on the horizon. If you listen to some, the country is going to hell. I don’t think so, but it is scary anyway. So my mind wonders away, into small, insignificant things, like the conventions of greetings in Russian and English. Escapism? - Why the heck not.

In English, one is expected to say the name after each “hello.” Americans have an utterly unrealistic expectation that everyone will remember your name after the very first formal introduction. If you don’t do that, you’re actually saying – every time! – “but I don’t remember your name; you are not that important.” Not remembering the name is hugely embarrassing to both parties, even though it is perfectly natural for people to forget each other’s names. Some brave people will reintroduce themselves as many times as they meet you, until you get their name right. It takes guts, and does not remove the awkwardness, because they are saying, somewhat patronizingly, - “I know you don’t know my name, but I will help you out here.”

The Russian convention is a lot more forgiving. People can greet each other and have a long conversation without naming each other by name. People will find indirect ways of restoring the missing peace of information – either by remembering within a few minutes, or by asking someone else, or by looking into the conference program, or at the name tag. I find it to be a much more reasonable custom. Indeed, we sometimes remember perfectly well who the other person is, where she or he works, and all important previous conversations – everything but the actual name. So we can still continue talking without embarrassment, and then restore the name situation quietly, and without losing face. In America, people also have that strategy; it is just a lot more obviously the less preferred one. It is still awkward.

In Russia, getting to know each other is a slower process. For example, at business meetings, people often skip introductions, and people will gradually meet over the course of the meeting. There is a wider range of degrees of knowing each other – between “I know who you are” to “we have seen each other before,” and then on to “we know each other,” etc.

Don’t get me wrong, Russians have their own torturous communication habits. The worst one is trying to figure out the “you” and “thou” (the informal address, like the German Du or French Tu) situation. I repeatedly try to offer my junior colleagues to call me by first name, like I got used to in America. Some will just refuse, so I have to keep addressing them in a formal “you” to maintain equity. Others will agree, but then can’t bring themselves to doing it, and will use the most awkward form of Russian address, where neither “you,” not “thou” are used. That strategy is perfectly obvious to both parties involved. With people who are older than me or higher in social status, it is up to them to offer the switch, but Russians don’t really have a straightforward way of doing it. It has to be a delicate, and if you ask me, completely pointless dance.

So, let’s combine the best of the two worlds. Everyone switches to informal form of address, and wу allow more time to remember names. Peace.

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