Cross cultural differences are a fascinating subject. Truly, one man's meat is another man's poison, where the likes and dislikes of different nations are concerned. These differences become especially obvious when one starts learning a foreign language and culture.
The art of being an Alien
When I was studying English philology at Moscow University many years ago, one of our favourite books was “How to be an Alien” by George Mikes. It proved to be not only very funny but also one of those books which, once you’ve read them, keep coming back to you in the form of party jokes and quotations. Especially if you are an Alien living in England…
I’ve lived in England for many years now. I’ve always liked English people so much that I even married one. And there is nothing I could add to George Mikes’ comic tour-de-force but … here are my own notes on the subject.
The famous English understatement! “Would you like to come to ours tomorrow night?" says a text message from an English friend. A Russian is puzzled – is it a question or an invitation? It’s not clear whether they want me to come or not! If it’s a question, the answer is no. If it’s an invitation it would be rude to refuse. So what is it? I need to call them and carefully find out… A Russian would say - this makes life more difficult. A Brit would say – it’s only polite not to impose your wishes and opinions on people. Whichever attitude is better, Russians are not good at understatement – either making or understanding it. In Russian an invitation would sound like an imperative: "Please come to our place!"
2. Freedom of choice
But here is “Should I go to work tomorrow? I’ve got a bit of a cold…” Addressed to a Russian, this simple routine question will get a clear answer, telling you what to do. “Of course not! Are you crazy? What if you make it worse?! Don’t even think of it!” or: “Go but see how you feel. If you feel worse come home immediately!” All questions of this sort are answered in the imperative form, so that you know very clearly what to do and follow the instructions. Addressed to a Brit, the answer becomes elusive and unclear “Well, why don’t you decide it tomorrow? It’s up to you.” It’s very confusing for a Russian, because: A) You don’t know what to do. B) You get an impression that the person you are asking doesn’t care. C) There will be no one to blame if you do the wrong thing.
When in Russia or with Russians, you have to give out clear instructions and use imperatives. They may blame you afterwards but will also love you more for it.
3. Temperature in the house
Russians are always cold in England. Yes, believe it or not. You come into someone’s freezing house as a guest for the first time (I always take extra scarves and shawls just in case) and hear the following comment with genuine surprise in the host’s voice: “But you are Russian! You must like it cold!” It makes me want to shout “NO!! No!! Please turn up the heating!” Of course I understand that in Britain the cost of heating is huge in comparison to Russia. And the climate allows drafty windows and poor heating. And 25 degrees in your flat in January is perhaps not a healthy temperature. But that’s the way we Russians grew up! A good friend of mine, a lovely English lady called Doris once stayed in Moscow in the flat of my Moscow friend. She was left there alone overnight. The host came in the morning to discover that the window had been open for some time (January, minus 20 at night) and Doris was walking around the flat in her pyjamas saying “How nice and crisp! I love it!” while the Russian woman couldn’t take off her fur coat. Of all the differences between us I think this one is the most striking!
Yes, Russian guests/friends/partners go blue with cold in English houses, and the other way round – the Brits boil to death in Russian flats. It’s a difficult one…
4. Personal comfort zone
Definitely one of the best features of the Brits, in my view. I absolutely hated being squeezed against somebody’s iron back (with somebody else’s hard briefcase going into my bottom on the other side) on the Moscow underground at 8.30 in the morning. I did it for ten years of my working life in Moscow. So long live the Anglo-Saxon notion of the comfort zone!
Please don’t be upset when you are touched and brushed against in crowded public places in Russia. Russians have a collective mentality. Maybe because of the cold climate (like those penguins who flock together to keep warm in Antarctica?)
Last time I went on a suburban train in Moscow an old lady grabbed my arm because the step on the train was quite high and used me as a vehicle for having a lift, without any warning or saying thank you. It's ok, really, but I would have preferred to be asked first...
5. “Stiff upper lip”
This is an unclear subject for me. On the one hand, it definitely still exists. Around me in London people march to work being ill or injured. They try to be positive and make jokes in the situations where Russians would only swear and whinge. They battle on through life like brave tin soldiers and do not complain - where Russians would bore you to death with descriptions of poor health and general ghastliness of life. Yet on the other hand I regularly see grown up men weeping in front of the whole nation on a TV programme because they’ve just won something. So I am confused.
I am afraid Russians like to have a good whinge! Practical tip: when a Russian whinges, always ask leading questions and give advice on how to solve a problem, it doesn’t matter however crappy… it will be appreciated.
6. Health and safety
Russians are pretty conscious of health but have a total disregard for safety. A Russian suburban train will still run with a door jammed open, and no one uses seat belts in the back seat of the car, or helmets on a bike. Russians may look at you in despise (“what a boring spoil-sport!”) when you insist on doing a sensible safe thing. It's liberating in a sense - you are responsible for your own life and make your own safety choices. But I can see that it could be rather iritating for an orderly Anglo-Saxon mind...
7. Appearances and fashion
A favourite subject of all Russian women living in the UK. Russians do care about appearances, so bear it in mind if you want to impress them at a business or personal meeting…
Early February. Light frost. I like to see how people on the train are dressed on such a day. Here is a young woman in a heavy coat but bare legs and summer shoes. Next door there is one in winter boots but a light jacket with a bare chest. And there (oh my God!) there is a bloke in flip-flops. What an eccentric nation the Brits are! Or is it because it’s just not quite cold enough to take it seriously? This is the area where I do feel like a complete alien. Woolly hats are an item of fashion rather than warmth. TV programmes with badly dressed presenters tell people how to dress. Girls in the City come to work in trainers combined with smart suits… I should admit though, it has taught me to be more relaxed about my looks. I can now leave house without my make up on and in mismatched clothes (can’t be bothered, life is too short!) But maybe life IS too short to think about appearances too much?
8. Water supply
It took me about 10 years of living in Britain to learn how to use just enough hot water and not run out. I used to fly into a rage about it. It’s an advanced industrial country with a very wet climate but it’s impossible to have enough tap water. When an English friend of mine once visited me in Moscow, one of his first questions was “Shall I take a shower or a bath? Will there be enough water?” I laughed heartily but was left somewhat puzzled. Run out of hot water? Impossible! And now, 20 years later, every time I come back to Moscow I subconsciously try to save water, in spite of the fact that you can keep your tap open all day and it will never run out. A luxury that Russian urban dwellers take for granted!
If you have Russian guests, tell them how small your hot water tank is. Otherwise, you’ll all have to wash with cold water!
9. Snow in England
The Brits have a peculiar relationship with snow. Snow is definitely a romantic thing - see movies and ads. In British movies handsome romantic characters walk around in the snow wearing only jumpers and jeans. And mysteriously, they don’t get cold and snow never sticks to their clothes and hair. And everyone wants a white Christmas. But at the same time, snow paralyses the whole country when it happens - so it’s a major pain!
If you are Russian, snow is A) a nuisance (it gets into your face, sticks to your clothes, turns into nasty mash under your feet); B) a hazard (it makes pavements and stairs so slippery that sometimes it’s a circus act to get home without falling over, especially for women in high heels); C) something you wish would go away. Its only advantage is that it sparkles prettily under streetlights and brightens up dark nights. That said, we are divided over this question. Some Russians living here miss snow a lot, others are very happy to never see it again!
I’ve always been a cat lover which manifested itself in feeding my school (and not only school) dinners to stray cats in Moscow and trying to find a nice home for a bunch of unwanted kittens every now and then. But the British take it to a whole new level. My cat has better health care than I do. He has medical insurance, we don’t.
In the old Soviet times there was a slogan – “In this country we have one privileged class – children!” In Britain, it’s cats! Which I find very admirable and touching. “Cats are people too”, say some English people. Hmm… you won’t hear that from a Russian!
11. Being positive
This principle must be American but it has firmly rooted itself in the British life according to my observations.
When I ask my Russian friends “How are you?” the usual answer is “Nichevo” which literally means “nothing”. Nothing is good because it means that nothing out of the ordinary has happened recently. And don’t tempt fate by saying that things are good! One of my old university friends used to say for years, when asked “Kak dela?” (How are you?) - “Starting with the letter H, but don’t think it’s HOROSHO (“good” in Russian). There are some hideous swear words in Russian starting with H, so I was supposed to choose one myself to describe her state of affairs. Now, years later, she just says “Don’t ask!”
So If you ask a Russian how (s)he feels, expect to get chapter and verse, with no positive spin. “Mustn’t grumble” is an alien (Anglo-Saxon) concept to us. We like a good grumble with our friends. You’ve been warned!
Exception is the business environment where we are not supposed to share our personal feelings and problems.
When I first had a spicy curry it cured my headache (it was such a shock for my body that it almost shut down all its functions!) but left me forever traumatised by Indian food, so popular with the Brits. And I know I am not alone!
If you have Russians as guests, they would eat anything because it is considered rude not to eat the food you are given. But they would rather not eat: pre-sliced bread out of a plastic package, marmite or Bovril, spicy curries, and quite often runny smelly French-style cheese.
I love beetroot. My English husband hates it. He loves smelly French cheese, and I am genuinely concerned about his health when he eats it because it looks and smells rotten. I love sauerkraut and picked gherkins. He can’t see them without saying “Yak”. So sometimes we end up eating together with completely different foods on our plates!
Receiving you as a guest in Russia, your Russian hosts will assume that you would eat anything, and they will make an effort to feed you nice things. If you can’t eat something, there will be plenty of other things to eat, because Russian meals are big and consist of lots of components. But do warn a Russian host if there is something that you would rather not eat.