Today we stopped at a kiosk to get a map. The lady heard me speak to Oksana and asked her what language I was speaking. When Oksana told her I was speaking American English, she smiled and said that was the first time she had ever heard American English spoken “live.” Since we have both Russian and American friends I sometimes forget that most of the people in both countries rarely hear each other “live.” So I thought I would write some observations we have noticed over the years on the cultural differences between Russians and Americans, particularly those who live in small towns.
I would add three caveats before I elaborate on our observations. First, I use the term “Russian” because that is where I live. I have noticed some of these characteristics in other Eastern European people as well, but I’ve never visited other former Soviet Republics.
Second, I again remind you I’m talking primarily about small town life. I lived in Saint Petersburg three years, and I think a lot of what I say would apply there as well. But if I had moved from New York to Moscow, for example, my observations could be very different. But that is not the purpose of this blog. There are plenty of blogs written by Americans in St. Petersburg or Moscow.
Third, all generalizations are flawed to some degree, because there are always exceptions. Nevertheless, I think it is extremely important to know something about the cultural “lens” through which people in other countries view reality and life. The differences are very real, but I know some Americans who remind me of Russians! And vice-versa. So with those “disqualifications” I’ll list and discuss some differences.
First, a lot of observers have noted the differences in the use of a smile between Russians and Americans. I heard about three reports from American reporters at the Sochi Olympics who talked about how unfriendly and even rude Russians are. It is a common reaction. In general, Americans smile for pretty much no reason other than a greeting—especially in small towns. We smile and nod at strangers on the street. Clerks in stores smile when we walk in, and we smile back. In general, Russians don’t smile if they don’t have a reason. If you smile at them they think they are supposed to know you. What those American reporters did not understand is that to smile all the time while you are working indicated to some Russians you don’t take your job seriously. A worker is there to do a job. Smiling about nothing is not a part of the job.
This leads to another difference—how we understand friendship. In America I have a lot of friends. Friends are people I know, have worked with, went to school with, socialize with, go to church with, or who took my classes when I taught. Americans in general are friendly. But if I really got in trouble and, say, ran my car off the road at 2:00 a.m., there are very few of those I would call. They are my friends, but we’re not that close! Russians tend to be suspicious at a first meeting. I think it has something to do with the imprint of the Stalin era on a culture. They “size you up.” They look at what seems like every detail of your expression to “read” you. I suspect it is even more pronounced when they know you are an American. I told my wife one time that I think every Russian is a closet psychoanalyst. When they do see you as a friend, however, there is nothing they would not do. You need to borrow money? They’ll come through. You run that car off the road at 2:00 a.m., they’ll come and help. I first came to understand this tendency in a guy I met here I’ll call Vladimir. We had met through mutual friends. He liked practicing his English with me. So we got together several times. At the end of one of our meetings he said, “Hal, I’ve decided you are a good man.” It seemed like a weird thing to me at the time. But over time I have realized he was saying he could trust me as a friend.
Sometimes the “evaluations” are humorous. Yesterday my mother-in-law called apologizing for the awful expression my father-in-law had on his face when they came to visit. He was frustrated we were not ready when they got here. But, frankly, neither I nor Oksana thought anything of it. But she made it clear to us she jumped him because his expression was not acceptable. Russians notice everything. If the button on the sleeve of my shirt is missing they will notice and they will say, “Do you know that button is missing?” It amazes me sometimes the things they pick up on. Of course, when you’re married to one you just get accustomed to it.
This attention to detail is linked to an incurable curiosity usually. When we got in the car for Mikhail to drive us from the airport his first question was why we came to America. We explained I had taken early retirement, and we really could live on that in Russia with no problem. He held his question as long as he could, but I knew what was coming. He leaned over and said, “How much is your retirement pay?” Now, he’s been around Americans long enough to know we’re a bit touchy on this subject so I guess he thought he would soften the blow: “I’ll tell you how much my retirement is if you’ll tell me yours.” I’m serious. He said that. On my first visit to Russia I think I was here two days before someone I hardly knew asked me how much my salary was. So if you are an American planning on coming to Russia then get ready. You probably will be asked about your money.
It does not stop with salary, however. Russians want details on motives, intents, feelings, etc. As an example I’ll use our move to Russia. My American friends and family wanted to know why we are moving. But it was usually as a comment. Some said, “Well, if that is where you and your family will be happy I understand.” Others, mainly my close Protestant friends, would say, “If that is what God is leading you to do, then I understand.” Still others displayed the old American lust for adventure: “Man, that will be exciting! I envy you!” Russians can’t let it go with such generalities. What exactly was it? And, frankly, most boiled it down to money. They just knew the financial angle was the main consideration. Not a few of our Russian friends seemed frustrated that we could not give a specific, TANGIBLE, reason why we moved. Now, the truth is there were several factors at work in why we moved here, but I can’t just go into all of them in a brief conversation. I will write more about why we came here in a later blog. My point here is to illustrate a difference in the way many small town Russians and many small town Americans process the information.
There was one other difference that came to me as I studied how Americans and Russians responded to our move. Russians were more confused by it than Americans. At first this reaction seemed odd to me because, frankly, most Americans still believe the greatest place in the world to live is America. That is changing. The small town Americans we lived around are completely baffled at what is happening in our country. It is more divided than we have been in some time—racially, economically, religiously, and politically. Many small town Americans sense that the values that were passed down to them are no longer to be honored in our country.
I see the opposite trend in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians were stuck with Boris Yeltsin. When I first came to Russia there was a kind of cultural confusion and, in some cases, national shame. Certainly the mood was depressed to say the least. What they had been taught and dared to believe for seventy years had crashed. Then came Yeltsin. But, as Gleb Pavlovsky observed, “Yeltsin did not build a government; he led a revolution for ten years.” The cure was worse than the disease. At a New Year’s party one year my dear friend Sasha offered the wry observation that, “it is a good thing that life is hard in Russia; otherwise it would be so boring.” It is very important to most of us Americans to keep up the appearance that everything is great no matter what. From Richard Cory to Robin Williams Americans know the art of looking happy even if we are not. Most Russians don’t labor under that pressure.
A couple of years after the 9-11 attacks a Russian friend came to visit. She noticed, among other things, how many American flags were on display. She opined that such patriotism was no longer seen in Russia. She admired our display of flags; but I could see a grief as well. Her country was no longer Communist—but what was it? Today we walked down to main part of this small Russian city. I saw a lot of Russian flags. I saw a prettier city than fourteen years ago. I saw a prouder city. The town I left is wanting to be patriotic, but people are very uncertain what lies ahead. The foundations seem shaky. People still want to believe in that America they have long loved. But, as one redneck comedian opined, “America is a country founded by geniuses and being run by idiots.” There is a palpable fear we’re losing something. Again, I realize this is a generalization. And I suspect this fear is not as palpable in New York or D.C. But I could be wrong..
My opinion is that my family and I somehow represent the clash of these trajectories: Do people leave America and come to live in Russia simply because they want to? The people I lived around in Greer are scared. The America that is experiencing the cultural and social dissonance of mass killings in what some consider to be the hometown of Mickey Mouse is the America of uncertainty. Leave this country? Ten years ago people would say we’re crazy for moving to Russia from our home in America. The only mocking I heard this time was, “Well, make sure you have a spare bedroom for me—just in case.” If we had a spare bedroom for every American who said that we’d need a Bed and Breakfast the size of the Biltmore House—or for my Russian friends — Catherine’s Palace. But Russians are generally pessimists. They want to believe in their future and see bright signs, but are a bit afraid to hope. They have experienced far too many disappointments in the past to don the rose colored glasses just yet. People like me and my family, in my opinion, make them wonder. Are we there yet?