Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Being Precise

Being precise is not what Russians are very good at. Moreover, Russians do not expect a strict level of accuracy from anyone. Only big numbers matter, only big changes are noteworthy. Nobody cares about slight variances.

In everyday life, Russians are used to being rather generous than being precise. For a person who is too concerned with the accuracy of numbers, there is a special word in Russian “зануда” (sickener). Being too meticulous can be considered as lacking imagination and discourtesy. For example, I (often) like meet with my friends in a cafe. During my whole life I have never seen any of my Russian friends calculating tips. We tip as much as we think is enough, as any precise calculation would be offensive to anyone. Smartphone applications like a “Tip calculator” seem extremely weird to Russians. If anyone ever tried to calculate their share, he would be considered unbelievably stingy and a “зануда”.

Rough approximation is normal practice in business life. As a reporter, I have to arrange interviews with large (and not so large) market players. When I ask about sales growth figures, for example, I often get responses like “well, there is some slight growth, up 30% or 40%”. A range of10% is fine for Russian sources, so there is not a big difference between 30% and 40%. Sometimes, in the booming markets, the response can be “up to two, three times”. The difference between “two times” and “three times” is one hundred percent, but when changes are so significant, the scale is magnified, so such responses sound reasonable to me. My sources are usually in pretty high positions, who have an access to precise numbers, but they do not think they need to bother about statistics within a one-percent precision. Of course, when it comes to official earnings reports for shareholders, the numbers are accurate, at least, as precise as they should be according to international business standards, but in all other cases, some approximation is quite acceptable and even appreciated. Another good example is the recent census in Russia. The Russian press reported that about one or two million (!) people or even more were left out during the 2010 census.

The Russian language reflects this attitude towards numbers and being precise. When one wants to report hard-and-fast numbers, the word order is like this: “Здесь пять килограммов сахара” (There are five kilos of sugar here) or “Дорога длинной восемь километров” (The road is 8 kilometres long). But if the numbers are not so important, the word order should be changed to “Здесь килограммов пять сахара” (meaning that this is only approximately 5 kilos of sugar, actually somewhere in between 4.5 and 5.5) and “Дорога длиной километров восемь” (may be seven, may be nine). By placing the unit of the measurement (kilogram, kilometre, byte, whatever) before the number, you indicate that you are not sure or don't care about the accuracy, and you suggest only approximate numbers / measures to your interlocutor.

In the store, you may often hear “Мне граммов триста сыра, пожалуйста” (about 300 grams of this cheese, please). You may think that the buyer doesn't know how much cheese he or she wants to buy, but this is not true. This is just a polite way to communicate with a seller, a way of not appearing too parsimonious.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Gentlemen of Fortune

Have you noticed that people from different nations have a different sense of humour? This is not only about what people consider as funny, but more about how do people generate jokes. Some cultures prefer jokes that are based mostly on the background that is common for a large group of people. Such jokes are hard to translate, they need to be followed by commentaries and references. And vice versa, some jokes are context-free and can be easily translated into various languages without any additional comments.

Mr. Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, developed the concept of "high context culture" and "low context culture" in his book Beyond Culture. He explained that high context cultures leave many things unsaid, because members of the high context society normally share the same experience, knowledge and expectations. There's no need to articulate everything, you may use the “cultural hypertext” instead and you will be understood. In the low context cultures, the communicator needs to be much more explicit. In other words, in a low context culture, you are not supposed to know everything that your interlocutors know. This is why jokes produced in a high context cultures can be rarely heard outside the culture of their origins, while low context humour is more or less translatable.

The Russian culture is defined as a high context one. A true sign of this is the Russian love for quotes and citations. If Russians love a book, a movie or a song, they parse it into quotes; and the more quotes, the more popular the piece of art is. A movie The Gentlemen of Fortune (Russian: Джентльмены удачи, translit. Dzhentlmeny udachi) is one of such sources of citations. The comedy was filmed in 1971, so the generation that was born after the collapse of the Soviet Union has not watched the movie, but youngsters still know and use quotes without even knowing their origins.

The Gentlemen of Fortune is “a story of an amiable kindergarten director named Troshkin who looks exactly like a criminal called Docent (Доцент, literally associate professor) that had stolen Alexander the Great's helmet at an archeological excavation. Docent and his gang are caught by police, but Docent is imprisoned in a different jail than his mates. Since Troshkin looks identical to Docent, the police puts him in prison with the real criminals to get information about the stolen helmet. He must pretend to be the real felon Docent, so in order to be convincing, Troshkin, a well-educated and good-natured man, has to learn slang and manners of criminals.” (cited by Wikipedia) I believe this was the first Soviet movie depicting criminal subculture.

Shortly after the premiere, the movie became very popular. In 1972, the comedy had more than 65 million viewers. Scalpers (ticket touts) were selling tickets for Gentlemen of Fortune up to 15 times the original price. What was the secret of this tremendous success? The movie benefited from a brilliant cast, thrilling story, an inimitable mild humour, as well as its unreserved authenticity. The film was directed by Aleksandr Seryj who had just came out of prison. Georgi Daneliya, the famous director and film producer, assisted him to return to the profession. Seryj used his prison experience to design many situations in the movie, and he also wanted to introduce numerous expressions from Russian criminal slang, however, the authorities suggested replacing the real slang with the pseudo-slang, at least in some cases.

People's love for the movie is still strong. The quotes have been incorporated deeply into the Russian discourse, so you may hear them in everyday talks or read them in on newspapers titles. Some modern movies also cite this famous comedy, which is easily and often immediately recognizable to viewers. The music from this movie is familiar to every Russian (some remixes were issues recently).If you live in Russia or plan to live in Russia, The Gentlemen of Fortune is one of the key movies that would bring you closer to understanding a Russian cultural background.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Up until recent times, personal automobiles have been rare in the Soviet Union. The principal mode of suburban transport has been the elektrichka. Elektrichka is an informal word for "electric multiple unit passenger train." Though many people in the Post-Soviet Russia drive personal cars, the electrichka is still very popular today. Designed to carry as many people as possible for relatively short distances, the elektrichka is a train with a modest level of comfort: simple benches, each seating three, in rows abutting the windows. According to Wikipedia, there were 4085 commuter trains a day running in each direction on the Russian Railways network in 2007, most of them being electric trains.


From early April to late November, the elektrichka is occupied with “dachniki”, or dacha owners. They always carry large, heavy bags. In the springtime, dachniki bring along tools and garden supplies with them when moving out to their dachas. In the fall, they bring back their harvest of vegetables and berries from the dachas to their homes. Fishermen are also frequent passengers of the elektrichka. Fishermen carry heavy backpacks, wear rubber boots, and smell like smoke, because when fishing, they light fires in order to boil water and generate warmth when it gets chilly. From September to May, students living in suburban towns use the elektrichka to get back and forth from their schools and universities. Often people from small towns are unable to find a job at the local market and find employment in a larger city nearby. They use elektrichka every day to get to their offices and back. Thus elektrichkas are critically important to social life. A typical fare by elektrichka from my hometown Zarinsk to Barnaul (over 100 km) costs 90 rubles, or 3 dollars.

Unlike any other public transportation, elektrichka has a very particular atmosphere filled with informal, relaxed chitchat. When it takes you two hours to reach your point of destination, the best way to entertain yourself is a talk. Quite often I see fishermen or tourists eating and sharing their camp food with each other while going back to the city. Sometimes, people play cards to make a long trip shorter. I noticed that students and youngsters tend to isolate themselves with iPods and smartphones when traveling, while older people prefer to communicate with each other face-to-face. For linguists, the elektrichka is an inexhaustible source of new ideas about what is going on with the language in a society.

In the 1960s, there was a popular song about a young man who was dating a girl, and missed the last elektrichka, so he had to walk along the railway tracks all the way back home. My father told me that he once followed the railway track on the way home when dating my mother. This song was very popular at the time, and my dad sang it the whole way home, feeling as if the song was composed just for him.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Lucky Ticket

Using public transportation is one of the most important things that a visitor must know upon arriving to a new city. In many Russian cities, you enter the bus, trolley or tram (street car), take a seat and then buy a ticket from a guard or conductor. Normally, this is a lady with a bag in her shoulders, obstinately moving up and down the aisle. Prices may vary, but normally a fare will cost you from 8 to 30 rubles, depending on city and mode of transport.


In my hometown, although tickets do not look as fancy as say, Mississauga Transit tickets, the fare in Barnaul, Siberia is only 10 rubles (approximately, $0.3) compared to $3 for Toronto or Mississauga. In Siberia, tickets are a one-time fare, and it's necessary to buy another ticket when transferring to another vehicle, no matter how long the journey is.

In Russia, bus, tram and trolley tickets all have six numbers. Russians believe in lucky tickets. If the sum of the first three digits on your ticket equals the sum of the last three, your ticket is lucky and then you are supposed to eat it. Some believe in half lucky ticket, which means that if the sum of the first three numbers is, say 5, and the last three numbers equals 14, your ticket is still lucky, because one plus four equals 5.

While writing this post, I found a great design idea: lucky ticket cookies! They are definitely more tasty than the ones made of paper.

lucky cookies
Photo from www.artlebedev.com