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Maxim Kronhaus: Russians are not gloomy, their etiquette is just different

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Maxim Kronhaus: Russians are not gloomy, their etiquette is just different


Svetlana Smetanina

Maxim Kronhaus. Photo credit:

Can national character be studied by standards of speaking etiquette? And why entering an elevator without greeting anyone is absolutely ethical conduct? Renowned linguist, Doctor of letters Maxim Kronhaus has been observing Russian speaking etiquette for quite a while. He shared his conclusions at the ROPRYAL Congress being conducted these days in Ufa.

- You were probably among the fist who delved into speaking etiquette as one of important lines in linguistics and its connection with national character. If we put together all code phrases of the speaking etiquette we use in our daily living, can a conventional profile of a typical Russian national be summed up based on that?

- Let me clarify right away: I am certainly not the first one. Active studies of speaking etiquette in our linguistics commenced in the 1960s. If I remember correctly, this term was introduced by Vitaliy Kostomarov, a renowned academic linguist. But as it seems to me, I was the one who started examining speaking etiquette from another angle: not as it was supposed to be within framework of teaching foreigners, but observing real-life behaviour of individuals. And it became apparent that such behavior is very different from what people do imagine their behaviour is. An individual thinks he/she behaves in a certain manner, but in real life it happens in a completely different way. I believe it is very important to observe real-life etiquettical behaviour.

Speaking of the profile, it is more of a society profile rather then an averaged Russian national’s one. Because if a person complies with etiquette rules, we are not able to say about him/her anything at all. We can talk about someone only if such person violates etiquette or deviates from customary standards of behavior. This is when we are able to describe such conduct as expression of some peculiarities or manifestation of age-related or social group characteristics.

There are etiquettes of certain communities, and through them we can build up summarized profile of a certain social type.

- Is it possible to define Russian speaking etiquette at all? Could you describe it in a few short sentences?

- As a society we have changed a lot for the last 30 years. It is really hard to evaluate the 21st century in general, since the 1990s it has been etiquette breakdown time and it is a transition to something else, something that hasnt been formed yet. And if we talk about the 20th century, the late Soviet era, our etiquette could be described as pursuance of anonymity in relating to strangers, on one side, but then, as soon as we cross a certain borderline in the process of bonding, we rush into each others arms. This point is rather interesting: we fear to cross that borderline, but once it is done, we completely open up.

Obviously, such kind of rush actually characterizes Russian etiquette. Anonymity is the outcome of the whole course of the 20th century history, as well as fear of an encountered person or caution toward him/her. However if we start communicating, nothing can hold us back.

A typical European is more careful in this respect – he or she is usually friendly at the beginning and does not make such leap over afterwards. We, on the contrary, have two extremes.

- This is just what foreigners usually complain about: Russians dont smile; they are gloomy, always alert…

- Oh yes, at the first sight. And at the second one they act the other way around their hospitality is so astonishing that sometimes it may seem obsessive. It should not be evaluated as something negative at first, and then something positive afterwards. It is etiquette formed within certain historical circumstances, certain culture, when communication with a stranger could be really dangerous for various reasons. But nowadays it have been actively changing once again under the influence of conventional global etiquette since the whole world is getting mixed up.

- Does speaking etiquette experience breakdown in other places, outside of Russia?

- In our case it has been just more dramatic, more noticeable. That is because the “Iron Curtain” collapsed. We started travelling, we have got more visitors. Naturally, we absorb standards of someone else's behavior. And in this context, the concept about Russians being gloomy is not obvious, because we acted within our etiquette.

We were quite friendly, but within our etiquette.

However, today we greet strangers in situations, where we would have never done that before. We start smiling when observe: this is the way it is done.

New global etiquette has been forming. It may be in some sense for sale, for an outside customer, but yet worldwide, bringing together all nations.

For us it was a leap into the unknown; however adjustment to common standards of behavior is a customary practice all over the world.

- Once you gave a curious example: when a Russian person enters an elevator and does not greet anyone, it is actually a very good thing, because logic of our etiquette suggests that he/she is not going to act aggressively.

- Oh yes. From a foreigners point of view, greeting is manifestation of the following strategy: We are civilized people and do not pose a threat to each other. As to us, people from Russia of the 20th century, everything works the other way around: we do not look at another person standing next to us in an elevator or at bus station late at night. In such a way we kind of say: I do not see you, so I do not pose a threat to you. So dont look at me as well, and dont greet me.

- Isnt it so called negative politeness?

- Negative does not mean something adverse. Positive politeness is a kind of self-identification with a person you are talking to. And the negative one, roughly speaking, is non-interference: I should not annoy a person I am taking to or interfere with his/her boundaries. These are two different modes of polite behavior.

Using one of them I support and encourage the other person. If I begin a conversation in an informal way, showing to the other person my goodwill, my closeness, this is positive politeness. And if I keep distance and do not attempt to break his/her personal boundaries, it is called negative politeness.

- Why do you think that despite abundance of Russian language, we have still not been able to adopt any appropriate mode of address to a stranger? Comrades has sunk into oblivion; ladies and gentlemen have not assimilated for some reason

- This matter is clear enough. After the Soviet Unions disintegration, Mister and Miss or even Sir and Madam made attempt to come back, but they turned out to be foreign to us. That is because Western modes of address, such as Madame/Monsieur or Frau/Herr made their way to democratization: in the beginning of last century they were used to address the upper class, but today it is just a casual address to a stranger.

Russia did not experience such way to democratization in terms of addresses. In the situations where comrade had been used, it was simply replaced with mister or miss. And that was odd. Because they were remembered as being old-fashioned or sublimated ones.

It turned out that there is no any common mode of address that has been with our people throughout the whole history. Comrade has been discredited by preserving ideological flavouring, though this word is quite suitable from language perspective.

So here we are without any specific mode of address, but coping somehow. We say excuse me/sorry instead of a noun. For a foreigner it is kind of shock in each and every occasion: how do you manage? We do, just like that.

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