Let’s travel to Russia
It’s April 1st, 2008. I’m on an airplane, flying from Germany to Russia.
Rostov-na-Donu, Russia to be more specific. I’ve spent the past 3 months in the Missionary Training Center (MTC), a 39-acre campus owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints located in Provo, Utah.
It’s where newly-called missionaries spend between 2-12 weeks learning more about the church and how to do missionary work, among other things.
One of those other things is learning the language of the country to which you’re assigned and, if you’ve paid attention so far, you could guess which language I’ve been studying for three months.
Russian is not an easy language to learn for us English speakers. It uses a different alphabet with several sounds that our mouths struggle to produce. The average English word has 1.3 syllables. The average Russian word has 3.1. Much of that three months in the MTC involves my mouth and tongue muscles cramping while trying to make these ungodly sounds. Single words seem like paragraphs. I have a pounding headache most days from trying to remember vocabulary words and grammar rules.
There are entire days where we’re supposed to “SYL” – Speak Your Language. This means you try to spend the entire day speaking only Russian in my case, and no English. At the mature age of 19, after three months learning from Russian-speaking Americans and conversing exclusively with your fellow missionaries who speak just as poorly as you, I am ready to fly to Russia and talk about Jesus to the people of the country that produced the likes of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Mendeleev, Kasparov, and Anna Kournikova.
Piece of cake.
I feel confident. Why wouldn’t I? We all understood each other perfectly well in the MTC as we struggled through memorized phrases like:
“Hello, my name is Elder Soderborg.”
“What time is it?”
“How many people do you have in your family?”
Chapstick? Why chapstick?
Well, the course that taught us this wonderful word translates it as – гигиеническая помада – in English letters – gigienicheskaya pomada…
English – Chapstick… 2 syllables.
Russian… see above… 10 syllables.
Remember how I told you Russian is rough. There you go.
But hey, surely people in Russia speak SOME English, so if I struggle with chapstick or any other Russian phrase, I can just explain it with really basic English said slowly and loudly topped off with elaborate hand gestures and they’ll get it. We’ll be fine.
Everything… will… be fine.
Speaking to my first Russian
So that brings me to April 1st, 2008. I’m on a plane from Germany to Rostov-na-Donu, Russia and I’m sitting next to my first real-life, genuine Russian.
I can tell he’s Russian. He looks different. He acts different. He smells different. And he’s definitely not speaking English to his wife sitting next to him. It must be some weird dialect of Russian. I can pick out a word here and there, but not much. He must not speak Russian very well…
I don’t remember his name. We’ll call him Boris, and after several minutes of me mouthing one of those memorized phrases I’ve learned over and over, I muster up the courage to speak Boris – a supposed Russian who speaks very poor Russian in my opinion – for the first time. I lean over to him and nervously force out (in flawless Russian) “What time is it?”
Boris: “Что ты сказал?!”
Me: Uh oh… he sounds angry… “Uh… What time is it?” – Again, in flawless Russian with a hint of doubt sprinkled in my tone.
Boris: “асдфчаодичфаоисдйф” – At least, that’s what it sounded like to me.
Me: *confused look
Boris: “You are American, yes?” (in English with a heavily Russian accent)
Me: “Yes. How did you know?”
He sounds just like the bad guy in pretty much every movie you’ve ever seen. He goes on to tell me that I speak Russian very poorly and he can’t understand me. He tells me that he realized I was asking what time it was, but I asked incorrectly.
“We don’t usually ask the time like that anymore. We ask it another way.”
I was asking the English equivalent of, “Of which hour do you have?” instead of “What time is it?”
He goes on to ask what I’m doing in Russia (all of this still in broken English still by the way. In fact, he and I struggle through our conversation entirely in English from here on out). I tell him that I’m on a church service mission and I’ll be there for about 21 months. He grunts and tells me I’m going to have a very difficult time because I don’t speak well at all.
“Not a lot of Russians speak English, and they won’t waste time trying to figure out your poor Russian. You must learn to speak better.”
I’m not so confident anymore.
We spend the rest of the flight in silence as I try and cope with this man’s complete disregard for my feelings. Surely he understood my first question. Can’t he at least acknowledge that I was doing my best? Maybe mention that I sound alright for only three months of practice? Did he have to use the words “very bad” when describing my speaking ability? That wasn’t very nice.
This was probably just an elaborate April Fools joke he was playing on me. That’s got to be it. Maybe someone was filming this.
Wait, do they have April Fools in Russia?
(No, they do not)
Russians must not have a refined sense of humor like myself.
Russians are blunt
Your perception of Russians may be different than mine was before I went there. I thought that they were all angry, rude, stubborn, and drunk. Always.
Are there some that match that criteria? Sure.
Are there people in every country that match that criteria? Sure.
What separates Russians in my opinion is that they are unapologetically and brutally honest. They are blunt. They will tell you how they feel about you, your actions, your appearance, and your beliefs.
Marry or Murder?
Most of the conversations over the next three months follow the same pattern. I try saying something, I get head tilts, raised hands interrupting me, and the subsequent, “I have no clue what you are saying. You speak Russian very poorly, and I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”
I am completely dependent on an older missionary who speaks and understands the language better. 99 out of 100 Russians in this area don’t speak any English. As in, they don’t know a single word of English. I quickly learn that my charades ability is nowhere near as good as I thought it was.
Imagine being surrounded by people who you want to find a way to help, who you want to speak with and get to know, yet you can’t express a single thought. You struggle pronouncing any word correctly, let alone stringing a sentence together. You feel completely isolated, despite being surrounded by millions of people.
No one understands you. No one wants to understand you. You can’t understand a lick of what anyone else is saying. You can’t tell a taxi how to get you home. You can’t order food at a restaurant. You can’t tell if the lady in front of you wants to marry you or murder you… but from her tone… you’re pretty sure it’s the murder one.
I check with the other missionary:
Me: I think I’m following along and I’m understanding most of what she’s saying… but I just want to make sure with you… did she just say that she wants to marry me or murder me?
Him: Neither. She said your neck is bleeding from when you cut yourself shaving.
Me: Oh good. I thought she wanted to murder me. Sorry for interrupting. Carry on. I’ll be over here.
It gets better with time
After about three months in Russia, I started understanding the language better. I started speaking better. The headaches weren’t as common and I was becoming much more comfortable.
The missionary that trained me was at the end of his mission and went home. He was German and there were cultural differences that added friction to my already-rough acclimation.
My new partner happened to be a childhood friend, and he made everyday life much easier to handle. We had the same humor, we knew the same people back home, we both enjoyed the same topics like music, movies, sports, and the craziness of our circumstances. He spoke marginally better than I did to start, which forced us both to have to learn even quicker.
The biggest change that happened was that I slowly started to appreciate the Russian straight-shooter mindset. Sure, it wasn’t pleasant to be told that your tie looked ugly or that Americans are uneducated, fat, and lazy, but at least you knew what that person was thinking. I don’t remember backbiting or gossiping about someone behind their back because they’d say it straight to your face. If someone had a problem with you, they’d tell you, and you could tell them how you felt as well.
Is it all rude?
At the end of my two years, I feel like I spoke Russian reasonably well. Maybe my Russian mission president will comment on this and say otherwise, but I felt very comfortable conversing on just about anything. The reason I felt that way is because, just as they will tell you if you speak “very bad,” they will also tell you directly if you speak well.
Compliments in Russia are genuine. They aren’t forced out of someone in hopes of padding your ego. They aren’t thrown in as an afterthought to break an awkward silence. Russians are absolute masters at paying genuine, thoughtful, blunt, open-hearted, unapologetic, specific compliments.
I need to include people from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and other Eastern-European countries in this as well. They have this ability to be direct, both with good news as well as bad news.
And, may I be blunt?
I miss it.
The Invention of Lying
The Invention of Lying, starring Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner had recently come out around the time I was headed home. It was one of the movies I saw on the 10.5-hour flight from Moscow to New York. The premise of the movie is a world where nobody lies. Everyone is 100% honest. They don’t know what lying is.
Well, the character played by Gervais tells the first lie and things spiral out of control from there.
I love this movie. The thought experiment is interesting and fun and unsettling for me, and it reminds me of Russia.
“Now hold on Erik, are you saying that people in Russia don’t lie?!”
No. I am not saying that. They lie just like all of us. But in their conversations, they worry less about hurt feelings and more about getting to their truth and expressing what needs to be communicated.
It can come across as having a lack of tact. It can come across as rude.
American food has a lot of sugar
When I returned home to America, I experienced a culture shock once again, this time with food. Food here is incredibly sweet. Everything seems to be pumped full of sugars and artificial sweeteners. And I think that is a fitting connection to make. After being away for two years, I noticed that many of the interactions I had with Americans involved a ton of artificial sweetener pumped into every dialogue.
We have those knee-jerk phrases exchanged each and every day. It’s like a dance that we all know the steps to and have to stay in line.
“How are you?”
“Good, how are you?”
“Oh, we’re great!”
Meanwhile, they’re in the middle of a divorce, their dad just got diagnosed with cancer, and their dog died. But hey, everything is awesome! And when this person’s health deteriorates and their job performance suffers and they lose their job as a result…
“Hey, are you okay?”
“Oh yeah! I’m great! Hahaha! How are you?!”
That’s not healthy.
It’s a two way street
The problem in my little brain doesn’t sit solely with the respondent. I am guilty of asking ‘how are you’ without really caring to know the answer – keep reading for an example of when that went wrong. The asker and the askee both fall into this mold and mode of conversation, doing and saying what they are ”supposed to.’
Heaven forbid someone admit that they aren’t doing well emotionally. They don’t want to look crazy. And when you run into someone who breaks the script, it can be unsettling, abrasive, or sound like they are just being dramatic. And if this is how I react to a genuine, honest answer, why did I even ask?
For the first little while after I returned home, I was told on more than one occasion that I was rude. When asked if I wanted to go out with a certain group, I’d say, “No, I don’t want to spend time with that person.” When asked if I liked a certain meal or outfit, I’d share my honest thoughts. Certain former romantic relationships I had before the mission that I didn’t wish to pursue were handled poorly on my end based on the culture in which I now found myself. To be frank, I probably handled them poorly according to any culture’s standards.
I had to reacclimatize to the artificially sweetened mode of communication. I wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt anyone’s feelings, I had just become more blunt than normal. I could never attain Russian-bluntness-status, but I had to become “nicer.”
I think I did. Too much so, in fact.
But now, as I think about it and go back to my time in Russia, which is better? Being brutally honest – or being nice?
And really think about that for a second.
Would you want your spouse, friend, coworker, or server at a restaurant to feel comfortable telling you how they really feel? Or, would you prefer that they wrap their real feelings in sprinkles, glitter, and rainbows to the point that you never really know what they’re thinking?
Would you rather feel comfortable and safe to express your feelings and opinions more openly to these same people – your spouse, your boss, your in-laws – or walking on egg shells hoping that your beliefs on politics, religion, raising kids, or life choices don’t set someone off, get you fired, or get you cancelled?
You don’t know me, you don’t care, don’t ask
Come back with me to Russia, the city of Stavropol this time. I’m walking around on the streets with my missionary companion and I see a babushka shuffling along. She passes by and I stop and ask her how she’s doing. She stops. She looks at the two of us. She asks, “Do I know you?”
“No, you don’t.”
“Then why do you care how I’m doing? I don’t know you. You don’t know me. You don’t really care how I’m doing. You must not be from around here. Don’t ask strangers how they are doing. It’s not your business and you have no reason to care.”
She shuffles away.
That didn’t go how it was supposed to… she went off script. She was supposed to say, “I am good! What are you two handsome boys doing? We should talk about Jesus.”
Turns out, my script was not even close to the final version everyone else was using.
There were countless other times where I’d ask a stranger or acquaintance how they are doing.
“My life is bad. I’m in the middle of a divorce, my dad just got diagnosed with cancer, and my dog died.”
Oh… okay. That explains the sadness. That may explain the smoking habit. That may explain the drinking, the depression, the acting out, the poor job performance.
The cards were on the table. The good, the bad, the ugly, it was all out there and now both sides are making informed decisions about how to proceed with the relationship.
There are moments where I wish I could return to a more blunt culture. It isn’t bliss by any means. It’s uncomfortable and hard, but I still miss it.
Opinions are just that – opinions
We all know that person who walks around being a complete tool shed. You know the kind, insulting as many people as possible and offering their contrarian opinion on just about every topic, most of which they know absolutely nothing. Not to mention the fact that nobody asked for their opinion… and then they say,
“Hey, I’m just being honest.”
“I’m just speaking my truth.”
“I’m just being blunt, did you want me to lie?!”
You’re just being a jerk.
There’s a difference.
It’s important to understand that while a Russian may disagree with you, he or she understands that it is his or her opinion. Just because you hold an opposing opinion doesn’t mean you’re bad person. Just because that person doesn’t like your outfit doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t like your outfit, or that it’s bad, or that you have an irredeemable character flaw that will send you to hell. Opinions are just that – opinions.
Most of the time (not always), their opinions came because you asked for them. Russia isn’t a land where everyone is riding around on bears and insulting each other about clothing choices. For the most part, they are reserved and keep to themselves (Russians… not the bears… do not feed the bears). But if you open the conversation and want to know what they think, be prepared to find out exactly that. No sugar-coating.
Honesty is kindness
I have a goal to be more blunt. I want to be able to express opinions and beliefs in an open, honest way. This has become most apparent to me in a work setting. As I work with vendors, colleagues, or clients, there can be important information that falls through the cracks because I’m trying not to hurt feelings rather than say what I’m thinking.
I have lucked into a company and culture where everyone has the ability to be open, honest, and blunt about topics while still staying polite and kind. In fact, I appreciate the fact that if there is a concern, it’s laid out on the table immediately rather than sweeping under a rug to fester and grow bigger than it needs to be.
I think that bluntness is kindness, as long as everyone is playing by the same set of rules, the opinions are applicable to the situation, and egos are set aside.
Remember Boris? The guy on the flight to Russia who told me I didn’t speak well? As I think back to that conversation, I realize that he was extraordinarily kind to me. Rather than dismissing me and swearing at me under his breath, he took the time to teach me how to ask people what time it is. He gave me a heads up around the pounding headaches I would end up getting. He warned me that people wouldn’t want to talk to me, or give me the time of day, or respect my opinions if I couldn’t express them clearly. It was the kindest thing he could’ve done for me under the circumstances.
Thank you Boris.
Easier said than done
Watch, I’ve just opened myself to criticism by proclaiming to the world, “Just give it to me straight!” and then, as soon as a comment comes back saying, “I really don’t care for your writing,” I’ll huff and puff and write a blog post about it.
I’ve asked for feedback before and been hurt when it wasn’t what I expected. I’ve been asked to give feedback and hurt others when it wasn’t what they expected.
“Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.”
I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m making a concerted effort to tell people what I think when appropriate. I’m going on a no-sugar diet. Not real sugar… it’s the metaphor from earlier… Remember? Artificial sweetener = dishonesty… never mind. Just know that I ate an entire sleeve of E.L. Fudge cookies last night so a real-life no-sugar diet isn’t looking too realistic. But a metaphorical sugar-free diet when it comes to how I communicate… I’m working on that.
Maybe not sugar free… maybe just a reduced sugar diet.
We’ll see how it goes and how many people I offend.
If you don’t hear back from me, well… don’t follow my lead.
PS – Have you had similar thoughts? I’d love to hear your story.