Thursday, October 15, 2009

Russian mothers and the imperative case

The average young adult in America does not expect a near-stranger to comment on how warmly he is dressed.

I think that the root of this discomfort is the emphasis of independence in American culture. To comment on someone's lifestyle is to suggest that perhaps he hasn't quite made the transition into adulthood. The boxes of macaroni and cheese, the baskets of dirty laundry....these are ignored. We focus on the accomplishments and refrain from criticizing adults.

Contrast this with the fact that in Russia you have several generations living under one roof, and you have a different story.

To make a long story short, I often have the experience of being "mothered." Think of a mother hen and you will have a pretty accurate picture. I'm often told that I've gained/lost weight, asked what I had for lunch, quizzed on some other rather intimate details. Maybe a curious hand reaches out to feel the thickness of my jacket, making sure it is warm enough. +/-

And maybe we all have a mother or grandmother who does it. But my groupmates and I were just a little shocked (and amused) to receive instructions from our teachers on how to dress! The grammar instructor folded up the hem of her skirt to show that it was lined, and therefore fit for winter. The lexicon instructor asked if I had medicine for my cold. The windows in the classroom are opened and closed religiously. We were told to wear boots and not shoes, now that it is colder. So I suppose I will have to least on the days I have class. ;)

And while we're on the topic of instructions...I have come to realize just how rude the imperative sounds to English speakers. Perhaps this is why Russians sometimes seem like they're angry.

I suppose in some context it's okay, especially in a classroom situation. "Raise your hand if you know the answer." "Turn over your paper when you're done." Even at the table: "Please pass the salt."

But other commands sound abrupt. "Give me a pencil, please." Adding words like "Could you" and "would you" always help. Perhaps that is a safe rule.


  1. You know, it's ok for Russians not to say ""Could you", "Will you" or "Would you" when they want to ask you to do smth. It's a much more polite form that's used in very formal situations. In every day life we (Russians, I mean) use only "Please".

    By the way, I like your blog very much :-) Thank you.

    Sorry for my mistakes in advance.

  2. V...................October 16, 2009 at 7:51 AM

    It is disappointing for me to see that you guys keep bashing the Russians. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it is still a novelty to you.

    People here in the US are not that much different. Massachusetts is not the only state in the US. The US is a huge country, as you know. It has thousands of ethnic communities living in different states. The second, third and forth generations. They all carry their own little subcultures that are different from the East Coast ones mainly influenced by the British colonialists.

    I am just waiting for the time when you, Liz, will embrace Russia and its culture and start posting posts not from a perspective "look at me I am an American living in Russia!" but as a person who doesn't care anymore about the differences you see in my culture. Do you think you can do that?

    I had a friend, a missionary to Russia (used to be) who confessed to me at one point that he hated the way Russians talk. The sound of the Russians talk gave him a headache.

    I hate it when the outsiders bash Russia, its people or culture. Or Russian food. I can't stand it. Foreigners will go to China or Korea and will eat dog meat or a live octopus, they will go to France and will eat frog legs or raw ground beef, they will go to Japan and will eat sushi or eels, yet you will never hear much criticism of those cultures or foods. Yet, the same foreigners will go to Russia and criticize everything - from people to food. It is tiring to see this patronizing attitude. I have a lot of negative things to say about the US, but I never do. Because it is just not nice.

  3. Thanks, Karina!

    I think it's important to keep the lines of dialogue open. Like I mentioned in another post, culture shock is something you can't ignore; you have to work through it. But now I realize the "shock" that foreigners probably feel when they visit the U.S., and I wish I had been more sensitive when I had the opportunity.

    Vitali, this blog is about an American living in Russia. Unfortunately, that's what you're going to get.


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