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National Research University Higher School of EconomicsNewsResearch&ExpertiseUnderstanding Russian Communication: Online and in Private

Understanding Russian Communication: Online and in Private

How Russians think bears little resemblance to Germans’ attention to detail or American cheerfulness. The difference can be explained, at least in part, by looking at linguistic peculiarities. For example, a 100-page book in English will be translated into 300 pages in Russian simply due to the language required to faithfully render the original text. A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) launched by HSE called ‘Understanding Russians: Contexts of Intercultural Communication’ investigates cases when basic Russian cultural values show up through linguistic choices, which may influence the way people act. The nine-week course was first offered in 2014 and was tremendously successful. It will run for the second time starting October 12, 2015.
Mira Bergelson, professor in the Faculty of Humanities at HSE and the author of the course, shared the core principles of making contact with people who don’t smile on the street but who may become your best friends after just a few meetings.

— You specialize in communication between people, but nowadays communication is becoming more and more mediated by computers. Based on your studies and experience, what kind of influence would you say that this process has had?

— Yes, this is a bit different, because the exemplary mode of a communication is the kind we’re engaging in right now, sitting face to face, talking to each other. I am tracking your reactions as you respond, thinking of whether you understood me correctly. Nothing like that happens on the web. We neither see immediate reactions on the web nor get the experience that written communication like letter-writing gives. You post something on Facebook and you get an almost immediate response, so this has required some thinking from researchers. From the linguistic point of view the main problem here is exactly this problem of the addressee, of the receiver of the signal, because when we speak, when communication takes place, the participants of this discourse are constantly building a dynamic model of another person, their addressee.

The same problem emerges when we are dealing with communication for educational purposes. When you speak to a class, give a lecture or work with a small group on a project, you have immediate responses from which you can figure out what they understand and where they struggle. You’re then able to help them appropriately. In massive online courses, on the other hand, you don’t know your audience and their reactions. Teaching through the internet therefore requires new features and approaches to improve communication, to follow up and to monitor students’ reactions.

— Regarding how Russians communicate, there is a saying that a book written in English consisting of 100 pages will consist of 300 pages when translated into Russian. Why?

— I think, there are two appropriate explanations. The first is that Russian texts will take more space than English texts that convey the same thing. This is partly because the Russian language has more morphology. So, Russian words are longer, they have more affixes denoting cases, declension and conjugation markers. English words, for example, are shorter.

Russians like when foreigners know their language. We understand their mistakes, such as using the wrong form, case, or preposition. We don’t get offended; we understand. We actually appreciate it when a foreigner tries to speak Russian to us

Russian academic style also differs significantly from British and American style. Russian style is more expressive and indirect. There is a prevalent notion that simple words look naïve and are therefore unfit for academic papers. More ‘scientific’ words are considered more appropriate in academic writing by some, which is not an idea I condone at all.

The thing about Russian style is that it even transfers over in translation. Sentences translated into English from Russian will still have traces of Russian academic style. Each sentence may be a perfect English sentence, but together they will make a Russian rather than an English text.

The difference between Russian and English academic discourse really matters to academics, and for this reason our papers are often not well received by Western journals. This second explanation involves differences in the culture of communication and academic discourse. Russian academic discourse developed as a genre from German academic discourse in the 18th century, when Germans came to work in Russia. Even today, it is rooted in the German tradition.

— English speakers are doing business in Russia. Do you think that doing business in Russian may promote trust between Russians and English speakers? Or is it better to do business in English?

— It depends on how well you know Russian, or how well your partners know English. Generally, Russians like when foreigners know their language. We understand their mistakes, such as using the wrong form, case, or preposition. We don’t get offended; we understand. We actually appreciate it when a foreigner tries to speak Russian to us.

But there are certain linguistic mistakes that are not well received, and we subconsciously and mistakenly ascribe certain cultural features to those who make these mistakes. So, we think that a person who used the wrong form to address us or ask about something is stupid, or bad, or aggressive, or that their culture is stupid, bad or aggressive. These mistakes happen when people actually know a foreign language better, so to say at an advanced level. For instance, when a foreigner addresses someone by ‘ты’ rather than ‘вы’. You know it is nothing, yet still you feel like something wrong has happened. This is not about language; it’s about relations between people.

We are pretty bold and direct in our jokes. We have jokes about Georgians, Ukrainians, Jews, and Russians alike. This is not politically correct in many cultures. This makes us different. We really like it and we express our attitude this way. This is a part of Russian style

I know people who learned Russian from teachers coming from different Russian regions. They speak pretty well, but they’ve got it from Russians who were speaking some dialectal variant of Russian, not the standard language. When you hear it, it’s hard not to look down at these people. The success of any business communication depends on accuracy and respect. One should choose words with sensitivity. Intercultural communication involves obstacles because of cultural differences, but you can overcome them with sensitivity. Accept differences and try to move on, and be understanding rather than frustrated.

— A very interesting topic about jokes and humour in language is discussed in the ninth lecture of your course. How is it possible to understand Russian jokes while coming from a different cultural background? What is the role of jokes in the Russian language?

— Not all jokes can be translated. For instance, puns are really hard to translate because they exploit similar sounds that may have more than one meaning, but in a given language. Such jokes are not translatable the same way some poetry isn’t – you have to find corresponding rhymes in another language. Jokes that rely on cultural contexts are also challenging to translate.

You asked about the importance of jokes in Russian culture. We are pretty bold and direct in our jokes. We have jokes about Georgians, Ukrainians, Jews, and Russians alike. This is not politically correct in many cultures. This makes us different. We really like it and we express our attitude this way. This is a part of Russian style. As I say, every culture has its own jokes, but in Russia the importance of this joke-telling, I’d say, borders on ritualistic.

MOOC ‘Understanding Russians’

— This is your second time running this course. Did you study the results of the first course? What are you expecting from the second time?

— The results were pretty good, which is why the course is repeating. I’m actually a bit nervous because, as you understand, the video lectures that we will present are pre-recorded. When we learned in July that the course will run a second time, we didn’t have the time, energy, or resources to record these lectures again. This second time will also allow us to compare results and see how the quality of the course depends on the quality of video-lecturing and how much it depends on other factors.

— Why do you think this course will help HSE international students explore the Russian soul, and is therefore a must for them?

— Well, I wouldn’t say ‘a must’, because they are already here. I think it may be very useful, because it’s really informative about intercultural communication. If they are still new to this country or to our school, the course can help introduce them to life here and prepare them for interaction with Russians.

Whenever you go somewhere new, cultural shock is inevitable. It happens to everyone. And maybe this course and what we talk about may help our students, especially international students.

The course is called ‘Understanding Russians’. Without understanding it’s really hard to feel at ease. And we would like our international students to be at ease at HSE.

Prepared by Yulia Kazakova, online student newspaper ReadSquare 

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