I often like to think of myself as this individual whose personality transcends cultural habit
s, but unfortunately that isn't true. When I recently talked to an acquaintance from Russia(she is a foreigner in the country and not Russian), I surprised myself by telling her that Russian women are hysteric. That made me suddenly realize: By god, I have totally absorbed the American point of view of what is proper behavior and what is not. So much for my individuality: I guess I've got the classic profile of an American uncomfortable with the broad emotional range
of Russians. And yet it's kinda weird considering that I've heard people in Russia deliver deeply emotional reports to me, whether strangers or close friends. Yeah, it was pretty normal for someone I barely knew to talk to me about some frustrating experience that they've had that day in a deeply sad, shuddering voice that would occasionally switch into a loud frenzy of anger .
Before I got used to living in America, I didn't expect people to be "composed" and "calm" when discussing their problems. Today, I do. But when I first came to this country, the fact that many Americans manage to keep their cool and speak in devastating situations without loud, angry voices and only show a trace of emotion, perhaps a slight sob or a vocal tremor hiding tears, seemed nothing short of amazing . But today, the calm seems normal, whereas the incredible emotionality
of Russians has become hard to handle. When elderly Russian-speaking ladies bitterly scream out at American cashiers for overcharging them, it seems nothing short of crazy. In the Soviet Union, this wouldn't have seemed so out of place. The cashier would respond to the customer in kind and the two of them would bicker without anyone raising their eyebrows. Problem is: American cashiers aren't the types to bawl out their customers. There is no self-defense mechanism
. The obligation of politeness placed upon customer service personnel turns poor cashiers into silent victims who grit their teeth and swallow their frustration while the old lady goes on with her tirade. *See Footnote 1
But this kinda behavior is not to be helped by any appeals to decency. The Russian standard of "emotional authenticity
" has its own strange logic
. A woman I once met in an Internet voice-chat to accused me of lying in an angry, bitter tone when I said that her microphone was off just a short time before. (She thought I was pretending not to hear her.) The emotional intensity of her accusation seemed quite a shock: Why get all emotional and angry about such a little matter, why pursue the accusation with such insistence before talking it over calmly first? But, to her that seemed justified because she was following the previously-mentioned maxim of "emotional authenticity
" that encourages people to share their feelings in the most honest way possible. She felt angry and that's what she communicated.(Holding back your angry emotions would have been the equivalent of "being fake") *See Footnote 2
The unpleasantness aside, complaints coming out as angry outbursts
do have one upside: they clear the air and dissolve tension
that can come about from lack of honest communication. In fact, when I first came from Russia, I was so used to people having it out over all kinds of things, that the idea of a person holding back difficult issues
and not discussing them with their close ones did not resonate with me. It's for that exact reason that I couldn't understand a lot of the films with tense scenes between lovers
. A woman would tell her girlfriend "Well, I need to confront my boyfriend about this difficult issue but I just can't summon up the courage
." That type of scene made me scratch my head. I thought to myself: "Well, if this woman has something really serious to say to her boyfriend, she would have of said it already. Why is she wasting her time talking about it with her girlfriend? That kinda thing never happens."
Of course, it's a recipe for disaster if a Russian comes to America with the attitude that he should not hold back his thoughts and complaints. But once he sits down with people he has only recently met and shares his problems in a very emotional way, he'll learn soon enough that this behavior is inappropriate by observing the bored
and irritated response of his listeners. (Either that, or he'll abandon the cold and distant American
s and start hanging out with "emotionally-open" Latino
s. One Russian who came to America on business for a year did just that.) Extreme emotional openness
only works two ways. If you've got two emotional Russians spilling their hearts out to each other, they'll both feel comfortable. If you've got one emotional Russian spilling his heart out to a a reserved American, the latter will want to run from his "psychotic
" conversation partner.
I've gotten on the "overly emotional" side of the equation myself. As a college student, my resident adviser once asked me about my issues with one of my previous roommates. I think he was making small talk
: his question was phrased in a concerned but casual voice. I responded with an excited voice, spoke fast and enthusiastically, offering lots of details. He heard me and proffered but a few pithy comments in response. It was only by recollecting this encounter that I really understood the meaning of two American expressions: "Way too much detail
" and "I really didn't want to know that
Of course, sometimes emotions reveal themselves in complaints rather than in confessions. Though I've already mentioned the willingness of Russians to confront cashiers, I should clarify that they are willing to confront anyone in general who is doing "something wrong." They might make an angry comment to a a train rider
who took up a free seat by putting his supermarket bag on it. Or confront young "hooligan
s" who are doing something suspicious
or making a lot of noise. In a country where privacy
and calm, measured negotiation
are highly valued, a loud-mouthed meddler
whose voice expresses just how pissed off he is might as well be a lunatic
You see, emotional openness
is kinda like a boxing match
. If you've got two boxers socking it to each other left and right, with blood
gushing out of both of their faces, the whole exchange is fine. It's like that in conversation: go ahead and be very emotional with the other person as long as you know that the other person is willing to be just as emotional as you are. Feel free to unload your tears, frustration
s, and bitter accusation
s. If they're willing to let loose on you with their own feelings,the two of you will be even. But just like a boxer
shouldn't take his physical aggression out of the ring and go after the spectators, it's equally inappropriate for an emotionally open or brutal Russian to pour out his intense feelings or vicious complaints in the presence of emotionally restrained and relatively composed Americans.
Yes, Russian emotional openness in complain
ing and sharing is something I myself often liked to practice, but now can hardly ever handle. Russians often criticize Americans for answering "How are you
?" with an insincere "Just fine" instead of honestly talking about what's going in their lives. Even when Americans are more personal and talk about what's really going on their lives, Russians will find their flat, unemotional voice
s and a constant smile
as a sign of fakeness
. Shouldn't people show exuberant excitement
when talking about good things and despondent sadness
when discussing events that weigh them down, even when they're talking to a stranger
? If someone you don't know well is enraged or at least somewhat upset by your actions, shouldn't that person give free reign to his exasperation
at you? Well if you ask me, I'll take the smile and the calm voice. I've somehow lost the taste for drama
and I manage to believe people's sincerity even when their voice and face don't act it out.
: It is true that a lot of Americans deal with strangers or acquaintances who get all worked up about whatever angers them and upsets them and let their voice and words play out all their emotions. However, in comparison to the US, in Russia such behavior seems more widespread and acceptable.(Granted, all observations that generalize cultural norms and compare them are suspect, but humor me. As with all "stereotypes," plenty of exceptions apply.)
: Of course some Russians value politeness over emotional openness. Suppressing their emotions for the sake of politeness is something a lot of sensitive and kind souls in Russia do, but unlike in America this is no way a cultural obligation.
Relevant Quotes about Russian culture's extreme emotionality from Czech novelist Milan Kundera
"According to Solzhenitsyn, Russian history differs from the history of the West precisely in its lack of a Renaissance and of the spirit that resulted. That is why the Russian mentality maintains a different balance between rationality and sentiment; in this other balance (or imbalance) we find the famous mystery of the Russian soul (its profundity as well as its brutality)."
"What irritates me about Dostoevsky was the climate of his novels: a universe where everything turns into feeling, where feelings are promoted to the rank of value and of truth."
From Kundera, M. "An Introduction to a Variation." Cross Currents Yearbook 5,5(1986):469-76.