Monday, January 20, 2014

Russian vs. American responses to "How are you?"

Ask a Russian, “How are you?” and you will hear, for better or worse, the truth. A blunt pronouncement of dissatisfaction punctuated by, say, the details of any recent digestive troubles. I have endured many painful minutes of elevator silence after my grandmother (who lived in the Soviet Union until moving to the United States in her 60s) delivered her stock response: “Terrible,” to which she might add, “Why? Because being old is terrible.” Beat. “And I am very old.” ...

It feels as if I’ve spent half my life trying to smooth over the bafflement of my American friends and the hurt feelings of my Russian expat family as a result of this innocuous inquiry. “ ‘Fine’ makes Russians think that Americans have no soul,” I explained recently to an American-born friend. “That they just want to go home, eat a frozen dinner in front of the TV, and wait out the hours before going to work to make money again.”

He laughed, then quickly sobered. “You know, there’s something to that.”

But if the American “fine” can come off as plastic and insincere, the speed with which Russians unload intimate details is just as disturbing. I was born in Ukraine to Russian parents, but I grew up in the United States, and I get it. It’s like, “I don’t know you, Random Russian Lady, so why are you showing me your rash?”

The thing most Russians don’t realize is that, in English, “How are you?” isn’t a question at all, but a form of “hi,” like the Russian “privyet!” The Americans weren’t responsible for its transformation; that honor goes to the British. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase’s precursor, “How do you do?” as a common phrase “often used as a mere greeting or salutation.” The anodyne exchange dates at least as far back as 1604, to Shakespeare’s Othello, where Desdemona asks her husband, “How is’t with you, my lord?” and Othello replies “Well, my good lady.” Even though he is half-mad with jealousy and only five scenes away from murdering her.