Relationships in Slavic vs. Anglo-Saxon Culture
Written Nov. 10, 2010
If expectations for relationships were the same everywhere, there would be no need for articles like this. However, the fact is that the etiquette of friendship, business relations, and interaction with strangers differs quite a bit from culture to culture. Hopefully, this article will offer some useful insights that will help foreigners get along with their Ukrainian friends and business partners, and vice versa.
Politeness, sincerity, spontaneity, and informality
Many westerners, particularly Anglo-saxons, have a habit of frequently saying "please," "thank you," and "you're welcome." This was ground into us as children as a requisite of politeness and good manners. By using these words — we were taught — we were expressing appreciation and good will.
Then we get to Ukraine or Russia and learn to speak the local language, inserting these same niceties into our Ukrainian or Russian: "дякую", "прошу", "пожалуйста," "спасибо," etc. After some months or years in the country, you may start to wonder, "am I saying these words too often?" Maybe someone has even told you straight out, "не надо всегда говорить спасибо" ("you don't need to say 'thank you' all the time"). You start to notice that other people don't thank you as much as you thank them. "Probably just that rude Slavic spontaneity," a well-mannered westerner might suppose.
The truth is, an American "thanks" or "thank you" is often uttered unconsciously, a kind of knee-jerk response to just about any action by anyone else. It's basically a filler word, similar to the word "like" ("It cost, like, 100 dollars."), or an exclamation like "wow!", or even as a parting word ("Thanks, bye!"). "Thank you" is also typically used to express appreciation for just about anything:
- Thank you for sharing your story with us. (from a forum)
In Ukraine and Russia, "thank you" (дякую or спасибо) is also a sign of politeness and appreciation, but it is largely reserved for strangers or professional acquaintances who are making a point of being courteous with each other. "Thank you" and other polite words have an aura of formality and thus are seen as being strangely inappropriate for friends, who should be able to just be themselves around each other.
By habitually using "спасибо" or "дякую" with your Slavic friends, you may be unwittingly sending the message that you perceive your relationship with them to be more formal than they had supposed. They may feel like you're treating them as business partners, not buddies.
So what do Slavs expect from friends? Spontaneity, sincerity, and less formality. How do you achieve this? By showing your true feelings, sharing sentiments (negative as well as positive!), and joking around. Humor in particular is highly valued, whether in funny stories, jokes, or clever witticisms. You don't have to be funny or clever, though. It's enough to be sincere and genuine.
Practice being less formal
It may be worth your while to think of other ways of responding to things than a knee-jerk "спасибо" or "дякую". For instance, instead of saying a mechanical "спасибо за ужин" ("thanks for dinner"), try "какой вкусный ужин!" ("what a tasty dinner!" — but only if you mean it!). At the end of a date, think of something genuine to say other than simply thanking your date, as if you had just signed an important trade contract. In fact, saying "thank you for the wonderful evening" may suggest that you're not really interested in them. Better yet, don't make any kind of special statement at all, but just say, "I'll call you!" ("я тебе позвоню!") — if you mean it, of course!
Degrees of formality in Ukraine and Russia
Slavs' manner of making requests differs depending on the relationship between people.
Formal: Вы не могли бы помочь мне? (literally "Might you be able to help me?")
Informal: Поможешь мне с этим? (literally, "Will you help me with this?")
Very informal: Помоги мне, а? (literally "Help me, 'kay?")
In comparison, an Anglo-Saxon is likely to use polite language even in an informal situation:
- Could you give me a hand?
- I need your help here, please.
- Can somebody please help me?!
As you can see, Slavs' manner of speech varies widely depending on the degree of closeness and informality in the relationship, whereas well-mannered Anglo-Saxons tend to observe niceties even in close relationships — except for moments of overt rudeness (e.g. "get your butt over here and help!").
If you follow Anglo-Saxon norms of politeness in Ukraine, you'll probably do okay in business, but you might have difficulty developing friendships because your Slavic friends won't always recognize when you're trying to become friends, and not just business contacts.
Potential problems in when working for Ukrainians
I've often heard or read things like: "Those language schools are just out to use you, make money off you, then spit you out. They don't care about their teachers at all. They treat you like dirt." (regarding language schools that hire native teachers in Ukraine). I confess I have a hard time believing this, and I suspect some cultural factors may be at play.
When Americans get a new job, they approach it in a very businesslike manner and want to get right down to work. They expect to be given clear instructions and a well-defined structure from the outset and to be judged on the basis of their professionalism. They expect their bosses to treat them with respect and keep their best interests in mind.
When Ukrainians get a new job, they are, naturally, nervous about the work itself, but they are quicker to develop informal relationships with other employees and come across as friendly, humorous, jocular, etc. Job training tends to be more chaotic and spontaneous. They expect to have to talk things out in the process.
These are oversimplifications, of course. But what seems to happen is that westerners expect their Ukrainian employers to continually be attentive to their interests, as is the business culture in much of the West, where there is a highly developed service ethic and managers are often expected to be a kind of "public servant" whose financial interests are well-concealed. You might get lucky and have a Ukrainian supervisor who is naturally considerate and attentive, but more likely you won't.
What can happen is that the westerner continues to work diligently, maintaining an externally positive attitude and an air of professionalism, even as problems are developing. "Why aren't they giving me a raise? Don't they see that I'm overworked? Why aren't they providing better teaching materials?" — you may wonder.
Most likely, your employer won't guess that something needs to be fixed unless you tell them about it. But if you wait too long, become paranoid and suspicious, and finally blow up at them and tell them how they're "running the place wrong," you'll likely get the boot, which will confirm that, indeed, "those language schools treat you like dirt."
So what can you do? The best thing is probably to work on developing an informal relationship with your bosses or the company administration. Take advantage of informal situations to vent a little: "That group today was unmanageable! I could sure use a pizza to help me calm down." The idea is that if you work too hard at maintaining a positive attitude and flawless work ethic in the American spirit, your bosses simply won't suspect that you're having any trouble.
Another important thing is to let your coworkers and bosses get to know you a little better. Don't just talk work with people at work; mention details about your apartment, your neighborhood, funny incidents and mistakes you've made in Ukraine, etc. This is really important to Ukrainians, who don't know how to treat people who just "talk business."
After you've established yourself at work, don't be afraid to complain a bit when you're having difficulties, but without appearing helpless or needy. Tell coworkers what you like and what you don't like. Make it known when you've put in effort ("I spent half an hour preparing the lesson, and no one came!"). If you do everything you're told and never complain, your boss might assume you're a robot and treat you accordingly.
If you can speak Ukrainian or Russian, that's a big plus. Chances are they appear happy to practice their English with you, but the truth is that the psychological distance is greater than if you spoke their language. Before long, you may find yourself in the role of the "English practice guy" who remains an outsider, kind of like a paid entertainer who is invited to parties but never treated like one of the group. If speaking Ukrainian or Russian seems impossible, you can still do your best to develop real friendships with people and help them overcome their own language barriers, which might be keeping them from opening up to you as friends, and not just for business or for English practice.
While we're on the subject of languages, did you know I wrote a whole book about the easiest way to learn a language well? My method works especially well if you are actually located in Ukraine or wherever the language is spoken.