About two years ago I arrived to Russia for my first time. With almost two years of studying Russian under my belt, I was ready to be fluent. That is, or so I thought. Russian hadn’t come particularly easy to me, but I could sense the significant progress I had made since beginning studying the language. I assumed the language learning process would be similar to learning in other subjects. Logically, this meant that enrolling in a program in Russia where I only studied Russian must be the step I needed to attain fluency.
When I arrived to St. Petersburg, all of my grand plans were quickly grounded in reality. My first week there, I went to McDonalds with a group of fellow students. Although I don’t eat McDonalds often in America, I thought it would be a nice taste of home. When it was my turn to order, I looked at the cashier confidently and ordered in what I thought was crystal clear Russian. I will never forget the confidence-shattering look that man gave me in response. It was painfully visible that the cashier had absolutely no idea what I said. Embarrassed, I continued to order with a stream of broken Russian and emphatic gesturing until I thought my order was understood. At that point, I was less concerned about getting what I wanted and more focused on wanting that interaction to end as soon as possible.
Early on in my time in St. Petersburg, actively using gestures and facial expressions were almost as important to me as words when communicating. Fortunately, as my studies of Russian continue, these types of interactions happen less and less frequently. And as much as I would like to have been able to avoid awkward situations like this all together, they have taught me a couple of important lessons. First, they quickly showed me how much time and experience are truly necessary to attain fluency in a foreign language. More importantly, they gave me a new perspective on communication. For the first time in my life, I was constrained by my ability to use words, yet I still had to go about my day-to-day activities. As a result, I resorted to different manners of communicating and found them, more often than not, to be quite successful.
Moving forward in my studies, I have come back to Russia. Except instead of studying in St. Petersburg, I am studying in Moscow. Ultimately interested in politics, it was important to me to study in the political center of Russia. This time things have gotten off to a smoother start. My Russian is better and Russia is no longer as foreign and intimidating to me as it used to be. However, I find myself in a new predicament. Now that I am able to employ words more effectively as a means of communication, my situation has reversed. It is now the parts of communication beyond words have started to constrain me.
As I further acquaint myself with the Russian language and the Russian people, I see more and more nuances in how people communicate. Likely, this new awareness comes from both increased knowledge of Russian and extended time observing the culture attached to the language. For example, Russians tend to speak more directly than Americans. I have known this fact for a long time, and for a while I thought it had only one obvious implication: sometimes Americans find Russians rude because of how direct they tend to be. I used to think, “well that isn’t such a big deal,” and I never really considered the other half of this. That is, what the implications are related to the fact that Americans tend to be more passive when they speak. An American may say something they believe is clear, however, Russians do not understand the meaning as a result of the American’s passive phrasing. As an American, I took for granted the fact that we use cultural knowledge to decode speech that I considered to be rather basic.
When I was writing my undergraduate thesis, I found a book in the library called Russian Negotiating Behavior. I do not remember who wrote the book. However, I remember the title quite clearly, because I thought it both peculiar and funny. I checked the book out of the library for pure amusement, and as I flipped through its pages I thought, “Obviously someone who needs a book to tell them good negotiating behavior wouldn’t be a very good negotiator.” Reflecting, I openly admit that my naïveté led me astray. I was mistaking certain aspects of negotiating as skills related to common human personality traits, and I was completely ignoring that there are huge cultural elements intrinsic to how we communicate that need to be understood when we engage in international dialogue.
Many great feats have been accomplished in international politics based on good interpersonal relationships at the leadership level. Two leaders who understand each other and have an established respect for one another can do wonders in bridging to separate communities. This acts as a stark reminder why paying attention to the nuances of interpersonal communication is so important as I continue my Russian studies. The immediate benefit to studying cross-cultural differences is personal; it better helps me build relationships with Russians and understand them. Ultimately, however, this sort of personal understanding is essential in building diplomatic relations that lead to a working relationship, which produces positive outcomes for both parties.
By: Alden Wahlstrom
Term: Fall 2013