Lost in Ruglish

Cross-cultural misunderstandings with the best intentions.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

On Petrovka Street in Moscow, Russia, there is a casual and cozy restaurant called, LavkaLavka. This restaurant was one of the first victims of my limited foreign language skills. In severely broken Russian, I asked the waitress, “How do I order tea in Russian?”

“There are many ways that you can do this,” she said with patient amusement. She quickly recited a few different constructions. None of them sounded familiar with the examples on the apps such as Learn Russian — 5000 Phrases by Fun Easy Learn or DuoLingo. But then she said, “Dayte chay, pozhaluysta.”

Yes… I remembered this from DuoLingo, thank you very much! And yes…I could recall this from MasterRussian.com. Well, surely that proves that the site is reliable!

“Ok. Dayte chay, pozhaluysta. Spacibo!

With a pleasing nod, she smiled and walked away.

Dayte chay, pozhaluysta. Give me tea, please. Give me. Give me? Give me tea? Surely there must be a more polite way to ask for something. Give me… This sounds too demanding. What if they don’t want to give me tea? What if someone is having a really bad day and interprets my innocent request as a pesky demand? What if I get that look that my mom always gave me when I spoke outside of the Caribbean Center of Morality and Ethics. (Only a Caribbean child would know how dangerous this could be). So, a few days later, I found the ‘polite version’: ya by khotela chay pozhaluysta. Surely the longer construction would be received more favorably. After memorizing the phrase, I tried to use it immediately.

The next victim was Cafe Shelby, just a block north of Gorky Park. Its spacious layout has explored a vibrant clash between a collection of sporty racing car relics set against a flirty purple canvas. The soft-spoken staff welcomed my limited Russian skills graciously. But after too many failed attempts to modify my accent, the ‘polite version’ succumbed to the simple phrase, “Dayte chay, pozhaluysta.” A dawn of comprehension was followed by a simple smile. And a few minutes later, I had my tea.

Even though months have now passed, saying in Russian, “Give me tea, please,” still feels uncomfortable and demanding. However, in Russian etiquette, this is perfectly normal and acceptable. No offense given, none taken.

…And yet, this is not the case when speaking English.

To say, “Give me tea, please,” falls short of etiquette standards used across the English-speaking world. We can say, “Dayte chay, pozhaluysta,” with suitable intonations and still be received respectfully amongst Russian speakers. On the other hand, we cannot say, “Give me tea, please,” and still be received courteously in the English-speaking world. Regardless of speaking softly or using unusually high-pitched tones, “give me” is too direct to be considered proper etiquette.

So, therein lies a common problem for non-native English speakers across the globe: how do you translate words into English without neglecting tone or compromising meaning? To learn how to think, speak and write more effectively in English, you must master the difference between formal, informal, direct and indirect language. Otherwise, in friendly settings, the meaning behind your intention could be lost.

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