The Russian Feedback
A few months ago I wrote about the first impressions after moving to NL. It has been six months since I’ve moved here, and now even more differences are clear. However open-minded I may seem, I am definitely experiencing a mild culture shock.
One of the harder things to get used to is the differences in communication style, which this post is about.
My friend is a musician. The beautiful music of her band is more in demand in Europe than back home in Russia, so lately it’s been easier to meet her in NL as they gig nearby. Every now and then she complains about how different the comments and reviews they get from Russian listeners are from what usually comes from the rest of world.
It’s not that they are hated at home – most of the feedback is positive, but even its warmest pieces often contain negative points. Here are a few excerpts from a typical comments thread, loosely translated from Russian:
- «Quite mediocre, no idea why they’re promoted so heavily»
- «That disgusting Russian accent in her English spoils the impression completely»
- «Agree regarding the accent. But quite good overall, 7 out of 10»
- «I personally like it overall. But the accent is indeed noticeable»
The accent is not the real problem – at least, hardly any comment in English mentions it. They also have the pleasure to receive critical remarks in such pleasant tone about how too-sweet and not-their-cup-of-tea the timbre of her voice is, how the arrangements lack overdriven guitar in this and that track, how the grand piano sound could be more compressed and how the record could be mastered better – all those things a random person on the Internet is very likely to be an expert in.
Oh, my smile meant something quite different. I’ll tell you why I smiled. Not long ago I read the criticism made by a German who had lived in Russia, on our students and schoolboys of today. “Show a Russian schoolboy,” he writes, “a map of the stars, which he knows nothing about, and he will give you back the map next day with corrections on it.” No knowledge and unbounded conceit – that’s what the German meant to say about the Russian schoolboy.
— F. Dostoyevsky, «The Karamazov Brothers»
Though I can see envy behind some of those comments, it looks like most of their authors don’t mean to be rude. They are honestly pointing out the (personally perceived) weak sides of a record they have just listened to. Just, you know, wanting to be useful.
The comments in English are never so detailed and are more cheering up overall. With creative arts, I find it especially important. Music is unlike fine arts and science – there is no objective truth, but there is a lot of personality in the final product. Saying the record is shit and pretending to be objective is no different from calling the people who made it shit. Being picky about details gives a comment more objective tone and makes it a challenging piece of feedback to receive.
So, it’s no surprise that every once in a while my friend gets tired of reading it all – and writes a post on Facebook about it.
One of the comments to her recent post about feedback was a description of “one Russian attendee” in a physics seminar. That not-so-pleasant person would ask questions all the time, openly criticize whatever they find necessary, and overall sound quite harsh. The description was fun to read until I began to recognize myself in places.
By that day I have just returned from Japan after attending a few lectures as the only Russian in the audience. It was clear that in many cases I feel more comfortable with asking questions and starting a discussion than other participants do, and I have certainly earned a few frowning looks – as if it was disturbing to some people.
According to a Japanese student I’ve talked to, in their culture it may be considered impolite or even rude to ask a senior person (e.g. a professor) a question in a manner that may prove them wrong in case of a certain answer, and it’s even worse if such question is asked publicly.
It doesn’t quite fall in line with my idea of a prolific research team – and my first reaction is, of course, more questions. Come on, guys, why should I come to a seminar at all if I keep the questions to myself? Why should I present my own work if I don’t expect any questions? We’re pretending to call what we do science, so being proven wrong is a gift I should appreciate as it could keep me from months of fruitless work, isn’t it? Then I realized this dissonance was not only about directness and questioning.
I sometimes find it hard to get any straightforward negative feedback on work from international colleagues, though I have no problems giving it and thus expect to get some in return – it’s very valuable for improvement. In contrast, some of the most useful (yet not always pleasant) pieces of feedback I ever got from the colleagues and university teachers back in Russia sounded close to “hey, what you did here is a piece of shit, you should do it in a different way”.
There is also a difference in overall niceness. Would I say what you’re doing is cool if I don’t find it cool? Hardly. Would I want to follow a “hi” with “what’s going on?” unless I really wonder how you’ve been? Not really. It’s not because I’m grim or unhappy or don’t want you to feel good today – it just feels right to mean what I say even with these little things. Moreover, it takes me some energy to tell which part of what I just heard means something and what is just a nice wrapper around the rest. Yes, it’s sometimes that bad.
On the other hand, I’ve heard from several people that they sometimes find it hard to tell if a person is rude or just direct, and it took them some time to learn to comfortably deal with people from Eastern Europe (and, surprisingly, with the Dutch).
Luckily, after six months in an international environment I feel like gradually picking up the style. It turns out that most of these communication aspects are not the signs of my (or anyone’s) own traits, but rather just habits. But why are the typical Russian communication habits so different even from the rest of Europe, even though we share a lot of history in common?
I can only speculate here, but it seems that it is caused by a difference in some kind of society values. For instance, it appears to me that in Russia it is less common to be proud of your work unless you did something extraordinary – hence the positive feedback is not valued that much. Is it an effect of the Soviet planned economy or is the reason in deeper cultural patterns? I don’t know (but would appreciate references to good reads on this matter).
It is important to keep in mind: talking to a person, you are also talking to the whole culture behind them. The little differences may cause some friction in communication, but a different perspective is always a plus when used properly.
By the way, that is why diversity in teams and industries may be a worthwhile thing to encourage.