Praise for Alina Simone’s Views on Russian/American Cultural Differences

On Alina Simone’s New York Times op-ed piece about the cultural disconnect triggered by the seemingly, to an American, polite question, “How are you?”.

I just had the pleasure of reading a piece on The New York Times website entitled, The ‘How Are You?’ Culture Clash, by Alina Simone. In this article, Ms. Simone—born in Ukraine to Russian parents, but raised in the U.S.—speaks to how the common question often asked, even of strangers, by the average American,  “How are you?” can highlight differences in cultural outlook when asked of someone raised in the Soviet Union or some its successor states. She brings to this discussion a perspective from both sides of this cultural gap, as someone often faced with the task of smoothing over, as she puts it, “the bafflement of my American friends and the hurt feelings of my Russian expat family as a result of this innocuous inquiry.”

I appreciate her insights for what they say about not only culture, but also about language: how it used, how it is informed by, and informs, the outlook shard by the people who grew up using it, and how it can spotlight differences in outlooks among societies. I am also impressed by Alina Simone’s combining of personal experience with the views of others and with her scholarly research. She compares the inane formality of the knee-jerk American response, “fine,” with the equally disturbing tendency of Russians to give an honest answer, full of intimate details to explain why they are doing how they are doing.

In addition to anecdotes about how and why people raised in Russia take this question the way they do, Alina Simone’s points are very nicely supported by citations from the Oxford English Dictionary, The University of Michigan, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Anya Von Bremzen (whose most recent book, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, which brilliantly analyses Soviet Russian culture through the prism of food, I last year wrote a review of here).

While this article says much more about the Russian cultural mindset, and its responses to this American question, there is the nicely put argument that what Russians often miss is the fact that the phrase “How are you?” isn’t really a question, but a form of “Hi!” One point I do not see any support for here, though, is Ms. Simone’s claim, early in the article, that this question is “the back across which Russian-American relations are broken.”

That said, I do like her analysis and insights into the differences in cultural sensibilities, and how that is expressed in the use of language. And I appreciate her recommendation to ignore the guide books that recommend visitors to Russia use the Russian equivalent to “How are you?”—”Kak dela?” and that they avoid responding to such questions with a cheery, “Khorosho!” or “Fine!”

© 2014, John Dougherty. All rights reserved

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