It’s remarkable how cultures can differ in the most seemingly mundane things, and how such distinctions can actually be quite profound in their implications. Take the question “how are you?”, which for most Anglophones (especially Americans) is in essence a simple greeting, equivalent to “hello.” To Russians, however, it’s exactly what it sounds like, as Alina Simone at the New York Times observes:
The answer Americans give, of course is, “Fine.” But when Russians hear this they think one of two things: (1) you’ve been granted a heavenly reprieve from the wearisome grind that all but defines the human condition and as a result are experiencing a rare and sublime moment of fineness or (2) you are lying.
Ask a Russian, “How are you?” and you will hear, for better or worse, the truth. A blunt pronouncement of dissatisfaction punctuated by, say, the details of any recent digestive troubles. I have endured many painful minutes of elevator silence after my grandmother (who lived in the Soviet Union until moving to the United States in her 60s) delivered her stock response: “Terrible,” to which she might add, “Why? Because being old is terrible.” Beat. “And I am very old.”
Needless to say, while Russians may find our simple and often curt response to be insincere or even absurd, Americans for their part would be taken aback by such forwardness and cynicism. As with most culture clashes, this one stems from the unique contextual and linguistic evolution that occurred with one language but not the other.
The thing most Russians don’t realize is that, in English, “How are you?” isn’t a question at all, but a form of “hi,” like the Russian “privyet!” The Americans weren’t responsible for its transformation; that honor goes to the British. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase’s precursor, “How do you do?” as a common phrase “often used as a mere greeting or salutation.” The anodyne exchange dates at least as far back as 1604, to Shakespeare’s Othello, where Desdemona asks her husband, “How is’t with you, my lord?” and Othello replies “Well, my good lady.” Even though he is half-mad with jealousy and only five scenes away from murdering her.
Whereas it’s easy to read a particularly American optimism into the easy embrace of the auto-fine, Russians seem almost congenitally unable to fake fineness.
So where did the Russian proclivity for such brutal honesty (at least as we’d see it) come from?
The Russian food critic and cultural historian Anya von Bremzen recently offered me an intriguing hypothesis as to why this might be the case. In Soviet days, proclamations of joy, enthusiasm and optimism were associated with state propaganda and officialese. As a citizen of a Communist utopia, you were pretty much supposed to feel fine all the time (never mind the time you spent squabbling over the communal stove or waiting in a two-hour line to buy toilet paper). So, Ms. von Bremzen explained, a moan or a complaint would be considered a more authentic, non-state-sanctioned response to “how are you.”
I liked this theory, but my father scoffed when I suggested it was the Soviets who devalued “fine.” By way of explanation, a quote from Dostoyevsky arrived in my inbox: “The most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.”
Given the tremendous amount of suffering that the Russian people have endured — just in the past century alone — it’s perhaps unsurprising that they would prefer to wear their emotions on their sleeves. In fact, while such an approach may seem crushingly depressing, it may actually be something of a useful adaptation:
Psychologists at the University of Michigan have shown that, while Russians are, indeed, more prone to brooding than Americans, their open embrace of negative experiences might ultimately be healthier, resulting in fewer symptoms of depression.
This would certainly explain how Russians have managed to persevere through some of the greatest tragedies in human history. Being brooding but honest is a better way to come to terms with the palpable misery around you than trying to ignore it (especially if everyone else is putting their emotions on their sleeves too).
Granted, rates of alcoholism and suicide are still considerably high in the country, presumably due in no small part to the lingering psychological trauma of past generations. But arguably few other nations have managed to keep it relatively well-together as the Russians have, given their circumstances. Maybe in light of growing rates of anxiety and depression here in the U.S., we can take a page from their approach? Easier said than done of course, and no cure for deeper societal problems, but still interesting to consider.
Oh, and for any fellow Russophiles or would-be travelers to Russia, here’s some useful advice from the author in terms of how you can properly answer this question:
If you lack the Russian vocabulary to fully express your unquenchable suffering, fear not — a lot of angst and ambivalence can be packed into just a word or two. Try “tak-sebe” (so-so) or “normalno” (the usual) or “eh” (eh). Even “fine” is fine. Injecting a world-weary sigh before your “khorosho” can neatly reverse its meaning, or render it shorthand for that other, more satisfyingly nuanced, response: It’s complicated.
Interesting stuff, to say the least.