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Bergelson M.B.
(Moscow, Russia)

Published: "Коммуникативные исследования 2003: современная антология" ("Communication Studies 2003: Modern Anthology"). Научно-исследовательская лаборатория коммуникативных исследований. - Волгоград: Перемена. - С. 97-112

    Russian basic cultural values are looked at from the point of view of interactional patterns which determine specific features of cross-cultural communication in today's Russia. Such basic values as emotionality not-having-control, irrationality, and judgemental attitudes towards world and other people may but often have significant influence on the success or failure of intercultural workplace communication, effectiveness of management style, and the outcome of business negotiations.
    This paper looks at the cases when Russian basic cultural values show up through linguistic choices shaping language production in the workplace, which are consequently misattributed by Western partners. No matter what the language of intercultural communication is - Russian, or English, or German - the meaning of many language expressions may be reconstructed wrongly by the representative of another culture. One of the main reasons for these pragmatic errors is The Politeness Principle applied differently as compared to one's native culture. Yet another - subdivisions within the Russian culture into three main subtypes: T(traditional), S (soviet), and W(westernized).

1. Cultural sensitivity and cultural knowledge.

Effective communication in organizations is one of the important instruments for creating sustainable competitive advantage of the organization within a dynamic environment of modern corporate world . Organizational communication is hard enough without being intercultural. And on top of it people have to deal with cultural differences (Persikova 2002).

Problems of cross-cultural communication tend to become crucial for the process of ongoing globalization of the world because they create obstacles to successful business and professional communication. One of the most effective ways to deal with cross-cultural misunderstanding is training for cross-cultural sensitivity. Besides training in general intercultural sensitivity that expatriate top managers from big corporations may be exposed at the organization's headquarters, there is a lot of culture-specific knowledge they have to acquire before they are ready for the overseas assignments. This information is hard to teach for a number of reasons. The main reason is a huge amount and diversity of cultural knowledge. It is hard to say what and to what extent has to be acquired so that a person may function constructively in a given culture. Learning certain specific traditions may seem useless, or better to say - of ethnographic, not practical value. On the other hand, - one never knows - it might prove to be very useful to understand such a specific cultural trait as, for instance, why characters in Russian films always seem to be quarrelling (while, in fact, they are not). Just observing this as a behavioral feature will only produce some unpleasant feelings - one reason why usually the Soviet/Russian films never enjoyed financial success in the US. But spending some effort on analyzing what this behavioral feature may denote and how it is related to other facts of Russian culture may help to avoid negative reaction and even, at some point may prove very helpful for understanding problems of the group dynamics in an office or a project team.

I suggest to treat most of the seemingly unrelated and isolated pieces of cultural information in a more systematic way as surface representations of certain basic cultural values, so that it will enable us to draw correct cultural inferences out of these knowledge. In the example above we have a surface (behavioral) representation - loud and intense pronunciation. It is defined as such ('too loud, too intense') on the basis of the impressions of an outsider, and is evaluated (in many cases - negatively) as a result of unconscious comparison to the similar (or - considered similar) communicative situations in the outsider's own culture ('people speak loudly and intensely when they quarrel'). Basic cultural values (in the example above - emotionality and directness) is the knowledge to be learned. It can be structured and organized in a compact way.

In that case, cultural inferences (in the example above - the problems that may arise for the group dynamics) would be those traits of (communicative) behavior that an outsider first consciously observed as surface representations, then attributed to a known basic value in order to use this knowledge for managing cultural differences effectively, without emotional evaluation. Within such an approach the most important information to be learned is basic cultural values, and the most important skills are intercultural sensitivity and ability for logical reasoning. Therefore, culturally mindful communication will consist in making cultural inferences only after surface representations have been already attributed to basic cultural values and on the basis of this match.

1.1. Russian cultural values reflecting basic world view attitudes.

Linguists researching cross-cultural communication and related issues from cultural anthropology generally agree about the relevance of basic cultural values that reflect a culture's world view and are themselves reflected in certain 'key words' and 'key concepts' of a given culture (Shmeljov 2002). In Anna Wierzbicka's highly influential book on cross-cultural pragmatics (Wierzbicka 1992) the following generalizations about the basic values/features of Russian culture are made. This research is based on huge amount of linguistic and cultural facts, reported in everyday speech and behavior, as well as in the Russian philosophical and literary tradition.

  • Emotionality: expressing the way you feel (both - good and bad feelings) and attention to what other people say about their feelings is considered good in a much greater variety of contexts. From this follows:
    - relations are more important than reality
    - interpersonal reality stands for external in many contexts.
    • One can observe this cultural feature in such language strategies as heavy use of 'culturally loaded words' like dusha - 'soul', which signals about the importance of inner world; abundance and great variety of active emotional verbs (as if emotions emerge on their own and are not just experienced) - volnovat'sja, pechalit'sja, udivljat'sja, radovat'sja - as compared to names for emotional states be glad, be sad, be angry, be happy. In the realm of proper names, Russian is famous for having lots of nicknames (=expressive derivation) - not only towards children as in English Teddie, Tommy, but towards adults without distinction of age or gender and in variety of contexts (Lenochka, Voloden'ka) to express the extremely important role of closeness and intimacy and to be able to communicate the minute aspects of feelings between individuals and the smallest shades of their relations. In other words, to express solidarity politeness by minimizing social distance.

  • Inclination towards judgmental attitudes: tendency towards and importance of ethical evaluation.

      One may expect to be morally judged and to consider it appropriate towards other people. One is eager to pronounce one's opinions. People expect and sometimes require from others moral evaluation of mutual loyalty, respect, sincerity.

      Language reflects this by the abundance (as compared with, say, English) of nouns - both positive and negative - expressing absolute moral judgment. This is different from using adjectives instead, which allows to describe just a feature of a person, while nouns attribute a person to a certain type.

  • No-control-over-the-world attitude: the realm of uncontrollable and, thus, unconceivable, is broader than expected by an observer from a Western culture, and it makes direct opposition to American pragmatism.
  • Irrationality of the world: one thinks and acts as if not able always rely on objective methods of analysis and logic. This is opposed to American positivism.

1.2. Based on 1.1. the following behavioral attitudes based on Russian cultural values provide potential catches for Western managers and Russian employees.

- Relations are more important than results.

- Interpersonal reality stands for external in more than expected contexts.

- The realm of uncontrollable and, thus, unconceivable is broader.

- Things may go worse or wrong at any moment (1).

- One cannot rely on objective methods of analysis and causality.

- There is a tendency towards and importance of ethical evaluation

Some other problems for cross-cultural communication and management are related to the fact that modern Russia is a rather chaotic conglomerate of significantly contradictory cultural pattern. What makes it different from, say, the multiculturalism of the USA is lack of legacy: neither historically, nor de juro was multiculturalism acclaimed in this context (2). One of the main divisions here is between traditional (T), inherited from the Soviet system (S) and westernized (W) patterns of cultural models. One of the main problems of cross­cultural communication is deciding which cultural pattern (W, S, or T) one is dealing with at any given moment with a given individual.

2. Culture-related communication patterns.

Of all possible types of culture-specific behavioral patterns I am going to concentrate on communication patterns. They may be described in terms of Hymes model of SPEAKING (Hymes 1974) or interpretive assessments negotiated through linguistic signaling processes (Gumperz 2001,p. 218). The latter means that certain linguistic structures serve as clues for interpreting of meaning and inferences based on cultural assumptions of the participants.

I will be listing a few instances of Russian communication patterns that lead to communication failures - even if the latter is only manifested in a worsened mutual image that communication partners go with after the speech event took place. In most cases their relation to the basic cultural values introduced in 1.1. is evident. These patterns cluster and make two types: one is related to the Politeness phenomena, the other to information-processing strategies characteristic of the given culture. Politeness as a socio- and linguapragmatic mechanism of human communication has been widely discussed and described in a variety of languages since the famous work of Brown and Levinson (1987). A typology of human information-processing strategies is yet to be developed. Main assumptions of the Politeness theory are discussed below.

2.1. The Politeness theory: general issues. (see (Kasper 1996)).

The seemingly main purpose of communication ("maximally efficient information exchange" - (Grice 1975)) is very often in contradiction with no less important 'social function' of communication - to support our ties with other individuals. The latter is usually described through the notion of face (Goffman 1967) - an individual's publicly manifest self-esteem. As individuals, we are constantly vigilant trying to support and maintain our 'negative face' (=the want of self-determination; trying to refrain from imposition on the freedom of the Addressee) and our 'positive face' (=the want of approval; saying 'nice' things to the Addressee to show that he is accepted) in accordance with how these concepts are understood in our culture. It has been demonstrated that not a single instance of communication can happen without incorporating certain politeness strategies; that individuals are extremely vulnerable to even slight violations of the usage of the politeness strategies appropriate in a given context, that communities differ immensely according to the exact rules of 'polite' behavior.

Social politeness refers to observing the rules of the social communicative game, while the function of tact is to regulate interpersonal relationships by providing support, empathy, and avoiding offence. Both social politeness and tact are universals of human behavior; yet communities differ in the ways they organize their social interaction, what counts as tactful, and how tact is strategically and linguistically implemented (Kasper 1996 p. 8).

Politeness investment varies according to contextual factors. Being linguistically polite always means additional effort, so the participants will only do this effort to certain extent in order to cover the losses associated with the face-threat. The bigger the threat - the more polite we are expected to be. There is a linear relationship between the following contextual factors of face-threat and politeness investment:

  • social distance between the communicators;
  • relative social power;
  • the degree of imposition associated with a face-threatening act (Brown and Levinson 1987).

Speech acts have been classified according to their inherent face-threat (threat to speaker/hearer's positive/negative face) and interpersonal impact (competitive, convivial, collaborative, conflictive - (Leech 1983).

There is a positive correlation (according to the theory) between politeness and indirectness of the linguistic expression. E.g. in American culture requests are normally considered most polite when expressed as conventionally indirect (as opposed to direct - on one side, and hints - on the other side.

2.2. Some types of linguistic action are carried out more frequently in some cultures than in others, and this seems to reflect their politeness value as perceived in the community. The following speech acts, being universal, may differ greatly in terms of the politeness strategies used to mitigate their face-threatening force. Those are: requests, apologies, complaints, compliments, refusals, rejections, disagreement, corrections, chastisement, giving embarassing information, thanking, suggestions, offers, and a few others.

The imposition of certain speech acts may be constructed as a composite of a few factors:

  • requesting - urgency, legitimacy, likelihood of hearer's compliance, speaker's psychological difficulty in carrying out the request;
  • apologizing - perceived severity of the offence, subsuming obligation to apologize, likelihood of apology acceptance;
  • thanking - indebtedness, comprising the degree of received benefit and trouble;
  • complaining - magnitude of social obligation violated by the offender

2.3. Social distance has been demonstrated to impact politeness in a more complex way than theoretically predicted. Rather than correlating in a linear fashion, social distance and politeness are related in a reverse bell-shaped curve ('Bulge'): most politeness appear to be expended in negotiable relationships with familiars but non-intimates, such as co-workers and friends. In the more fixed relationships at the opposite ends of the social distance continuum, like intimates on one side and strangers on the other, politeness is found to decrease.

3. Politeness strategies and communication across the boundaries of Anglo-American and Russian cultures.

    "In interaction with familiars, but not intimates, direct strategies (imperatives, statement of hearer's future action) seem more acceptable in the Slavic languages, Hebrew and German than in any of the standard varieties of English examined so far. It has been suggested that directness to speakers of these languages connotes sincerity, straightforwardness and cordiality … rather than imposition on their freedom of action." (Kasper 1996, p.10)

It is clear that these differences may lead to pragmatic failures in cross-cultural business context - be it communication in the workplace, at the negotiation table, or choosing management strategies. And what aggravates the situation is the fact that language capacity, even more - fluency, does not necessarily help to avoid these failures. The reason is that while 'pure' language mistakes (grammar, wrong lexical choices, pronunciation, etc) are easily understood as such, clumsy handling of politeness strategies or speech acts usage are taken as personality traits (Kniffka 1995). Thus, a person acting out his culture's politeness and speech acts strategies may seem to a representative of another culture as rude and imposing, or insecure and indirect, as unreliable partner, or pushy employee (Thomas 1984). In (Thomas 1995) two types of pragmatic failures are introduced depending on where in communicative event t here was a break in the mutual communicative competence. The sociopragmatic failures mean a wrong type of communication pattern chosen - a wrong politeness strategy (positive instead of negative, or vice versa), or a wrong type of a speech act (criticizing instead of complaining), or misunderstanding the real meaning of a speech act (declining invitation in attempt to be polite which is uderstood as unwillingness to come). Of course, 'wrong' in this context can only mean 'different from what the addressee for the given communicative act expects on the basis of his own culturally conditioned communicative competence. The linguapragmatic failures mean choosing some linguistic devices appropriate for carrying out a given strategy in one language/culture and inappropriate in another (in Russian the most polite form of request will include negation, while in English it will not, and at the same time requests containing negation will be possible in English, but not very polite, and using them will stress distance between the speaker and the addressee).

3.1. Politeness related problems. It has been demonstrated in abundant research (to mention just a few - (Ratmayr 1998), (Wierzbicka 1992) that cross-culturally the following oppositions (numbered only for my convenience without any special meaning given to the way they are ordered) are generally valid for interpersonal communication between Americans (As) and Russians (Rs):

  1. Rs value positive politeness more than negative;
  2. As pay more attention to negative politeness;
  3. Rs express more emotive data than As
  4. As are more conventionally indirect in requests than Rs
  5. Rs invest more effort into supporting their requests by justifications than As;
  6. As preface corrections with positive remarks more than Rs;
  7. for Rs directness with familiars is associated with sincerity;
  8. for As directness with familiars is associated with imposition on their freedom;
  9. there is a huge amount of linguistic means in Russian, specifically used to show warmth and inoffensive closeness with familiars and intimates, thus amplifying positive politeness;
  10. being translated into English, they will render into expressing patronizing attitude, thus becoming extremely offensive to the negative face;
  11. friends normally are considered 'intimates' to Rs, but 'familiars' to As;
  12. As express more politeness to 'strangers' than Rs do;
  13. for As apologizing means taking responsibility for the offence;
  14. for Rs apologizing is more of expressing compassion.

Summing it up, Russians are more insistent on expressing positive politeness and on expecting it. It normally means a smaller distance between equals. From the western point of view, their communication style also lacks expression of negative politeness, which often creates problems for teamwork. See also an extensive coverage of cross-cultural communication between Russians and Americans in (Leontovich 2002.)

3.2. Information-processing related problems.

  • Communication style is not targeted at reaching consensus - or at least that's how it may be judged by Western participants at a business meeting with Russian partners. Taking conversational turns Russians will often start with no! 'njet!' - even when agreeing with the previous speaker's point.
  • Wrong or no answers to your questions, or 'knowing better what you need'. This means that judgements, or 'good advice', are a common response to information-seeking behavior; thus, asking a Russian colleague, say, for a name of a potential partner X for an activity Y in a town Z may lead to an answer 'person M in the town N will better suit your activity Y', which does not mean rudeness or unwillingness to cooperate, but just the opposite - friendliness, desire to cooperate and help, which leads to making this judgement regarding the proposed activity. It is especially common between equals in an informal context - 'why do you use this chair it is bad for your back'.
  • Addressee's responsibility for information. It means that in Russia a person who is interested in getting information has to ask for it, and those who possess of information - especially institutions - dont't feel necessary to provide it without additional urging (you need this train schedule - you find a way to get it). And even being provided, information may be very inexplicit and inexhaustive. This communicative trait is in a drastic opposition to the demands of the modern communications age, so it has been changing very fast - at least for the 'new economy' spheres like Internet. The US communication style is an extreme difference to the Russian one: providing full, explicit, exhaustive information is the first duty of an organization to its public. In Germany one finds something in between: 'Why didn't you tell us this six months before' - 'You did not ask' (as in the case when you have asked for a phone number and got a prompt answer, but when trying later to make a phone call you find out that you lack a code that operates this given phone).
  • Potential mistrust of 'objective truths'. This can be traced down to a few basic cultural features, but is especially striking to the US partners regarding 'novelty'. When introducing new software you may expect to get an objection that the old one works pretty good. In conversation this communicative trait may look like irrationality, or argumentativeness ('why discuss things that are self-evident).
  • Parallel processing of information can be easily traced down to what Hall (Hall 1959) called polychronous - as opposed to monochronous culture. Not only can a person in an institutional setting respond to more than one person/task at a time, but it is also reflected in what seems as bad listening habits at the meetings and in the student audiences.

4. Applications.

In the field of cross-cultural communication role games proved to be a very effective instrument. They provide essential cultural info in a memorable and instructive way, which allows not only to acquire knowledge, but also to develop cross-cultural sensitivity and to internalize necessary skills. One example of such a game was created by the author under the name "Let's get to know each other" using the idea of a game "The Emperor's Pot" by Donald Batchelder (Batchelder 1996). The game stresses such important issues of Russian-Western professional communication as unpredictability of the partner, multiple factors that may influence one's partner behavior. It has varying levels of complexity, and may be used in different formats depending on the types of expertise both needed and available. In the following appendix I am quoting one type of information that the participants of the role game may use - see also (Batchelder 1996), p.99). Cultural models are not explicated here in terms of the involved cognitive schemas, but just labelled by the most prominent feature to differentiate them across the subcultures. Each of these labels (table cells) is a name for a culturally specific pattern of behavior that may be described using the machinery of applied cultural linguistics (see - Palmer 1996, Malcolm & Shariffian 2002) as a hierarchical set of slots in a frame that determines a cultural schema.

5. Appendix:

Russian Cultural Traits and Values.
(structured where possible by W-, S- and TR-subcultures (3)).

[This part is in the Word version]

* * *

(1) Note here a remark made recently by President Putin in the course of his on­line conference with Russian people. He was asked whether constitutional monarchy might still be a choice for Russia. The President smiled and said that surely in Russia anything might happen. After that remark he gave a serious answer.

(2) In the Soviet times assimilation was official policy; now the main official concern is for preserving traditional Russian culture and to a smaller extent traditional cultures of other ethnic groups from the negative influence of the global mass culture.

(3) West-oriented subculture, Soviet-style subculture, Traditional subculture


  1. Batchelder, D. (1996). The Emperor's Pot. Experiential Activities for Intercultural Learning. H. N. Seelye, Intercultural Press, Inc. 1: 85-100.
  2. Brown, P. and S. C. Levinson (1987). Politeness : some universals in language usage. Cambridge Cambridgeshire ; New York, Cambridge University Press.
  3. Goffman (1967). Interactional Ritual: Essays on Face to Face Behavior. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc.
  4. Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and Conversation. Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts. P. C. a. J. L. Morgan. New York, Academic Press: 41-58.
  5. Hall, E. T. (1959). The Silent Language. New York, Doubleday.
  6. Hymes, D. (1974). Foundations in Sociolinguistics: an Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  7. Kasper, G. (1996). Politeness. Handbook of Pragmatics. Amsterdam, Verschueren.
  8. Kniffka, H. (1995). Elemente einer kulturlontrastiven Linguistik. Frankfurt am Main; Berlin; Bern; New York; Paris; Wien, Lang.
  9. Leech, G. N. (1983). Principles of Pragmatics. London, Longman.
  10. Leontovich, O. (2002). Russkie i amerikantsy: Paradoksy mezhkul'turnogo obschenija. Volgograd: Peremena.
  11. Malcolm, I.G. & Sharifian, F. (2002). Aspects of Aboriginal English oral discourse: An application of cultural schema theory. Discourse Studies, 4(2), 169-181.
  12. Palmer, G. B. (1996). Toward a theory of cultural linguistics. Austin, University of Texas Press.
  13. Persikova, T. (2002). Mezhkul'turnaja kommunikatsija i korporativnaja kul'tura. Moskva: Logos.
  14. Ratmayr, R. (1998). "Hoeflichkeit als kulturspezifisches Konzept: Russisch im Vergleich.": 174-182.
  15. Shmeliov, A. (2002). Russkaja jazykovaja model' mira: Materialy k slovarju. Moskva: jazyki slavjanskoj kul'tury.
  16. Thomas, J. (1984). "Cross-cultural discourse as 'Unequal encounter': Towards a pragmatic analysis." Applied Linguistics 5(3): 227-235.
  17. Thomas, J. (1995). Meaning in interaction : an introduction to pragmatics. London ; New York, Longman.
  18. Wierzbicka, A. (1992). Semantics, culture, and cognition: universal human concepts in culture-specific configurations. N.Y., Oxford University Press.

Full text it word Full text in Word

    About the author:

    Mira Bergelson
    Associate Professor of Intercultural Communication
    Director, Russian-American Educational Program
    Department of Foreign Languages
    Moscow State University
    Moscow, Russia
    E-mail: mbergelson@mail.ru


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