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How to Approach a Russian Posted by on Nov 12, 2007 in language

Господин, товарищ – молодой человек?

It’s that old dilemma again – how do you approach a Russian in a courteous and politically correct manner? Saying ‘comrade’ to anyone anywhere after 1992 without feeling a tinge of irony is impossible, and even though the titles used before the October Revolution, such as «господин» [mister] and «госпожа» [miss, mrs], have started their return back into society, they have yet to shed that touch of sarcasm against the upper-class so common during 70 years of Soviet Union. Anyone who has survived at least a slender course of the basics in Russian language can’t spend a month in Russia without coming face to face with this dilemma. For example: you ask a male stranger standing with his back turned against you what the time is by using the common phrase: «Молодой человек, вы мне не подскажете, который час?» [Young man, won’t you tell me what time it is?] The “young man” turns around and it becomes clear that when he actually was a “young man” the standard phrase used for talking to strangers was indeed товарищ. You smile an awkward smile as if you meant it as a compliment while he tells you, as if nothing happened, that it’s a quarter past five. While shopping over the counter in smaller grocery shops the very same thing will happen – with the opposite sex. The first couple of times when you direct the question: «Девушка, сколько стоит вон та шоколадка?» [Girl, how much does that chocolate bar over there cost?] to a woman clearly long since ready to retire may be uncomfortable and sometimes you might almost want to say «женщина» [woman] instead. This is, however, not to be recommended. Either you accept that in public every Russian citizen has the right to be eternally young, or you switch to using the more suitable, from a Western point of view, phrase for opening a conversation: «Извините…» [Excuse me…].

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  1. JTapp:

    That’s helpful advice. There’s always that awkward moment when you’re looking for a magic word to get someone’s attention. I wish they still used tovarisch.

  2. Vetrivel Sethuraman:

    I was in magadan and Sakhlain for 4 years. Russian cultures are rich and I saw that in Magadan. Still they proctise but do not know about the future generations. Culture of any country should not die with the modern world

  3. Simona P.:

    This is true regarding to approuching a women as “Девушка” (a girl), but it is not the same regarding a man. Nobody in Russia would call somebody who is about to retire ” a yonge man”!