Friday, January 11, 2013

Oh, those Russians!

Over a month ago, the NYT published a review of a run-away Russian bestseller, “America – What a Life!,” by longtime security pundit Nikolai V. Zlobin. Apparently, the book has tapped a Russian thirst to find out more about that strange life in the “American cul-de-sac.” In doing this it also dusts off some old cultural stereotypes - and I am still scratching my head over one of those. I have always thought that some stereotypes exist for a reason – but probably not all.

According to the review, Zlobin “devotes many pages to privacy, a word that does not exist in the Russian language, or in the airless human mass that forms when Russians wait in line. Americans, he reports, prefer to converse at a distance of at least four feet.” On the other hand, “Mr. Zlobin scrutinizes the American practice of interrogating complete strangers about the details of their pregnancies; their weird habit of leaving their curtains open at night, when a Russian would immediately seal himself off from the prying eyes of his neighbors.” I am not sure about those pregnancy-related inquiries, but I am curious as to why exposing oneself to the prying eyes of strangers counts as unadulated love for privacy.

I work in an academic building which houses the offices of both American and non-American faculty. No prizes for guessing members of which group (with a few notable exceptions) tend to keep their doors open most of the time. I must say I find this a bit spooky – maybe because I cannot understand the many faces of “privacy” (a word which does not exist in Bulgarian either).

To Zlobin’s credit, his book does seem to point to one fundamental difference which may underlie most of the more superficial cultural distinctions he describes. He suspects the difference in the choice of alcoholic drinks is a reflection of the difference in national character and depth of emotions” – and I suspect this emotional gap may be at the bottom of many other divergent attitudes as well. Unless human emotions are indeed socially constructed, as some anthropological dogma still holds.