Minding your Russian Ps and Qs

Drawing by Niyaz Karim

Drawing by Niyaz Karim

The mother bear in a children’s poem by Emma Moshkovskaya complained about the rudeness of her furry son: (Izvol…/ Pozvol…/Have long been moth-eaten!/ Poor pozhaluista, Whatever is left of it?) Well, "pozhaluista" is still alive and kicking, but it often causes confusion for English speakers and Russian speakers learning English alike.


The “Dictionary of Russian Speech Etiquette”, by A. Balakai, provides four definitions for this word: 1) one of the most widespread intensifiers of politeness when making a request, offering advice, extending an invitation, apologising, etc.; 2) a polite or welcoming positive response to a request or a question; 3) a polite response to an expression of gratitude; 4) a polite response to an apology.  Let’s take a brief look at how пожалуйста is used in these functions and what some of the common pitfalls are.


The first meaning seems straightforward enough, with “please” appearing to be the universal equivalent, as in: "Peredai pozhaluista gorchitsu" (Could you please pass the mustard?).  In English, however, we sometimes use “please” on its own as a peremptory and possibly irritated request to stop an activity, usually with an accompanying gesture.


The use of "pozhaluista" with no accompanying words in such situations could be misconstrued as an invitation (Meaning 2 – English speakers use “please” in this meaning less often) with hilarious results. A friend told me about an American woman who spoke some Russian who was being aggressively hit on by a drunk at a bar. She tried to get him to leave by waving her hands and desperately saying: "pozhaluista!" which, in this case, sounded more like “Go ahead!” (When her husband came back he solved the problem with the more direct: "Von otsyuda!" – Get out of here!)

"Pozhaluista" could be used in this context, but only within phrases like: "Pozhaluista, ne nado / Pozhaluista, davaite ne budem" (Please, don't! / Please, let's don't do this). In the second meaning, "pozhaluista" could correspond to “please” or “here you are/sure/no problem” depending on the type of response: "Budete chai? – Da, pozhaluista." (Would you like some tea? – Yes, please.) "Mozhno ya naliyu sebe eshyo chayu? – Pozhaluista, ugoshaites!" (Can I have some more tea? – Sure! Help yourself.) Note that, in the second meaning, when said with a deliberately nonchalant/abrupt intonation, "pozhaluista" implies that consent is given with marked indifference or even mild annoyance: "Razreshite, ya vsyo-taki sam pereproveryu. – Pozhaluista!" (I’d still like to double-check it myself. – Sure/Go ahead.)


Meaning 3 is a standard case of “here you are/you’re welcome”, which Russian speakers do not always associate with "pozhaluista".


A one-time Russian colleague of mine was rather perplexed by the “here you go” at the end of an e-mail from a foreign partner who had forwarded something to him, and interpreted it along the lines of “And where the hell did you come from?”  (my colleague was only beginning to work in a new capacity).
This reminds me of another useful Russian phrase for “you’re welcome” – "ne za shto". Used colloquially, it implies that the provider of something does not want to overemphasise the value of his service. However, given the literal meaning of the phrase (“There’s nothing to thank me for”), it could come in handy when translating the title of Will Ferrell’s spoof on George W. Bush “You’re Welcome, America!” – «Ne za shto, America!»


When used as a response to an apology (Meaning 4), "pozhaluista" corresponds to “It’s OK/It’s fine/Never mind” and is synonymous in Russian with phrases like "Nichevo / Nichevo strashnava / Pustyaki". At the same time "pozhaluista" can be part of an interjectory phrase like "Smotrite pozhaluista, kakoi obidchivy!" (A bit touchy, aren’t we?).


Finally, a note on punctuation. In Russian, "pozhaluista" is set off by commas when it’s used parenthetically in the abovementioned four meanings, but not as part of the interjectory phrase or in the meaning of “yes” – "Mozhno s vami pogovorit? – Posle obeda pozhaluista, a seichas ya zanyat" (“Can I talk to you? – Sure, after lunch. Right now I can’t.”). So English phrases like “Could you, please, send us your samples?” are probably indicative of their Russian origin.

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