7 easily misused Russian phrases that could land you in hot water

Alexander Kislov
Saying only someone’s first name and expecting quick answers to a greeting do not cut the mustard in Russia, which has many unwritten rules of communication.

1. Free up your schedule before asking, “Как дела?”

In the Anglophone sphere we have many ways to respond to the question, “How are you?” There is “Alright,” if you’re English; and “I’m good,” if you’re American; or “Grand,” if you’re Irish. All these are essentially polite deflectors to show the person that you’re not in the business of wasting his/her time.

Such wishy-washiness, however, doesn’t cut it with Russians, who say “kak dela?” only when they want a real answer. If you say these words then be ready to free up your schedule and listen to their problems.

“I used to always say 'kak dela?' to a girl in my college, not even as a question, but as a habit,” says Alice Gallanagh, a former student at Moscow’s Gorky Literary Institute. “One day she stopped me, annoyed, and said, ‘Why do you always want to know how I am? You can see that I’m in a rush.’”

If you genuinely want a quick answer, it’s best to go with “все хорошо?” (Vsyo kharasho? – ‘Everything ok?’)

2. Don’t be too apologetic

Everyone who’s been to the UK or Ireland knows this situation: Someone grazes your elbow or comes within a few inches, and you get a variation of “sorry mate.”

In Russia, saying “извините” (izvinite – ‘sorry’) is reserved for situations when someone is actually at fault. If you’re in a crowd, it’s expected that you’ll come into physical contact with others at some point. Of course, you can apologize in such situations, but don’t expect any return courtesies. Outright flattening someone or clumsily colliding with them are the only times when “izvinite” absolutely needs to come into play. At least they’ll know you mean it!

3. Swear by saying “pancake”

So, you’ve watched some YouTube tutorials on Russian “mat,” and now you know basic swearing. What these videos won’t tell you is when to use these words.

In reality, you have to know your audience because many Russians will be offended if you use vulgar expressions, no matter what age. If you’re in a bar with the lads, for example, you’re probably okay to swear, but many Russian girls will give you a wide berth for a filthy tongue. Bear in mind that it’s in fact technically illegal to swear on Russian streets – do it to the wrong person and you might even end up in trouble with the law. 

For a foreigner, there are a couple of safe ways to go about it. First of all, you can express your anger with the word, blin (‘pancake’, oddly). It’s a lighter-sounding expletive like “damn,” and it’s acceptable in any scenario. If you’re really feeling the desire to get some obscenities off your chest, then wait until those around you swear first in order to get the green light. After all, no one likes a ruffian over here.

4. Flatter old men instead of calling them “Mister”

If you’re looking for a Russian equivalent of “Mister,” the word “господа” (gospoda – ‘sir/sire’) is not your friend (although some translation apps might tell you so). In reality, you want to go with “молодой человек” (molodoi chelovek – ‘young man’), which strangely enough can be used even if the man in question is obviously not young.

A hangover from the Russian Empire, gospoda remains an extremely formal term of address that should only be used in places of high esteem – at a ball, ballet, or high society cultural event. If you’re not in a tux or fancy dress, it’ll sound very strange.

Since it was frowned upon in the USSR as an aristocratic term, Russians have it ingrained in their minds not to use this word, unless with a huge dose of irony. Older people with communist sympathies will go out of their way to use "товарищ" (tovarisch – ‘comrade’).

5. Get ready to remember everyone’s middle name

In many ways, Russia remains a very conservative society, and when any hint of formality is involved, a strict hierarchy is adhered to. So, if you’re unsure how to address someone who is socially above you, using their first name and patronymic (middle name derived from your father’s first name) is the safer and more respectful option. Oddly, some long-married couples in Russia’s provinces continue to address each other using patronymics.

In general, this applies to your professor, a senior officer in your company, an army general, your doctor and so on. Better safe than sorry. If they deem it too formal, they’ll let you know.

John Allister, a Moscow-based teacher from the U.S., learned the hard way: “When I first tried to view an apartment here, my landlord introduced himself as ‘Ivan Nikolaevich’. I had just read Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and I was trying to get pally with him, so I replied, ‘Great, so I can call you Vanya?’ To cut a long story short, I didn’t get that apartment.”

6. Don’t address older people like your best mate

French speakers will be familiar with this rule. Unless you’re in the most chilled hipster café in Russia, no stranger will address you with the informal “ты” (ty, ‘you’). Instead they will use “вы”, (Vy), and so should you, until invited to do the opposite. This especially goes for elderly Russians – addressing them with the informal pronoun will not only come across as ignorant, but also rude.

The only stranger that you can comfortably address as “ты” is either a small child or someone under the age of 30 who has been newly introduced to you by another friend. Of course, you must be around the same age.

7. Don’t speak Polish when making a toast

Somehow, many believe “на здоровье” (‘na zdorovie’) is the standard glass-clinking cheer, but that is a complete myth, (it’s actually said in Polish, and not in Russian). Even the Russian equivalent, "за здоровье" (za zdorovie – ‘to your health’), is quite lazy. Toasts have greater meaning in Russia, and should express gratitude for drinking with friends.

If you say ‘na zdorovie’, your Russian friends will only think that you tried to learn their language by listening to Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the very least, you’ll make everyone at the table cringe. A real toast has a more complex structure, and should show at least some thoughtfulness. Learn the basics with our how-to video.

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