‘Почему Вы мне тыкаете?’: The pitfalls of courtesy in Russian grammar

Alena Repkina
There are two ways to say “you” in Russian. And using them wrongly could lead to all manner of uncomfortable situations.

Having received a decent upbringing in one’s own language, every person wants to transfer these habits to a foreign language. However, every language has its own ideas about courtesy and boundaries. Russian is no exception. Sometimes, things can go wrong from the first statement you utter. Let’s look at the important rules that govern polite communication, which you’ll find useful when speaking Russian with natives. 

At the grammatical level, Russian uses the ВЫ pronoun to denote politeness in a conversation. It works together with a plural form of a second-person verb (the verb ends with -ТЕ). Plural, however, does not mean that you’re addressing several people at once; it merely illustrates that you’re keeping to a polite form of addressing the person you’re talking to, respecting the appropriate distance required for formal “Вы”-based communication. “Ты”-based communication, on the other hand, is informal, as it uses ТЫ, which works in conjunction with the single form of a second-person verb. Using this strategy while addressing someone denotes a friendly, familiar format of communication - which must also be comfortable for the interlocutor.

Use “Вы” for polite communication in the following situations:

- with strangers, people in the street;

- with elders;

- with teachers, doctors, etc.;

- with service sector employees: salespersons, couriers, cab drivers, etc.

- with colleagues at work and so on.

"Do you get off at the next stop?"

"Yes, I do."

"Could you stop by the store?"

"Sure, no problem."

"Do you know when we'll be on vacation?"

"June, I think. Where do you want to go?"

"Do you know where the surgeon's room is?"

"Yes, go to room 203."

A consistent discernment between “Ты” and “Вы”-based communication leads to the creation of funny verbs in conversational Russian, which signal to the interlocutor that they’ve chosen the wrong strategy: ТЫКАТЬ is the mistaken act of using the informal “you”, while ВЫКАТЬ is to denote that using the formal “you” is wrong in a given situation. However, be aware of the dangers that come with these verbs, as they denote a certain degree of annoyance. 

You see, "тыкать" and “выкать" are slang terms (the former actually means “to poke”) - they don’t exist in the strict sense of the word, and are only used when one is accusing the interlocutor or someone else of prematurely or inappropriately switching to the incorrect form of communication. 

"Do you get off at the next stop?"

"Why do you 'poke' me? Do we know each other?"

 

"Are you going to the lecture?"

"Alina, we've been studying together for 3 years, why are you calling me 'Vy'"? 

Despite that, people’s relationships, after all, develop with time. For example, many colleagues tend to become friends. So, how would you go about switching from «Вы» to «ты»? It only takes one phrase:

- Может быть, перейдём на «ты»? Не против?

- Let's switch to 'ty' if you don't mind?

And if the person agrees, you can feel safe in using the informal mode of communication.

"Do you know when we get days off?"

"June, I think. Where would you like to go?"

"Spain, probably. Can we switch to 'ty'?"

"Yes, of course! We've been sitting together for lunch every day, let's switch to 'ty'".

To better memorize these rules, practice both forms of communication and, with luck, you won’t ever hear anyone telling you not to ТЫКАТЬ or ВЫКАТЬ

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