Sooner or later it will come up; that ‘thing’ about “leaving like an English person” or “to leave English-style”. For quite some time I thought I’d got away with it, but no, now it’s been queried twice in the space of two months. Some stereotypes are true after all. The fact that they, the Russians, will remark upon it is one example, and the fact the we, the English, will, on occasion, do “it” is another.
The expression refers to the noted tendency for a Brit to simply walk out of a social gathering, party or similar as if everyone – and crucially – the hosts- had simply ceased to exist. Or, arguably more offensively, as if they had simply ceased to matter. The departing Russians will still be shaking hands with new acquaintances and thanking the hosts, whilst the Brits have already departed in silence and are heading down the street to move on with their lives! How do I know this is true? -why, it’s because I’ve done it of course. I’ve also returned “like an English person”; -slotting back into the party later and carrying on like nothing happened. Is that so wrong? Probably, although I don’t think that they have an expression for that one, yet.
At this point, you may already be thinking something akin to “well, there’s no way that I would do something like that”, and you are probably right, after all: you should know. But what about leaving with a perfunctory “cheers” and a casual wave of the hand? That’s the ‘lite’ version.
Of course, we are discussing a trend in the graph, so to speak, not an absolute certainty in all cases. It’s consistent enough to be noticed, and to therefore be a “thing”.
The reaction tends to be one of mildly amused puzzlement, as it seems, from a Russian perspective, to be such an odd thing to do. This may fly in the face of another stereotype: that the Russians are cold, stern, unfriendly and unsmiling people. Such a statement is a red-flag that the complainant has not really experienced Russian culture in anything other than the most superficial manner and then merely glanced-off. No one has been everywhere or knows everything, so that’s ok. Alternatively, perhaps he or she has just been unlucky and met the wrong people, every society has its quota of ‘wrong’ people, after all.
We interpret Russian plain-speaking as rudeness, and their wary psychological distance with unknown, unquantified people as innate unfriendliness. Believe me though, if you get welcomed into their world, behind this seemingly impenetrable wall, then you’ll be faced with a good deal more hospitality and familiarity than you perhaps bargained for, -and with unvoiced assumptions of reciprocation to boot.
Similarly, they look superficially at us and immediately see an apologetic, reserved politeness, almost to the point of delicacy. They hear us lace and weave our questions with: “sorry, but…”, “I hope you don’t mind if…”, “may I ask…” etc, lest we somehow offend each other by asking something directly (the horror!), whilst they get to the point and frankly just want the answer. They have a one-word, formal equivalent of “excuse me”, and frankly, that will have to do.
Also, notable – to them – is the frequent default use of our “sorry” (again) in casual, incidental encounters. For instance, when someone is blocking our way or nearly walks into us by not paying attention, and without thinking, we are the ones to automatically say “sorry”.
There comes the inevitable, disappointed realisation -for them- though; that our “politeness” is often as superficial as their icy “wall”. After paying attention, they inevitably notice that our smiling auto-apology -or even “thank you”- is often followed by a muttered: “idiot” under our breath, after the bumbling target has wandered off. So, we are superficial, two faced, social cowards, -sometimes. Similar to the inevitable “leaving like the English”, this topic is also on the cards and heading your way sooner or later.
Also, why all the smiling? They may ask, as they see us superficially beaming to unknown strangers. Again, sadly, superficial is the operative word (or perhaps; an ulterior motive). Russians do smile,-a lot, but it’s usually reserved for situations when there is something ‘solid’ behind it; amongst friends, for example. If you walk through Russia casually smiling at strangers, you will quite possibly appear mentally deficient, a ‘grinning idiot’, or be asked – quite genuinely- “do you know me?”. So, in essence, it’s often about context with them; that there’s an appropriate situation and reason for various types of behaviour. Also, back to generalisations again, they usually mean it, and we often don’t.
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