Words Often Remain Unheard

Saint Petersburg Travel Blog

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Russian & American students on Nevsky Prospect

Does a culture create a population or do a nation’s people create a culture? I have found myself pondering this question repeatedly as I meet a variety of people here in Russia. My instinctive reaction upon arriving here was to simply answer that Russian people are a distinct, identifiable breed who all share many characteristics. After living here just over two weeks, I have gradually recognized the aforementioned statement as entirely erroneous. Initially I saw the Russians as they appear to a stranger on the street- unfriendly, rushed, and over-dressed. With time, I allowed those ignorant stereotypes to vanish and began to form my opinions based on personal interactions, friendships, etc. In the past week, a combination of graduate students, employees in the labor force, and university students has provided me with a focused lens through which I can view this country and develop a wholesome opinion of the people.

At dinner with Russian students

I have discovered a great deal of variety amongst the students themselves. On one hand, I have encountered students who are intensely patriotic and do not even desire to travel outside the Russian borders. On the other hand, I have met students who view their country as flawed and as a result, aspire to move to another country to start anew. I have encountered students who are studying business because they believe that globalization, industrialization, and entrepreneurship are impending forces in their near futures. I have encountered students who are studying Russian history in order to properly immerse themselves in Russia’s complex political structure in a manner that will enable them to gain respect while making positive long and short term changes for the country.

At dinner again :)
I have encountered students studying biology, zoology, and medicine because they view science as one of the only ways we will be able to sustain life on this future, not just in our individual homelands. All of these students clearly hail from different socio-economic and academic backgrounds; however, they all share one common desire: the intention to learn English.

By no means am I implying that English is the only language that these students desire to learn or that all Russian students are interested in English. I am merely stating that the students whom I have been interacting with are all interested in English (lucky for me- this means I can communicate with them) but still create a diverse group. I can understand this desire- the overwhelming feeling that one needs to know another language in order to do business.

The entire group at the University
 As the world incurs the wrath of globalization, doing business has grown to incorporate a fundamental element of doing business across cultures. As a result, individuals interested in pursuing success, whatever that may mean to them, need to adapt their skill set, personality, and approach to others in order to facilitate communication with a large base of cross-cultural consumers. One of the best ways to approach adaptation and progressive change is through languages. Languages enable people to connect on a personal, intimate level. Someone may look different to you in regard to race, gender, etc; however, if they speak your language, a commonly-understood sense of acceptance and camaraderie immediately enters into your interactions.

Yes, I do believe languages to be a great opportunity, but I also believe that they have difficult, detrimental consequences along the way as well.

Me, Stacey and Rachel at the University
As the world requires more and more people to learn a variety of languages, society becomes prone to the expectation that someone will understand you everywhere you go. An integral part of traveling, in my opinion, is the challenge that results from miscommunication or an utter and complete inability to communicate. If the entire world begins to speak the same common languages in addition to their own languages, will this tourist trap come about any more? Also, the growing need for lingual diversity and talent brings with it high pressure for assimilation, learning, and penetrating international and national boundaries. In Russia, I have felt overwhelmed on multiple occasions. I have been unable to communicate the fact that I am a vegetarian in restaurants, unable to ask prices in stores, and unable to negotiate prices with taxi drivers.
Visiting Catherine's Summer Palace with a Russian student who recently finished the Graduate School of Management
These every-day interactions easily became simple realities in my everyday life in America, but while studying abroad, they have become stressful challenges. Aside from the students I was previously discussing, I have struggled to find any people here who speak or understand English. This leads me to generalize and in doing so, to conclude that I think the problem could be generational. Perhaps as more and more generations spawn from us and enter into this changing world, we will possess a greater knowledge of languages and with that, a greater understanding of the urgent need and importance for lingual diversity in the modern world. With this power yielded properly, the world can gradually become a more accessible place for business people, tourists, and students alike.
The English class!

I have been fortunate enough to engage in conversation about the aforementioned topics and hypotheses with Russian students themselves. Friday, Professor Coyle arranged for native English speakers to have the option of visiting an Undergraduate English class at a local university. Most of the students in this class had never met Americans before and as a result, were overwhelmingly, and quite obviously, overcome by nerves. As I sat in their classroom, I watched their nerves drain the color from their eyes, the steadiness from their hands, and the strength from their voices. Several students even appeared to have their tongues hidden by their nerves. The nerve of those nerves!

Putting my horrible linguistic jokes aside, I could not comprehend why the students appeared to be so worried. I am naturally a very confident, outgoing, and oftentimes, too friendly, person. As a result, I struggle to understand the reasons why another person would intentionally choose to be shy or reserved. I immediately tried to bring everyone out of their shells by exclaiming phrases in my horrible Russian and providing everyone at the table with a good cause for laughter. Rounds of laughter ensued, but conversation was not sparked. Over time, the conversation came about naturally. In the first hour, the American students spoke until our throats were scratchy and our lips were exhausted from being apart for such extended periods of time. By the second hour, the American students’ ears were burning and their lips appeared to be glued together. This change amazed me! For me, this has honestly been one of the largest, measurable cultural differences: the natural comfort zone. As American tourists, we all approached this situation in a very relaxed, casual manner. For the Russian students, this meeting was an affair. They planned for a week what to talk about, what to share, what to do, and what to eat. Several of the students even admitted to looking up words or articles online in order to have intelligent talking points ready for us. As our time together passed, the Russian students clearly realized that our expectations for them were set on student standards. We hoped for them to be our friends, to speak with us casually about their interests, and maybe even to make some plans to go out with us later that night. We were not looking for bullet pointed outlines, recent news stories, or academic genius- we were looking for companionship, for commonalities, and for comfort. Fortunately, the experience gave both the American and Russian students a very realistic perspective of other people’s expectations in different countries.

As our comfort zones grew, we ended up exchanging phone numbers and making plans for later that evening. Several of us went to Nevsky Prospect, the famous street in St Petersburg, to the Italian restaurant district to meet a Junior girl from the class we visited last night. She brought three new people whom we had not yet met. At dinner, the entire process I just discussed started again. The newcomers were nervous, apprehensive about speaking English, and more interested in listening to the conversation than contributing. As a result of our recent experience with this, we were able to patiently goad them into the conversation.

By the end of the night, I ended up in the midst of a very deep conversation with the person seated to my left- a boy from Uzbekistan who was attending a University in Russia. I eagerly brought up the topic of learning different languages and shared the difficulty that I have faced with Russian words in the past few weeks. Per usual, I spoke a mile a minute expressing concerns and making points in a punctual manner. He listened politely, but instead of sharing an opinion or a counter-argument, he stated the following, “Communication is not about using the right words, it is about making the effort.” Ironically, I was speechless. He was utterly and completely right. I do not speak Russian, but I appear to make more progress and encounter more friendliness when I attempt to use my strange, scattered vocabulary of Russian phrases and familiar hand gestures. He does not speak English perfectly, but he can make any of us smile or laugh by explaining a word instead of having the ‘right’ one on the tip of his tongue. Could it be that our words are not quite as powerful as we all believe? Perhaps the true power we wield is in our intentions, our most valiant efforts.



fransglobal says:
Haha Vance loves Jared Diamond. I do though. Like your blog, very thought provoking.

Another couple of books - Collapse and The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee well worth a read.

I haven't read Notes from the Underground - maybe I should.
Posted on: Sep 21, 2010
vances says:
I just suggested "Guns, Germs and Steel" (Jared Diamond) to a TB and after reading your entry thought you would also enjoy this book...if you haven't already read it. Diamond also dwells upon culutres and makes astounding connections!
Posted on: Sep 11, 2010
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Russian & American students on Nev…
Russian & American students on Ne…
At dinner with Russian students
At dinner with Russian students
At dinner again :)
At dinner again :)
The entire group at the University
The entire group at the University
Me, Stacey and Rachel at the Unive…
Me, Stacey and Rachel at the Univ…
Visiting Catherines Summer Palace…
Visiting Catherine's Summer Palac…
The English class!
The English class!