“I’ll drive you over,” I bargain, “if you write your Christmas thank you letters.”
“Mooooohhhhhhmmm…” she wails, “I’ll do them after.”
“Do them now,” I say, “Non-negotiatiable.”
“Can I e-mail them?” she pleads.
Velvet grimaces, but silently takes the list, box of writing paper and roll of stamps I have ready for her. She slumps at the kitchen table and scratches away diligently, but unenthusiastically for forty minutes, occasionally asking how to spell “quilted” or “polar tech.”
In the car, Velvet comments that she never has to write thank you notes in Russia.
“That’s true,” I say, “but only Babushka and Dedushka give you things in Russia, and you are always there with them, so you don’t have to write them a note…and anyway, if you did, it would probably never reach its destination anyway…what with the postal service being the way it is.”
Velvet skipped off to go for a ride and I swung the car back towards home, contemplating the thank you note zeitgeist. What makes me hold a gun to my daughter’s head and deprive her of leisure and enjoyment until she puts pen to paper to thank someone for a gift or a visit, a favor, or simply going out of their way? I suppose it is because my mother held a gun to mine, and her mother held one to her head…all the way back to the Flood.
You never ever get a thank-you note in Russia. Not even via e-mail or text, so you can’t blame it on the They have no place in the strictly mercantile favor exchange in Russia. A credit history is built up with favors rendered. Direct debit involves sourcing someone who knows someone, who can get to someone who has what you need. It never occurs to Petrov to thank Ivanov.
Russians have learned, however, that many foreigners release favors for free: like the Dior scent sample sandwiched between the pages of Vogue, or the basket of hard candies at the doctor’s office. So they help themselves.
In college, my Russian teacher, a recent arrival to New York from Odessa, got me to hire her absolutely clueless sister, who spoke no English at all, as an office assistant at the law firm where I did night typing. A National Guide from the State Tourism Committee I’d worked with landed at JFK to find that her (male) sponsor hadn’t turned up (Mrs. Male Sponsor had found out), and she ended up living with me for six months. One of HRH’s military school buddies had a sister on an exchange program at Syracuse. We invited her for Christmas break, a three-week period, during which she spent the entire time lying on the sofa, eating Cheerios, watching videos, never once offering to help with any domestic chores. No thank you notes from any of them.
Bees Rees, the uncrowned Queen of Expat Moscow sent me a breezy e-mail requesting a command performance to meet with “a really gifted Russian colleague,” who wanted to explore opportunities in PR.
“No,” I wrote back, “And that does mean no – this is not a diplomatic fob off. The answer next week will be the same. I don’t do that anymore.”
Bees, who normally has the final word on everything was flummoxed.
“Why?” she asked finally.
“You know, I am just fed up with doing things for a crowd who can’t put “thank” together with “you” when I do it. A Russian wants something — or decides that he or she can get something from you, so they beg, plead, wheedle, and cajole you in that slightly breathless voice. They flatter you; say you are the only person who can help them. You provide the necessary, and then, once they’ve got the contact, the quote, the copy or the e-mail of someone who can do even more for them, you never hear from them again. I feel like used Kleenex. I don’t expect them to put a stamp on good stock writing paper, but an e mail or a phone call wouldn’t kill them.”
“Wow,” said Bees. “Wow.”
I just say no. I don’t help Tom’s 18-year old Russian girlfriend du jour re-do her resume.
I say “no” to Russians in the USA who expect me to take stuff to their relations in Russia. “That’s why God invented DHL,” I tell them. I’m done spending hours copyediting emails for HRH’s turbo-charged female relations to their boss’s boss.
Thank you notes are never going to take off in Russia. I once asked this Gorgon at a Russian company I worked for to send a personal thank-you note to a very senior executive from a Fortune 100 company for a face-to-face meeting. Olga Vladimirovna clearly felt it was a big waste of time but handed me this:[Company Letterhead]
Letter # 49/2001
LETTER OF THANK YOU TO ABC COMPANY
Respected Mr. O:
The General Director of XYZ company, Ivanova, Olga Vladimirovna, conveys her respect to you and your organization and extends her gratitude for the, carried out by you, meeting on 19.08.01 in the city of Moscow to discuss company ABC’s mutually profitable business negotiations with XYZ.
We assume that continued mutually convenient business partnerships will be in the future.
Ivanova, Olga Vladimirovna[Place for Company Stamp]
Ah, the art of Christmas thank you notes long ago failed to stick with me. I suppose I should move to Russia for the holidays. Or maybe, I am actually part Russian (there is that mysteriously pale set of silent faces in my father’s family album that have yet to declare themselves). But I do deeply admire anyone who does them (by hand? you goddess! on good paper? you saint!). Very impressive. I do manage thank you cards for birthday gifts and make my son send them (okay, to be honest, I make my son send them, but on my birthday I prefer to phone around my thanks or email, never text), but that is my effort for the whole year. At the holidays, cards get exchanged or gifts — but never both. For goodness sakes, why both? Never understood the British obsession with sending a card to someone you already sent a big wrapped box to… I mean trees are dying here and they already got the Wii, they want a card too? I know, I’m a heathen. But there you are. Now… off to go make a few calls and find out about those faces in the photo album.
I’m still going to nag my son to get his thank you letters written and mailed. One never regrets teaching them this skill.
SO NOT WHAT HAPPENED!!!!!!!!!
Heard an interesting radio program this morning on CBC about Christianity and the interviewee suggested that the destruction of religion by the Soviets took away the idea of individual conscience in Russia. The state would provide all judgement on right or wrong so people wouldn’t have to.
Oh I think the ROC did away with individual conscience long before the Soviets came on the scene…
But might have
It’s free (well, a great deal for .44 cents) and it pays HUGE dividends…
I think the author is right. Although, I have to say that there are exceptions to the rule, and most of my students are part of them. And I have to thank them for the beautiful and very useful camera they offered me, for which I really don’t know how to thank them as I really wish to!! I also got quite a lot of new student recommended by them and also written recommendation saying “Thank you”. For some of them it took quite a while if not years to say, but they did. Maybe it was the contact with foreigners, but I would not like to discredit the good will of their heart.
But, true, the majority of Russians I see, and some almost every day, don’t bother to say “Thank you”, but maybe it will come only when they will learn to say “please” when they ask something. Because THAT lacks too!!
I think that, people during the Soviet regime took for granted that their pairs had to serve them on an equal level without having to plead and thank, because it was “normal”.
I remember an anecdote:
A student of mine from Almaty called me after six months after we finished the lessons with her. She was back for a stay in the US where she had relatives. She told me that, the first month she was getting fed up with the “thank you”‘s she got any time she gave something or some service. And she added that “it seemed so fake!”. But when she returned to Almaty (Kazakhstan) she felt a real lack of respect from her compatriots, even a feeling of rudeness, because they never say “Thank you”.
It did not prevent them from using my bathroom several times for a week because hers was being rebuilt, and from disappearing forever without saying “thank you”.
Talking about Kleenex?
Russian gracelessness is something I still have trouble dealing with after my 10 years here.
I do notice that those who know some English who are aware I am an American often say Thank you at the right times, with a look of knowing savvy!
But forget about hearing please.
Oh, I absolutely believe in, and enforce, the hand written thank you note. No computer print outs, no emails, no phone calls. In fact, Boychik must write the thank you note before he can use the gift.
I am still, however, trying to resolve the tie to proper etiquette with the environmental impact of the paper and the trucks, airplanes, and then other trucks to deliver the slaughtered trees.
Fair enough. I’m not sure about the reason for this – Russians being innately ungrateful or thank you notes just not being part of the culture.
It took me a while to get used to the Christmas cards I received from my US host family/ies – “Dear X, Merry Christmas. Love, Z.” For the longest time, I was offended by this, as I saw it, stock postcard.
Then again, I always have a hard time coming up with all the indispensable “I wish you health, love, and lasting friendships,” and so on and so forth that I’m expected to write on a Russian card. So I’ve definitely mellowed down to the brevity of American postcards.
You touch on an interesting cultural difference — the meaningful message versus the token message. I put the Russian lack of thank you notes down to the postal system, really…though I have been very hurt in the past 20 years by getting used and then not thanked.
But sincere thanks to you for taking the time to send this message!!