From Nyet to Da

A known Russian cultural habit is to first offer a negative answer to inquiries and favors. This initial negative response often does not mean ‘no’. With a little conversation and/or cleverness, it may become a ‘yes’ or even an ‘of course! yes’. There is a book called, “From Nyet to Da” (from no to yes) that documents this idiosyncrasy and gives advice to the bewildered and rebuffed foreigner.

I first encountered this bit of culture four years ago, when Maya and I went to a remote Lake Baikal resort. The only place to eat within a 30-mile radius was at the local cafeteria. The first morning, we went to the cafeteria and asked for a breakfast menu. “We’re closed, and, besides, we do not have any food!” came the angry-sounding reply. We did not bring food with us, so we decided to improvise. I noticed a few candy bars behind the counter and asked if we could buy some. The waiter then barked, “Candy for breakfast? You should eat real food. Will you have eggs or kasha?” This happened before every meal that weekend.

That is probably an extreme example (the waiter was a little weird), but it does happen a bit like that. An attendant at a ticket counter might tell you there are no tickets, but if you ask in a slightly different way, you may be on your way to your destination. The same goes for many other public service offices and businesses. You get used to it after a while.

Question: Is this specific to Russian culture?

Last week, I purchased a cool commentary set online from Logos Bible Software. They sent the CDs to my address in the US. I wrote tech support and asked if I could download volumes of the commentary when I need them, explaining that it would probably be months before the CDs would be brought to me way out here in Siberia, and that I need them for a study that I will be teaching.

Here are some excerpts from their reply:

Sorry, but it is
impossible for us to help you in this way. You must wait for your CDs. There is no way we can allow you to download the commentaries from our website. We are sorry.

Even though they left no hope, I responded with this email:

Dear Tech Support,

Thank you for your kind response. I do not mean to be pest, but could you please clarify as to why it is impossible? Downloading the commentaries would be most helpful to me, and besides, Logos Tech Support has allowed me to download ship-only products in the past. However, if it is indeed impossible, then I will patiently wait.

Sincerely, Mike

It turned into a classic case of from Nyet to Da; the next day, Logos sent me the unlock files and the download addresses. They wrote, “you are more than welcome to download the commentaries as needed”.

Thank you, Logos. I'll have the eggs, please.


4 Responses to “From Nyet to Da”

  1. 1 Alissa Maxwell January 31, 2006 at 7:53 am

    That last line made me laugh so hard, I almost spit water all over my desk! That’s a classic. I guess in every culture there is sometimes a need to prod for what you want.

    I remember learning of the “ask three times” rule in U-U and jokingly asking our translators “Do you want tea? Would you like some tea? Can I get you some tea?” all in a row just to get past the polite refusals.

    Thanks for making me smile today!
    =) Alissa

  2. 2 The Grinder January 31, 2006 at 2:16 pm

    Alissa: Thanks for the comment. In this city, what you mentioned is even more pronounced. The first ‘no, thank you’ is so convincing I forget many times to ask three times. I think in U-U I could sort of tell when the first and second ‘no’ was a cultural bluff.

  3. 3 Steve February 1, 2006 at 4:55 am

    I was all ready to brilliantly tie in the negativity with decades of communist rule… and then you have to go and demonstrate the ubiquity of the phenomena. 🙂 It reminds me of insurance companies that try to see if they can dissuade people from asking for money a second time. Or, in my case, I make people work a little bit to request a software change or upgrade… that way I know if they do then thay really wanted it. 🙂

  4. 4 The Grinder February 1, 2006 at 10:13 am

    Steve: there is definitely something to that… under communism, a shoe salesman, for example, made his 300 rubles a month no matter how well or badly he performed. He did not care if you bought the expensive shoes, the cheap shoes, or if you left offended without buying anything. Some of that mentality is still prevalent, though now it is more out of place than before.

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