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As soon as American people figure out I am not a native-born American (usually it doesn't take too long) they ask where I am from. I answer that I am from Russia. So far so good. In 90% cases the next question is "which part of Russia"? Hm... Russia isn't divided into states with cool easily recognizable names like the US, how am I supposed to explain which part... I tried to mention my city, but it isn't so well known, then I tried to bring up the river it is on, it's a petty big river, you know... But nobody ever recognized it either. Finally I figured that Moscow should work as the best geographical point of reference, and started to report that my part of Russia is to the south and to the east from Moscow, this worked. The whole inquiry left me wonder: why do people ask, what difference does it make, which part of Russia I am from? It would never occur to me to ask a Chinese person which part of China she is from, even if it does matter, I wouldn't know...
Here is a symmetrical, as I think, phenomenon.
"Another thing that most Europeans I have met find bewildering, totally incomprehensible in fact, about Americans is how we fractionalize ourselves. You know what I mean: all Americans know precisely what percentage of themselves is from where. Here, to illustrate my point , my simple fraction : I am half Polish, half Irish ( we tend to try and ignore that Alsatian in the family woodpile, even though he actually brings in close to 30% of the total. After all, he ran off with that French woman to live in a log cabin- of all things- in Canada- of all places.). Now, if the conversation is going well, I could go into the smaller fractions- that French bit and where was Bucky's Grandmother really from ? Hungary ? And then there is the question of what county in Ireland are we talking about, potato-famine or lace curtain ? These things matter, you know, when discussing the fractions.
But I can't recall ever having told my fractions tale to anyone here.
<...>
'What is she going on about?', their look would say, ' half this, half that. She's an American.'
They are right, of course.
And it is impossible to explain."
Fractions.
Do you think the two things have the same root, a need to mince geographical information into to the last point of precision? To hear that somebody is simply "from Russia" doesn't provide satisfactory amount of information...
 
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Finally I figured that Moscow should work as the best geographical point of reference, and started to report that my part of Russia is to the south and to the east from Moscow, this worked. The whole inquiry left me wonder: why do people ask, what difference does it make, which part of Russia I am from? It would never occur to me to ask a Chinese person which part of China she is from, even if it does matter, I wouldn't know...
I have identical experiences. It's been perhaps a thousand time that a question "Where are you from?" was followed by "What part of Russia?" After much of reasoning, I concluded for myself that this is just a form of American small talk. Most people could really care less what part of Russia you are from, -- it's just that it is an American value to "be nice", that's all.
 
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Gee, and I thought from the subject line this thread was going to be about something fun like great circles.
Rebiatki, don't you know you're supposed to complain about quaint American things such as
- Answering questions about distance with time. (How far is it from Detroit to Chicago? --About 5 hours.)
- Liter-size soft drinks that are 90% crushed ice.
- Coins that have their value spelled out in letters not figures, which discriminates against non-English-speakers. (A dime doesn't have a "10" on it anywhere.) Bills that are all the same size (which discriminates against the blind).
On my first trip to Russia in 1991, I was asked many times by Russians (many for whom I was their first American or foreign acquaintance) "what state are you from?" On subsequent trips it progressed to "oh, you're from such-and-such. Do you know so-and-so?" And ultimately to "another American, who gives a rip?"
Everyone in this conversation who has drunk a toast to the hometown of the guest of honor at a Russian's birthday party, raise their hand.
 
Michael Matola
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Forgot. I was going to recommend a movie that's out right now, Lost in Translation. Among many other things, it captures very well odd emotions that can go with being immersed in a foreign culture and not really understanding what's going on (in the specific case of the main characters, and also maybe really not caring about understanding what's going on, but that's a different conversation).
 
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Dave Letterman always asks his guests �where are you from, which part of Idaho� etc. It is so called conversational ritual, every country has its own. If it bothers you to talk about Russia you could as well say I�m from L.A.
 
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I think most american's ask what part you are from as a way of making polite small talk, and perhaps on the off chance we may know the place which is rare as geography is no longer really emphasized in many american schools. I can't even name all the capitals of the 50 states, and I know that I'm not alone.
As to fractions I think it has to do with people being proud of their heritage, or more precisely their parents being proud of their heritage and reminding us kids where we come from.
Also many americans discriminate, not always intentionally but often out of ignorance, against those who are not "typical" americans. typical meaning anglo white. I think for some reason I'm not sure of this makes people want to advertise their heritage and band together with people of similar backgrounds. In a way I think it is similar to the gays who are out and proud, another group of people who are discriminated against and don't want to hide what they are, but this is for another thread.
The above is obviously more my opinion than fact, so don't hunt me down or anything.
 
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MM: Forgot. I was going to recommend a movie that's out right now, Lost in Translation.
Speaking about "Lost in translation", have you read the book with the same name? I am posting quotes here. It so precisely describes what happens when someone is thrown into another language and culture, much better than the movie you told about! I haven't seen the movie, by the way thanks for recommendation.
 
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I have also had (mainly Europeans) ask where I am from, and when I say Australia, the most common next sentence is: do you know my cousin/nephew/niece who moved there.
Then I get to explain that we have nearly 20 million people in Australia spread over an area the same size as continental United States (or for the Europeans - covering an area greater than Dublin to Moscow and Athens to Helsinki).
Sometimes people will ask what part of Australia, and it is easy to say Sydney - everyone knows where that is. Some also know where Melbourne or Perth are, but any other city is usually a mystery - especially our capital Canberra
 
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It's just small talk, Map. Americans are pretty good at small talk. I suspect we ask that particular question in hopes that it will lead to further topics for small talk. "Oh you're from Khabarovsk? I bet you get some great Chinese food there." That kind of thing.
 
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Out (Far) East, you'd also get asked
"Who was your father and what did he do?" then
"Who was your grandfather and what did he do?" followed by
"How many brothers and sisters do you have and what do they do?"
If that doesn't get you to question your whole existence then I don't know what will.

regards
[ October 07, 2003: Message edited by: HS Thomas ]
 
Mapraputa Is
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"Small talk" theory: it's a good starting point. However, it doesn't explain why this particular question is being asked so often. There is another popular question: "so how do you like it here?" which makes much more sense to me. This is a good question for a small (or not so small) talk, as it opens a potentially interesting conversation. In contrast, "what part of Russia are you from" is a dead end, it doesn't lead anywhere.
Just for the record: I am not complaining, just curious about what's really behind this question.
HT: Out (Far) East, you'd also get asked "Who was your father and what did he do?
Yeah, that's probably the most popular question in Russia. Instead of asking "where are you from" we ask "who are your parents", which is supposed to Explain A Lot. Perhaps Americans would be just as baffled as to why ask this question as we are about asking about partitions of Russia.
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Originally posted by Michael Matola:
- Coins that have their value spelled out in letters not figures, which discriminates against non-English-speakers. (A dime doesn't have a "10" on it anywhere.)


Damn, I fell into a rant.
This was the biggest problem I had during my travels in the USA. I just couldn't sort out the dime/nickel thing in my head. Since I found I was unable to quickly select an amount of money I kept spending the largest amount I could find and hence constantly ended up a pocket full of $1 notes and small change. You had to see me to understand the full scope of this.
 
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DO/M: I just couldn't sort out the dime/nickel thing in my head.
You mean what was the reason to make a nickel bigger than a dime?
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John Smith
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"Small talk" theory: it's a good starting point. However, it doesn't explain why this particular question is being asked so often. There is another popular question: "so how do you like it here?" which makes much more sense to me. This is a good question for a small (or not so small) talk, as it opens a potentially interesting conversation. In contrast, "what part of Russia are you from" is a dead end, it doesn't lead anywhere.
Well, the purpose of the small talk is just that, -- exchange a few phrases, and terminate it with a "havaniceday". You don't want to ask "interesting questions" in the course of the small talk, as it would defeat the purpose. The intent is not to continue a conversation, but to end it. This leads to another question, of course: "Why start a small talk in the first place?". Paradoxically enough, small talk is more of a European value, rather than the American value, -- native Americans used silence as a primary means of communicating, and the small talk was imported by the settlers from Europe.
 
stara szkapa
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Silence creates some degree of stress. Small talk allows people to relax, assuming both parties understand it is just a small talk not KGB interrogation.
 
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You mean what was the reason to make a nickel bigger than a dime?


I think it has to do with when money was really worth something. Nickel is a 'nickel' because that is what it was made of; and a dime was made of silver. Silver had more value per weight than nickel; therefore was smaller. Descrimination against particular groups of people had absolutely nothing to do with it. The Susan B. Anthony dollar notwithstanding: one may say "because only the blind could readily tell the difference between it and the quarter" and it was taken out of circulation.
 
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My father was more than once asked by an American where he came from (we're Dutch).
When saying "the Netherlands", there was usually either incomprehension or signs of recognition placing the country completely wrong.
Worst case was a highly placed person in the NE US who exclaimed "ah, the capital of Copenhagen", not only placing the country wrong (though, to his credit, by no more than about 500km) but also confusing European countries and cities.
I too am constantly surprised by how much Americans see themselves as a large meltingpot of cultures and races yet insist on constantly reminding themselves and each other of their differences (not just the complete lineage into the 3rd generation but also exact racial makeup of their societies).
 
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"what part of Russia are you from" is a dead end, it doesn't lead anywhere.


Try telling them you are from Siberia. We don't know too many other places in Russia.
Follow up with:
1) polar bears chased you on the way home from school.
2) There was a gulag down the way and your brother's mother-in-laws's friend's ex-boss one time played poker with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
3) Yeah it was so cold there that trains could only stop for thirty minutes or the cars would freeze to the tracks.
4) You put yourself through college working at a vodka distillery owned by a couple whose names were Borris and Natasha.
5) How about "I'm from a little town 30 minutes east of Moscow called Iron Curtain. Fulton, Missouri is our sister city and we have a statue of Winston Churchill too."

After that explain you're just pulling their leg. But honest to God, I am a mail order bride. That's a facinating story. I loved the part about how after exchanging letters or email your husband-to-be came courting and you had sex. Was it the first date?
 
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Map,
I understand what you are saying. There are many many times I have been asked that in the last 4.5 years. Initially it was good, then it started to get frustrating but then I realized that they (Local Americans) are trying to be polite and trying to make me feel comfortable. It is a quality I truly admire in the common American people (can't say the same about bigshots and politicians).
Trust me there are other countries where all that you get is a stare from the local public and even the common man makes every effort to make u uncomfortable. Thankfully America doesn't come in that category.
What I usually do when I am asked about my country, then which part of it is I answer to the point and then when asked like you said, reference it to some popular city in my country. After that I immediately start asking about their origins etc. just to make sure that I am not being impolite
Please don't think otherwise but if you are in Texas, it's a little more tougher to get through this process. Coz usually if you are not from Texas, it really doesn't matter where you are from .
It's a wonderful state though....fun place to live if you can take things in your stride and laugh it off
I once asked a man where he was from (I knew he was a local guy) and he said he's from the "Country of Texas".
Then again I once heard our 25 year old Blonde Secretary say to her husband on the phone... "I cannot believe that anything in Louisiana can be beautiful".
....the list goes on.
PS: If you can get a handshake from a local/typical Texan...trust me...it's a HUGE HUGE thing....these guys really mean it.
 
John Smith
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stara szkapa: Silence creates some degree of stress. Small talk allows people to relax, assuming both parties understand it is just a small talk not KGB interrogation.
I remember having a small talk with a collegue, and she said, "I bought a new car, it's a green Toyota. What color is your car, Eugene?" I got to tell you, I felt very stressed and sick to my stomach by the neccessity to carry on the conversation.
San Tiruvan: then I realized that they (Local Americans) are trying to be polite and trying to make me feel comfortable. It is a quality I truly admire in the common American people
Me too. Indeed, it's easy to fit in, thanks to the existing diversity and the generally receptive attitude towards immigration and the immigrants in America.
 
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not always.
on airplane, for couple of times, i was asked "when the plane will arrive at (destination)?" that makes me kind of flattered. because i really do not think i know anything more than him(her).
 
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Some of you might find this interesting. I have lived my entire life in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A. It's a well known fact that in my town, when someone asks "Where did you go to school?", we mean "What High School" (generally age 14-18).
Nobody here care what College you went, either for undergraduate or Graduate. It's generally believed that from this you can tell someone's economic, religious, social and political backgrounds.
It's habit, something we don't even think about. i always get weird looks when i tell people i went to Kirkwood.
I agree that asking these questions is just small talk. We Americans tend to be VERY poorly educated on anything outside our borders (present company included, but at least i will admit it). If you tell me you are from Russia, about the only think i know is that you are from a foreign country. I don't know what else to ask, so i just say something stupid. But (in my culture, at least) is better than an awkward silence...
thanks for listening to my 2 cents...
f
 
Rufus BugleWeed
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i always get weird looks when i tell people i went to Kirkwood.


Well sure, what kind of place has a pioneer for a mascot with a Connestoga as a symbol?
[ October 08, 2003: Message edited by: Rufus BugleWeed ]
 
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SS: Silence creates some degree of stress.
Now this is something American!
It can be only me, but I think American people feel a need to talk when Russians would be perfectly happy to keep silence. Nothing wrong with either habit, these are just shared beliefs.
One of my university professors used to say "some people are good to talk to, and some are good to keep silence with" -- he was a Jew though. Hm... Now I wonder if "some are good to keep silence with" will be read in negative sense. It was an absolutely positive statement. Shared silence can be just as profound experience as words exchange, if not more profound.
 
stara szkapa
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Originally posted by Eugene Kononov:
I remember having a small talk with a collegue, and she said, "I bought a new car, it's a green Toyota. What color is your car, Eugene?" I got to tell you, I felt very stressed and sick to my stomach by the neccessity to carry on the conversation.


Counterexample:
This reminds me about photographer who was doing graduation photos at the university. He said something and it made me smile and relax immediately. His services were expensive, but I regarded him as very high class professional just because of his small talk skill.
 
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Maybe they are interested in where you are from! And if they didn't ask you would be wondering why Americans don't care where you are from! If you met someone in Russia and they told you they were from the US, wouldn't you ask them from what state?
Anyway, Russia is a big place. Saying you are from Russia is like saying you are from North America.
[ October 08, 2003: Message edited by: Thomas Paul ]
 
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I ask where someone is from because then I can match the geographic coordinates of their birthplace with their neural magnetic spectrum. If they do not match, I know I am talking to an alien. Depending on the spectral drift, I can usually tell which dimension the imposter is from. I then take appropriate measures, including but not limited to phase inversion and reverse neutrino flux, to avoid their mind control rays.
Thus far I have been successful.
Joe
 
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Also, stuffing tinfoil in your underwear works, but it chafes mightily.
Joe
 
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This forum is full of dangerous people!
Tom: Maybe they are interested in where you are from! And if they didn't ask you would be wondering why Americans don't care where you are from! If you met someone in Russia and they told you they were from the US, wouldn't you ask them from what state?
But that's precisely why I am baffled by this question -- because I wouldn't ask it myself! No, it wouldn't occur to me to ask what state an American is from - because it doesn't matter to me. I would rather ask "who are your parents" or something else, something that makes sense in my system of coordinates.
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Thomas Paul
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Who are my parents? That would be an odd question in my frame of reference. Unless the answer was Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher.
By not asking you are missing out on some interesting stuff. I have learned a lot about Russia by asking people where they are from. I know the difference between Kiev, Odessa, and St. Petersburg and know what each place is like. I know about the cool resorts on the Black Sea. You really should ask these kind of questions. It's much more interesting than finding out that someone's dad sold cars.
[ October 09, 2003: Message edited by: Thomas Paul ]
 
Rufus BugleWeed
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Maybe this could be a culturally expanding.
Who are your parents, Map?
 
stara szkapa
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Originally posted by Andrew Monkhouse:
I have also had (mainly Europeans) ask where I am from, and when I say Australia, the most common next sentence is: do you know my cousin/nephew/niece who moved there.


This is very funny. However, I just listened to the play �Six degrees of separation� by John Guare, and the title means that there is only 6 people between you and anyone else on the planet including Eskimos. I�m not sure what it means statistically but socially active people who ask this sort of questions do find connections from time to time. For example my family doctor in North America happens to know personally my neighbors in Europe.
 
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I have never learnt more from one thread!
EK: You don't want to ask "interesting questions" in the course of the small talk, as it would defeat the purpose. The intent is not to continue a conversation, but to end it.
That's a good thought. It did not occur to me to think about "small talk" this way. Makes sense
ST: After that I immediately start asking about their origins etc. just to make sure that I am not being impolite
That's another good idea -- to ask about their origins. Is this considered an acceptable question for a small talk?
RB: Who are your parents, Map?
They both are engineer-metallurgists. Actually, they worked together, that's how they met each other. My father was the boss, but then my mother married him... Since then she is the boss.
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Mmmm, I guess different people may have different attitudes about whether small talk is to be encouraged or not, but I don't think that people ask "where are you from?" in order to end a conversation. I do however think that one of the goals may be to avoid questions that may be too personal (esp. for people you don't know well yet). When answering "where are you from?" it's easy to talk more about the location than yourself if you're not comfortable providing lots of personal details. Two people can make small talk comparing notes about different parts of the country while still keeping their personal details to themselves if they so choose. Whereas "what do you do?" is inherently more personal and a bit harder to redirect. In many cases, people may ask "where are you from?" first, and depending on what sort of answer they get and what sort of willingness is shown to continue the conversation and/or discuss more personal details, "what do you do?" may or may not follow.
As for "who are your parents?" that splits into two main parts. "What do your parents do?" (as in occupation) is generally seen in America as not that relevant. (At least, less so than in Russia it seems.) We've got the "American dream" myth that we can grow up to do whatever we want (or are able to) do, regardless of our parents' background. I'm not interesed in arguing over whether this is really the case here, or whether it's not also true elsewhere; I'm just saying it's a widely held belief here. The other part of "who are your parents?" is "what are they like?" (personality etc). This is more relevant to the person youre talking to, but also may well be too personal. So questions of this nature will probably come later in the conversation, if at all. "What do you do?" would probably come first.
[ October 09, 2003: Message edited by: Jim Yingst ]
 
Michael Matola
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EK: I remember having a small talk with a collegue, and she said, "I bought a new car, it's a green Toyota. What color is your car, Eugene?" I got to tell you, I felt very stressed and sick to my stomach by the neccessity to carry on the conversation.
I know the feeling well. I get it too just about anytime a Russian starts talking about the Russian soul. They're like all "I'm so in touch with my emotions" and "Russians think on a more philosophical level than others."
Don't get me wrong -- I think any people has a right to engage in perpetuating its national mythology. But I know when the topic comes up I'm not going to learn anything new or hear anything I haven't heard thirty times before.
Can we agree that everyone has the capacity for being dull and tedious, but that we just go about it in different ways?
 
Michael Matola
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SS: Silence creates some degree of stress.
MI: Now this is something American!
It can be only me, but I think American people feel a need to talk when Russians would be perfectly happy to keep silence.
I agree with you on this.
I've heard the theory put forth that Russians' comfort with silence partly stems from having to share small living quarters with non-family members -- the whole "peaceful coexistence" scenario of communal apartments, renting just a "room," etc. Don't know if I entirely believe that though. Finns, I believe, tend to be a quiet bunch too and I don't know that they've had particular constraints on their living arrangements.
But Map, you have failed in your sworn duty! You have not pointed out that Russian is language far superior to English because it has two distinct words for "silence":
tishina -- the absence of sound
molchanie -- the absence of conversation
Silence and the associated levels of comfort or discomfort have been on the brain for me for the past few days because of the movie Lost in Translation. (Can you tell it made an impression on me?) The editing/pacing at times is brilliant. There are some long, slow-cut scenes, particularly in the first third of the move. A couple of them have no music going and (I'd have to see the movie again to verify this) no ambient noise either. Boldly trying to interpret the intent of the director, I would say that she was doing this to make the typical American audience member uncomfortable. In part, this discomfort pulls us into the world of the two main characters, who are suffering from insomnia. But there's more general discomfort because, as we've been told repeatedly, the attention span of younger Americans is very short (rapid-cut, MTV-style editing is the norm), that sets up the notion of not being in one's normal element.
These long, slient scenes made me uncomfortable at first. But then as I came to understand the intent, I began to enjoy it -- not enjoy the silence itself, but enjoy my own exquisite discomfort with the silence.
 
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While watching ER tonight, there was some interesting dialog in one of the scenes.
Greg Pratt, one of the Surgeons played by Mekhi Phifer is dating one of the doctors, Jing-Mei (Deb) Chen who is played by Ming-Na (very HOT BTW!!). They are meeting for dinner and her parents just "happen" to be at the resturant and are meeting Dr. Pratt for the first time.
Once they are all sitting, the first thing out of Dr. Chen's mother's mouth is "So what do your parents do?" And then the conversation proceeds into the Father saying "How can you know who you are goind if you don't know where you came from?"
I just thought this was relevent to this conversation and it was interesting to see a television program picking up on the difference in cultures like that.
 
Jim Yingst
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Can we agree that everyone has the capacity for being dull and tedious, but that we just go about it in different ways?
 
HS Thomas
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In certain situations , "small talk" consists of quoting news items in a subtle way of finding which paper you read and hence your political leanings. It's all very cultured and social. After a few brief exchanges the other person may move on to other punters or carry on the "smalltalk".
Somehow I can't see this happening in the East or elsewhere, where such a manoeuvre may well lead to outright confrontation.
Other topics : favourite tipple, favourite sport and what do you think of 'Calendar Girls' ?
regards
 
Mapraputa Is
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JY: Mmmm, I guess different people may have different attitudes about whether small talk is to be encouraged or not, but I don't think that people ask "where are you from?" in order to end a conversation.
I got a mid-life crisis today an decided I need to work harder on my scribbles from now on. All the time saved on quick posts will be lost later in attempts to disperse confusion... I did not mean that all small talks or this particular question are destined to end a conversation, just accepted it as a possible scenario, plus there certain aesthetical appeal in Eugene's observation.
As for "who are your parents?" that splits into two main parts. "What do your parents do?" (as in occupation) is generally seen in America as not that relevant. (At least, less so than in Russia it seems.)
Yeah, that's what I thought, and Tom confirmed it. I mean, Tom confirmed that the question isn't particularly popular here, I and I confirm that it is popular in Russia.
MM: Can we agree that everyone has the capacity for being dull and tedious, but that we just go about it in different ways?
Who argued with it?
I've heard the theory put forth that Russians' comfort with silence partly stems from having to share small living quarters with non-family members -- the whole "peaceful coexistence" scenario of communal apartments, renting just a "room," etc.
Ha! You reason like Russian's comfort with silence is something abnormal, that needs special explanation, while for me American discomfort with silence is something abnormal, that asks for explanations. My theory is that American population is more diverse so it's harder to say what's on this stranger's mind, and people perhaps used to talk to show they did not have aggressive intentions. I can be totally wrong, of course...
Hm... I just checked a dictionary and "тишина" is translated as
quiet, silence; calm, peace; stillness - mostly positive connotations. There is something deeper that social circumstances of last few decades...
But Map, you have failed in your sworn duty! You have not pointed out that Russian is language far superior to English because it has two distinct words for "silence":
tishina -- the absence of sound
molchanie -- the absence of conversation

We also have "bezmolvie", which is an elevated variant of "molchanie". Well, I just did not want you to get inferiority complex.
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"I think it's telling me in Russian that there are no matches for Mapraputa in English." -- HS Thomas
[ October 10, 2003: Message edited by: Mapraputa Is ]
 
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