September 01, 1995

Open Sesame, Russian Style

Open Sesame, Russian Style

Some phrases in Russian seem at first sight to be normal, harmless everyday expressions. Put in context, though, they prove to be magic words – the equivalent of Ali Baba in the fairytale about the 40 thieves saying “Open Sesame” at the entrance to the cave full of treasures.

Here is a good case in point. At a recent interview with a Russian candidate applying for a position at a Western company, the employer wanted to find out about the candidate’s current salary. Not an easy question to ask – at least by Western standards. So what does the Russian manager of the company do? He asks: “­Если не секрет, сколько Вы получаете?” (“If it’s not a secret, how much do you make?”). “If it’s not a secret” is a good, disarming linguistic subterfuge, and in this case it worked. The sum in question was revealed. The formula is friendly, almost confidential, and invites the interviewee to be sincere – as if the interviewer were to say: “How could there possibly be any secrets between you and me?!”

Another puzzle. How can you ask someone for a favor and make the plea sound so irresistible that it cannot be refused? There are two options. Instead of a simple: пожалуйста (please) try this for a change: “Не в службу, а в дружбу” (“For friendship, not as part of your job”). Who would refuse to do a favor for the sake of friendship? “Не в службу, а в дружбу, принесите нам кофейку” (“For friendship, not as part of your job, bring us some coffee”), a boss asks his secretary. This formula, combined with a broad smile and a friendly hand on the shoulder, has melted many a hard heart.

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