“Uh, oh.” I looked down at the paper tickets in my hand. Two of my best friends, Renae and Allison, had traveled to Moscow to visit me. It was April, and we were standing outside in the chill, attempting to visit the inside of the Moscow Kremlin. I wanted to purchase tickets to tour the inside of the Armory but had translated wrong and purchased tickets for all the churches instead.
“Can we change them?” Allison asked, jumping a little up and down in an effort to keep warm.
“Um,” I hesitated. “We can try! But I’m afraid they’ll make us just purchase new ones.” I knew this was not what Allison wanted to hear. The trip from Chicago to Russia had not been cheap, and she was on a strict budget.
We made our way back to the glass ticket kiosk, and I attempted to explain the situation to the woman at the counter in Russian. “I’m sorry, it’s my fault. I made a mistake. I asked for the wrong tickets. We wanted to go to the Armory. Can we exchange them?” The woman’s lips were planted firmly in a straight line.
“You ordered tickets for the churches,” she replied curtly, roughly poking her finger at the table of ticket options at the top right of the counter.
“I know. I made a mistake. That’s why I would like to exchange them.”
“You ordered the wrong tickets?” She shot me a look that can only be interpreted as, “How could you be so stupid?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. Could we please have the ones for the Armory instead?”
The woman sighed, obviously annoyed, and ushered me to hand her back the old tickets, and she gave us the correct ones. Thankfully both had been the same price. If not, I’m not sure how that exchange would have ended. Relieved, the three of us walked out and made our way to the stone walls.
Russia is not a country known for its customer service. To be fair, it has significantly improved, even since the I first visited in 2013. Still, people are rude, especially if they are working menial jobs with very little pay (the worst are the checkout ladies at grocery stores and ticket cashiers), and even doctors aren’t known for their bedside manner. My friend saw one Russian gynecologist, and she was scarred for life. I argue that the friendliest place for strangers—outside of any 5-star hotels—is Starbucks. Every time a person walks into the cafe, a cheery round of “Здравствуйте!” (Hi) can be heard.
When I was in middle school, I used to spend a lot of time with the neighborhood twins next door. One of the biggest fights we ever had involved my obvious dismay at being dragged to watch a high school baseball game in the summer heat. I was adamant that I did not want to go, but after being prodded and pushed, I went, only to sulk. Sarah yelled at me, telling me I was far too “brutally honest”. Clearly, she had never met a Russian.
In general, Russians tell it like it is. In fact, one of my Russian friends told me her biggest pet peeve about Americans is their constant apologizing. “Someone bumps into you, and you apologize. It makes no sense! Stop saying you’re sorry!” Russians don’t smile if they’re in a shitty mood, and if they shove you onto a metro car in the middle of rush hour, they sure as hell won’t say “Excuse me” or “Sorry”. As was the case with the ticket seller at the Kremlin, if they think you’re behaving stupidly, chances are you’ll know it. I was actually boarding a train one time to visit my friend in St. Petersburg, and I was having trouble finding my seat number on my ticket. As I was making my way to the proper “kupe” (a train compartment), I heard the train attendant whisper to someone behind me in Russian that I was a stupid American girl who couldn’t understand Russian. I do, and I could understand exactly what he just said.
It’s definitely jarring the first time you interact with Russians, and I’ve certainly been yelled at and called stupid to my face far more often in this country than in America. But, in some ways, Russians’ “brutal honesty” is refreshing.
When I returned home from my first study abroad trip, it was my junior year, and I was moving into an apartment off campus. That meant I had to buy furniture. My mother’s friend had recommended we try Target, since that is where she had bought furniture for her daughter. Target was certainly inexpensive and they delivered, so we filled up my online shopping cart. We placed the order and were told that the shipping costs would be calculated shortly thereafter. Turns out, the shipping was more than half the cost of the furniture. My mom promptly contacted customer service, who confirmed there had been no mistake. Customer service also refused to cancel the order. Even after there was a delay in shipping two of the furniture pieces and one came with a missing part (my dresser was missing a drawer for several weeks), Target refused to offer even a partial reimbursement.
My mom called to issue a complaint. At the end of the conversation, the lady “sincerely apologized for the inconvenience” and added that customer service was “a high priority.” To this, my mom replied that it certainly wasn’t, otherwise Target would do something to fix the situation.
In reality, I’m sure the woman at the other end of the computer really didn’t care. After all, why would a mid-level Target employee feel bad about my exorbitant shipping costs? She probably knows as much about her company’s products as what appears in Google. But in America, even if you don’t care, you still have to pretend you do. Compare that to the woman at the Kremlin ticket kiosk, who made it very obvious that I was annoying her.
Or take, for example, my first time out to the movies in Russia. I had gone out with my friend, Tatiana, and another friend of hers. While her friend was waiting to purchase the tickets, I realized it was getting late and did not want to see the film. Tatiana told her friend to change the purchase to just two tickets. The cashier had not even finished ringing up the order, but she refused to cancel one of the tickets. He had initially said three, so he was getting—and paying—for three. It was ridiculous, by any standards, but the cashier didn’t pretend to care. It was more of a “sucks to suck” situation.
It can be refreshing to know that if someone actually apologizes, he or she truly means it, that if someone smiles at you, it’s sincere. In Russia, if you’re having a bad day, you don’t have to pretend you aren’t or answer “Good” when someone asks you how you are. I have certainly perfected my resting bitch face while living in the country, and I never feel guilty about wearing it. That’s not to say that every Russian is rude. I’ve charmed many a Russian waiter and cafe worker, and the best part is, I always knew they genuinely liked me.
I think the words of Americans should reflect their actions. For example, if Target had really felt guilty about its shipping policies, then the store should have made an effort to rectify the situation. If not, when a customer complains, customer service representatives should be upfront about the company’s actions, not feign empathy. “Sorry” shouldn’t be an empty word.
Of course, the sternness can become tiresome after awhile. Not long ago, when I was exiting the elevator onto my apartment floor, a neighbor I had never met before suddenly began yelling at me. She insisted that I had spilled blood on the floor in the corridor of our apartment building (I hadn’t) and demanded that I get a sponge and wipe it up. In that moment, I couldn’t wait to get back to America for the holidays. Every time I fly home, as soon as I make my transfer in Europe, it’s almost as if I’ve entered another world. I instantly know I’ve left Russia by the warm faces that greet me as I make my way through the airport. It’s soft and comforting, a sign that I’m on my way back home to the land of manufactured smiles and incessant apologies. Sometimes honesty is overrated.