Posted by inkstainedhands in , ,

It is not unusual to pass by a group of Russian people talking in obnoxiously loud tones on the street. Neither is it uncommon to overhear a few Russians heatedly arguing in the middle of a store.

What makes it interesting for me is that I actually understand what they are saying, so I sometimes amuse myself by listening to their loud conversations.

One of the things that has been made apparent is that Russians have no problem analyzing and discussing you thoroughly while under the notion that you do not understand a word they are saying. It seems that many Russians simply assume they are the only ones speaking the language, so they have free license to say whatever they please about whomever they please.

I remember I once went with my mother to a doctor's office. My mother went into the office, while I sat in the waiting room and occupied myself with my writing and my iPod. There were two older Russian women sitting near me, also waiting. I began writing a story, but my thoughts were interrupted when I heard one of the women muttering under her breath to the other in Russian, "Look at how long her skirt is. Why does she wear such long skirts?" I might have lifted my eyebrows at that comment, but I did not allow myself to look up or give any other sign that I had understood. That was a good thing, or I would have been denied the amusement of listening to them discussing my outfit, my looks, and what I was doing. ("What is that in her hand?" "Oh, it's something that plays music.") It took a great deal of self-discipline not to burst out laughing at how ridiculous the situation was. There I was, a Russian-speaking young girl, wearing a long skirt, trying to write and listen to music, and minding my own business, and there were the two Russian ladies, their heads bent together, their eyes staring directly at me, their conversation revolving around me. The best part of the story is that when my mother returned and came over to me, I loudly asked her in Russian whether she's ready to go. Oh, you should have seen those women's faces. And then... one of them loudly whispered in shock to the other in Russian, "She understands everything!" Once my mother and I left the office, I allowed myself a good laugh.

A similar thing happened as I was walking outside one Shabbat. Two Russian women discussed my appearance, and it never occurred to them that I might understand Russian.

I was walking around Brooklyn yesterday with my friend, and we were talking about this interesting Russian habit. Apparently, she has had similar experiences. We went into a shoe store together, and as we were looking at shoes, I heard one of the young Russian employees remarking to the other that I have pretty hair. First of all, I kind of felt like laughing because my friend and I had just discussed how Russians talk about you freely, and here we were experiencing it again. So I turned around and thanked the girl in Russian. Her expression was priceless. She was shocked into silence for a moment, and her eyes became larger as she stared at me. Then came the questions... They asked us how we know Russian, where we're from, and so on. We talked a little bit, and I told them that my friend and I had just discussed how Russians often don't realize that we understand them. Once they got over the initial surprise, they were also amused.

Some of my friends and I also used to talk to each other in Russian when we were in school or in other public places, so others should not understand. I remember that when I was in sixth grade, I used to write stories or journal entries during class. Once I realized that there was the danger of a teacher taking away my writing and reading it, I decided that I would play it safe by writing in Russian. And what do you know? As I was sitting in the back corner of the classroom, calmly writing in Russian about my life and how boring the class was, my teacher walked up, stood behind me, and said, "I know Russian."

Lesson learnt: Never assume that your conversation is private just because you are speaking or writing in a language other than English. Do not be so confident that others cannot understand you.

I wonder, is it mostly a Russian thing or do my multilingual readers experience the same thing with people of other nationalities?

This entry was posted on Monday, June 22, 2009 at Monday, June 22, 2009 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Awesome! Never happens to me :-(

June 22, 2009 at 8:46 PM


no, this kind of behavior is not limited to Russians. unfortunately. I had a pleasure of experiencing this pretty recently from Syrians. In both cases, people were discussing me right in my presence, all the while pointing fingers and throwing evil glares in my direction. (I blogged about one such encounter, actually.)

And when I went to very mixed school, all the ethnic groups would do that kind of thing to each other (less finger pointing and evil glares).


try wearing black hat and a suit :P

June 22, 2009 at 9:28 PM

Not enough incentive.

June 22, 2009 at 9:36 PM

Why? Purely for sociological experiment, of course, you know, sacrifice for the science and such.

June 22, 2009 at 9:38 PM

Meh, too much bother.

June 22, 2009 at 9:42 PM

Well Russians (we :) ) definitelly have such a thing. However I usually catch myself in not saying anything about anyone in any language because they may understand. Helps from loshon hora.

June 22, 2009 at 11:16 PM

SubWife -- Who knows, maybe I will experience this eventually with people of another nationality. So far though, I observed this behavior in Russians. Maybe I'm just more sensitive to it though because I actually understand what they're saying about me.

BTS -- That's good. Most people are unable to do that. Of course, the people I wrote about in my post weren't Jewish (or even if they were, they were not religious), so the lashon hara aspect didn't stop them. For the most part though, what they are saying is harmless... they're just scrutinizing you.

June 23, 2009 at 12:01 AM

I just have paranoia, in russian called "мания преследования" - that explains everything

June 23, 2009 at 12:10 AM

Well, being paranoid isn't a very good thing, is it?

June 23, 2009 at 12:19 AM

...unless you are being followed.

June 23, 2009 at 12:20 AM the KBG. And you know that foil doesn't work on them.

June 23, 2009 at 12:21 AM

That's why you should wear a black hat.

June 23, 2009 at 12:23 AM

And inside you put 3 eggs and a fish tail.

June 23, 2009 at 12:30 AM

Most people don't do that, but whatever works for you.

June 23, 2009 at 12:40 AM


@SubWife - I do wear black hat. On Shabbos. I don't put there anything though....

June 23, 2009 at 12:45 AM

"Neither is it uncommon to overhear a few Russians heatedly arguing"- Yeah, sometimes in Brooklyn I wish I knew Russian. For example I was once on a bus on a very dreary Tuesday afternoon, and then I noticed two old Russian guys in the back of the buss arguing with each other with such a passion I would have guessed they were discussing whether or not to carry out the Russian revolution. The same goes for the chess tables on Ocean Parkway; in the most dreary of times and places they seem to be having the most earth-shattering discussions going on.

Nice stories by the way, especially the doctors office one!

About using the word Russians: I grew up with "Russians" and Uzbekistanian Jews without having any idea where they're actually from. When I got older I came to realize that a majority of the Jews I called "Russian" were actually either Ukrainian, or traced their roots to Ukraine, or were Lithuanian or Latvian or something. Not that many from Moscow or the Russian heartland..

June 23, 2009 at 2:02 PM

It was still Russia at that time, so no worries.

June 23, 2009 at 2:17 PM

"Yeah, sometimes in Brooklyn I wish I knew Russian." -- You can always learn. Then you too will be able to know when the Russians are discussing you and what they are saying about you. Fascinating stuff.

As Moshe said, it was all part of the Soviet Union at that point, so these people are considered Russians. My mother was born in Russia, my father in Ukraine, and my paternal grandmother in Tajikistan. Since it was all part of the Soviet Union though, they're considered Russian.

One of the Russian girls we talked to in the store was also from Ukraine, but she spoke both Russian and Ukranian.

June 23, 2009 at 4:55 PM

I actually learned to read Russian in 9th grade. I was able to surprize a few of my friends that a Moroccan-Israeli can read Russian!

Yeah, but a conquered country isn't the same as the country itself. The Ukraine already had a big national identity before and after it was part of the Russian Empire (unlike the states of America, that have no real individual history or identity).

The same goes for Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaizan and Georgia etc. Even when it was part of the uniun it's people were looked down upon by people in Moscow for not being "Russian". Except Stalin of course, people usually didn't remind him that he was Gruzini. ...I mean, Napoleon was Corsican after all..

June 23, 2009 at 5:07 PM

You have a point. At the same time though, many of these people identify themselves as Russians or are commonly identified as Russians.because they were part of the former USSR.

June 23, 2009 at 6:01 PM

The Russian they refer too, is a shortened version of Russian Speaking, and only the super ignorant think that all those Russians are ethnic Russians.

I heard similar stories about Yiddish speakers in BP. They would assume that Russian Jews are too much of goyim to understand Yiddish and make disgusting remarks. Ironically, even after being reprimended, they still think of themselves as more Jewish.

Funny, how you said your parents are from Russia/Ukrain. I, myself, am from Moscow and Hubby is from Kiev. One of my former classmates ended up in the similar marriage. And I know one of the bloggers here is in reverse marriage - Kiev/Moscow. But a certain Russian speaking Rabbi, remarked to my daughter that he is against these types of intermarriages, because they don't have much hope of working. I had a good laugh at it.

June 23, 2009 at 8:09 PM

I claim the title of that blogger. :-D
Considering we both grew up here, 20 years me and 18 years wife, it's not much of intermarriage.

Speaking of Yiddish. One of my coworkers from Navy Yard days, has tattoos, I think one of magen dovid. He lives in buripark and knows Yiddish pretty well. Was in an elevator one time with a couple of hassidim who were talking the whole time about his tattoos and how much of a shaigetz he is. On the way out, he started speaking to them in Yiddish. They avoided him ever since.

June 23, 2009 at 8:24 PM

I am putting my 2 cents in. Even though I would occasionally call anyone from the former USSR "Russian", it really is meant more like Soviet, or Russian speaking. I personally am from Ukraine, and I actually consider myself Ukrainian Jew. Then again, I won't be offended by the term "Russian" either.

On the topic "you never know." We have a gentile elderly man on our block who speaks excellent Hebrew, among many other languages. He was a sailor and worked in the docks in Yaffa. So yeah, you never know who might understand you.

June 23, 2009 at 8:50 PM
Katie L.  

I have experienced this many, many times and this is the first time I've heard someone else in the same situation.

When I walk by a Russian store the people there talk about me *right in front of me*!! They think I don't know what they're saying...

And my parents are from Ukraine.

When we think that one group dislikes the other, for ex. frum disliking non-frum Russians, unfortunately the feeling is often mutual. We are all Jews, yet raised so differently from each other. And many Americans just plain dislike anyone with an accent. Quite sad. :(

June 23, 2009 at 8:59 PM

mlevin: "The Russian they refer too, is a shortened version of Russian Speaking"- Yeah, the same way I grew up calling indigenous people from Mexico and Latin Amererica "Spanish". Aside from the language it couldn't be more wrong.

June 23, 2009 at 9:10 PM

Even though I was born in America, I always refer to myself as a Russian Jew.

Mlevin -- My father was born in Lvov, but he grew up in Kiev. His grandfather was a violinist in the Kiev Opera Theater. My mother, meanwhile, was born in Birobidzhan, in the Far East (but her family later moved to Moldova). So they pretty much came from the opposite ends of the Soviet Union. They met in college in Leningrad.

Subwife -- "Even though I would occasionally call anyone from the former USSR "Russian", it really is meant more like Soviet, or Russian speaking." -- That's what I mean. When people specify that they are Ukrainian, I'll call them Ukrainians. Otherwise, I call people from the Soviet Union Russians.

Katie L. -- "When I walk by a Russian store the people there talk about me *right in front of me*!!" -- That's exactly what makes it so amusing... especially when you somehow let them know that you understand them. Their expressions are priceless once they realize you understand everything they just said about you.

As for the Spanish thing... I also used to call Mexicans and Latin Americans Spanish... until I realized that Spain has quite a beautiful culture and many works of art and literature to boast of. Then I made sure to put a separation between Spain itself and Spanish-speaking people.

June 24, 2009 at 12:46 AM

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