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I also offer personally-tailored, individualized English conversation practice (including etiquette) and coaching in writing techniques. Finally, I edit texts such as magazines, business proposals, memorandums, emails so they are presented in English which does not embarrass you or your organization. For further details, please mail me at: language.etiquette@gmail.com

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11 March 2012

Etiquette issue #3: monologues (Khodorkovsky)

Most members of what Russians call the “intelligentsia”, but what we in Britain might call (by a stretch) the chattering classes, scoff when I say that some of the best stories about the realities of the modern world are presented in the American magazine Vanity Fair—and that includes stories about Russia. It is felt to be too happy and carefree a publication to be worthy of the concerned scrutiny of the heirs of Hertzen, Bukharin, Tvardovsky and Rastrelovich. Rast-who? Yes, I know; I’ve never heard of him either. I made the name up, on the root of the word “to shoot” (расстрелять), which was what used to happen to people who did not listen to Stalin's monologues and react with “stormy, prolonged applause”. But who’s heard of all the others? Sure, they have figured over the years in Literaturnaya Gazeta, either as authors or subjects for long essays. But that hardly increased their brand awareness on the international chattering scene—unlike so many of the subjects of Vanity Fair’s articles.
     Take George Gershwin, Gloria Swanson or Gertrude Lawrence in the magazine’s pre-1936 manifestation, or Clint Eastwood, Annie Leibovitz or Demi Moore in its post-1983 reincarnation. Vanity Fair has also broken some very big stories, including collusion and corruption in the US tobacco industry (which formed the basis of the 1999 film, The Insider), and the identity  of the man behind Watergate, the famous “Deep Throat”—Mark Felt, former Associate Director of the FBI. Many others could be mentioned, without getting on to articles of more general interest, like Jennifer Aniston’s first interview after her divorce from Brad Pitt. Need I say more?
     So I feel no need to apologise for quoting the current (April!) issue which carries a 10,000 word article on the roots of the Putin-Khodorkovsky vendetta . It is by Masha Gessen and is entitled The Wrath of Putin. I do not propose to go into the politics of the matter, but instead to pick out an extremely interesting point of linguistic etiquette which Russians who wish to present a non-Soviet front to the world might like to consider.
     One of the displeasures (if I may use a word which has not been current since Walter Scott’s day) of conversation with Russians, especially members of the intelligentsia, is that they tend to harangue listeners in the style of Calvinist preachers, or of Private Fraser, the gloomy Scottish coffin-maker in Dad’s Army. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was well-known for his monologues, and he succeeded in irritated many otherwise sympathetic Westerners.
     Many anti-Soviet “intelligenti” adopted the style of the Soviet regime, which did not indulge in dialogue with anyone other than the President of the United States. Otherwise, as bearers of the whole truth of life for the whole of mankind, communists felt constrained to lecture people, especially their own fellow-citizens, in a way which was usually so long-winded and repetitive that it became aggressive. This is not the way to make friends and influence people.
     Russians often do this today, even well-meaning, anti-Soviet ones. It is not a problem of politeness, but of the difficulty in breaking a cultural habit. Worse still, most people doing it do not seem to realize they are doing it. So Ms Gessen’s reminder that even the new hero of the opposition, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, suffered from the same inter-personal blind-spot is timely. She ends her paragraph on the subject with a particularly apt American phrase for this form of counter-productive haranguing: “talking past the sale”. That literally means, once the customer has signed on the dotted line: for God’s sake shut up!
     According to Ms Gessen, when Khodorkovsky decided, in 2003, to go on the political offensive against corruption and resource plundering in Russia, he decided he would take his case to the people by touring the country making a series of speeches. He was not a natural public speaker and he knew it, so he hired an adviser, called Marina Litvinovich, an ex-Putin advisor who had decided to change sides. This is how Ms Gessen describes her way of alerting her client to the dangers of Soviet-style speechifying:
“She told Khodorkovsky that he had a way of belabouring an idea even after the audience had come over to his side, and that this caused him to lose his tempo. During talks, she sat in the front row with the word TEMPO written on a piece of paper. She would hold it up when he started talking past the sale.”
      No better advice could be given to Russians who want outsiders to pay attention to what they have to say. Leave the audience wanting more. Quit while you are ahead. Don’t talk past the sale. All of which amounts to the very unSoviet act of presenting your argument then letting the listener make up his or her own mind. It is the opposite of the tired old principles of “thought control”, and therefore one of the best ways of actually directing people’s thoughts.

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