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18 September 2012

Etiquette issues #6: slang and humour. How Mr Putin and Michael Dell once had a full and frank exchange of slightly patronising views, and how they were creatively misreported by the specialist press

A reader from Washington DC has written to query my comment on slang in American journalism in the post on 4 September (about the way the Financial Times reported the Berezovsky-Abramovich trial). Let me therefore clarify things by saying that, in my view, slang is fine in polite writing so long as it contains an element of humour. Without that, it merely looks cheap and, well, slangy! So, far from criticising the American approach, I think it works well because it is so often suffused with a cheeky “democratic” type of wit.
     Last week I came across a wonderful example of this in a news story which has a Russian angle and which I hope will make my point. It might also help Russians to understand why slang (and swearing, even more so) has to be used very carefully if it not to sound off-key. This is hard for a non-native speaker to get exactly right and therefore it should be avoided in most situations.
     The story in question concerns Mr Putin—is there any story about Russia which does not?—and an exchange of views he had with Michael Dell of Dell Computers, which happened at the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland in January 2009. I missed it at the time, but was interested to read about it when the issue was revived recently in the scholarly publication, Russian Review, which has devoted a whole edition to papers about Soviet science (including a fascinating study of the official misinformation surrounding the Soviet space programme).
     The introductory article is headlined: Technology Defines Everything, a reference to Stalin’s famous human resources slogan, Кадры решают всё – cadres decide everything. In it, the editor makes a post-Soviet parallel, which begins by describing the spat at Davos.
     Given that this ends up as a media issue, the public images of the dramatis personae are important. The American computer press sees Mr Dell as having few outstanding attributes beyond being a multi-millionaire super-nerd, unlike Mr Putin, whose personal qualities are legendary and widely publicised. As Russian television audiences know, he flies tanks, scuba-dives for ancient Lada parts under the Black Sea, teaches navigation to cranes and rides rare Siberian tigers with his shirt off—all while running the largest country on earth almost single-handedly, equipped with nothing more than a tranquillising dart-gun and cupboard full of spare voting papers. If there is a shadow in this glowing portrait, it is that he does not suffer fools gladly, nor gentry like Mr Dell.
     What happened at Davos was that, at a public forum, Gospodin Dell asked Superman a  “rambling and confused” question, as the Russian Review put it, which started with a lot of nice-to-know-you flannel, and ended with this: “How can we, as an IT sector, help you broaden the economy as you move out of the crisis and take advantage of that great scientific talent that you have?”
“You know, the trick is, we don’t need any help,” Putin replied, according to the simultaneous translator. “We are not invalids. We do not have any limited capacity. People with limited capacities and abilities should be helped. Pensioners should be helped. Developing countries should be helped…” and so on for five minutes. (The interview can be seen here, and a transcript of Putin’s actual reply, in Russian, here.)
     The simultaneous translation is not very accurate. It looks to me as if Putin was talking more politely than he sometimes does and being relatively constructive, though still trying subtly to deflate what he perceived as Mr Dell’s pretence of being king of the IT world. But  Putin’s problem is that he is not accustomed to the sort of debate in which it is often better to say less rather than more. A politician with wider experience of the waffle-sphere would probably have replied briefly: “If you really want to help, Michael, it’s very simple. You set up in Skolkovo.”
     That would have left Mr Dell’s “rambling and confused” question hanging in the sweaty conference air, embarrassing him.  But instead, Mr Putin gave the opportunity for the American press to embarrass him by misinterpreting his words, and focusing on his comment that Russia has great strengths in mathematics and a high reputation for software production. Even though Putin said nothing derogatory about Dell, we suddenly had the germ of a Hollywood situation. With a bit of creative script development, we could have one speaker attacking another. Action! Circulation! Cash!
     So that is what the American press did. And because its comment was witty and “street” sounding, it carried conviction—however misleading it might have been in actual fact. The examples that follow show the art of deploying slang to maximum effect.
     Business Insider, for example, headlined its report of the meeting thus:
     Putin to Michael Dell: Any Moron Can Build a PC
     The paper concluded by commenting: “Touchy, touchy. Especially considering how we can’t recall using Russian software for anything since Tetris.”
     Since Dell’s headquarters are in Dallas, the Dallas News got in on the act, and headlined its report:
     Vladimir Putin puts the smackdown on Michael Dell at Davos
     The piece started: “Note to self. Do not ever offer to help Russia with building their IT structure.” The writer commented that Mr Dell’s question was “apparently the equivalent of insulting Putin’s mother.” He ended by saying, “It’s hard to tell from the video how much of the insult was intended and how much was lost in translation, but Putin clearly isn’t inviting Dell to open a factory on Volgograd.”
     Wired disagreed with the last point and headlined its article:
     Putin Smacks Down Dell: Nothing Lost in Translation
     CruchGear went one better:
     Russian PM Putin Punks Michael Dell at Davos re: Russian IT
     The humour really kicked in with CNET News, which headlined its report:
     Dude, Putin is so not getting a Dell
     Which rather nicely captured the almost camp nature of the way in which both men were, to an extent, posing. But Channel Register won the prize for the most off-the-wall headline:
     Vladimir Putin bitchslaps Dell-boy: “We don’t need any help. We’re not invalids.”
     I have nothing to add to any of that, except that this blog is entered from a computer called an IRBIS, which I think is a Russian brand. I am not bothered either way. It was cheaper than the other offerings in the Khimki Mega mall when my old системиый блок got terminal stomach cramp two years ago and died on me. My IRBIS has been a trouble-free electronic serf ever since. And the software inside it, of course, is largely American.
     So it’s Putin back to front, really. But that’s life, innit dude?

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