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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