• Marina Chaffanjon

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE RUSSIAN (IN PARIS)?

Updated: Jan 28



Orthodox Church in Paris

We start thinking about our nationality and mentality the moment we leave our country or meet a foreigner. Now that I am in France I am asking myself - how do these people see me?

And I wouldn’t have evoked it in my blog had I not received it during my job interview with a respectable French luxury house. Not that the HR asked me the moment I entered the room, “Hello, where are you from? Oh, you are Russian! What does it mean for you?” No, but I actually pushed him myself to this awkward and difficult question and since then I’ve been trying to find an answer.

In fact the HR asked me a very popular question (after my 30-ish interviews in about five months, I know all the latest tendencies in HR interview practices) about what my friends / colleagues would tell about me if they were asked. So once I gave him the very well repeated answer about how I’m creative, determined and curious, he then completely took me aback by asking, “And what else?” Well, I had already used my three bullet points so, not having found a better idea, I said, “they would probably say I’m Russian”. Seriously? Is this a description of a character? And if yes, what the hell does it mean? There is definitely a difference between, let’s say, the Chinese, the British and the Americans. But how would you describe it in a couple of words?

“First of all, I said, it is all the luggage of the Russian culture, customs and history that we learn since childhood and that form our mentality”. The HR looked at me with a question mark in his eyes…. “So, to be a bit more precise, I continued, Russians might seem a bit cold, hard and too direct at the first encounter, but once you know them better, you can easily discover a rich inner world, a friendly, kind and generous person, this notorious “mysterious Russian soul”. I was surprised to notice that when I was pronouncing these words, I felt emotional and patriotic at the same time. It was as if I was publicly undressing myself and feeling proud not to be afraid to show my not-very-perfect body.

May be this is far from the official definition of the word «Russian», but I quickly discovered that this was an accurate observation of the Russians by the foreigners, especially the French. Whenever I mentioned this feature of the Russian character in conversation with them, they were nodding their heads in approval. It is especially in France that this difference in mentality is felt the most. In contrast to diplomatic, flexible, almost evasive French, Russians are too direct and blunt in their approach. A French would say «Your presentation is not bad, but it needs improvement», whereas a Russian would say «Your presentation is bad, change it».

All this would have probably stayed as a theoretical observation if I hadn’t been criticized of being «too Russian» myself. Note that when I told about me being Russian to the HR, I didn’t really mean to say something negative. Why would I? I just talked about something I knew about Russians in general that I could put forward as my peculiarity. At worst, I could say that I struggled with this feature of mine in the past, but I’ve learnt my lesson and I’ve changed. However, once, at the end of a lovely interview, a recruiter resumed our meeting by saying that she could see me working better with figures than with people. I was a bit surprised with her analysis because I clearly do not make an impression of a geek. «You seem to be very Russian, very strict, almost directive, dear. You need to soften up. Here, in France, your approach to people wouldn’t work». I was something between surprised, indignant and curious. Just to assure you, I’m someone quite mild in nature, although I can be strict and direct indeed and I usually know what I want. However, this is really not something she could see at our first meeting. And in case you were asking yourself, having left from Russia about eight years ago, I have learnt to smile to strangers, so my severe face couldn’t have averted her.

However, after five months of job-seeking and lots of contacts made in the industry, I still haven’t found a job. Is this perhaps one of the reasons of me “being too Russian”? And if yes, how can I change this? I kept on asking different people who knew me, especially foreigners, what they honestly thought about this feedback. All of them said that I was not at all hard / repulsive / tough, etc. - even on the contrary, I might be too friendly sometimes. But deep inside I knew that somewhere the recruiter was right.

Then I asked my Italian friend of Albanian origin and she turned the question back, “So even if you were direct, why would you bother? I don’t think it is a problem. At least people know what you really think and they trust you more. A Russian friend married to an Italian and working for a big American firm in Dubai, said once, “My boss actually appreciates my

“Russian” side and he always asks ME when he wants to hear a sincere feedback because he knows that I will tell him the truth as it is”. Maybe it is not the question of how you should change yourself, but rather how you should adapt to the situation staying who you are?

The only thing that the recruiter told me that I still didn’t quite grasp is how my eyes could show that I was too tough?... Maybe I should just stop listening to everyone and everything?


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