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The Russian Tongue: How to lose friends and annoy people

We spend our lives at work, on transport, and in other public places in close contact with a multitude of friends and strangers, and this is sometimes much too close for comfort. For one thing, our fellow men and women produce a number of irritating sounds that can drive us up the wall (бесить).

We spend our lives at work, on transport, and in other public places in close contact with a multitude of friends and strangers, and this is sometimes much too close for comfort. For one thing, our fellow men and women produce a number of irritating sounds that can drive us up the wall (бесить).

One habit that can really get under your officemates’ skin is cracking your knuckles: Меня жутко раздражает, когда она начинает хрустеть пальцами. Doctors occasionally warn us that this habit is damaging to the joints: Хрустеть пальцами вредно для суставов. But this isn’t going to stop the true addict.

Another biggie related to the hands is nail-biting (грызть ногти): Он в нервном порыве грыз ногти и ерошил волосы. (In a fit of nerves he chewed on his nails and ran his fingers through his hair.) When you talk about trying to get rid of a bad habit, you can use the verb отучиться: Стараюсь отучиться грызть ногти.

There’s a lot of irritating action going on around the mouth – chewing loudly, smacking your lips, etc. The action of chewing in general can be described as жевание (see: gum – жвачка), with чавканье being the slightly more energetic or noisy variant. I see a lot of people chewing on their lips (жевать губы) with disturbing energy and intensity on the subway.

If you want to talk about the actual sound of lips smacking together, you can use the verbs причмокивать\чмокать губами. As in English, these verbs and the gestures they represent can be used to express pleasure (причмокнул от удовольствия), but of course can also make you crazy if you’re in a quiet room with someone doing them: Во сне он храпел и причмокивал губами. (He snored and smacked his lips in his sleep.)
I would definitely put chewing with your mouth open on this list, but there doesn’t seem to be a good set phrase for it in Russian. One phrase I come across that I’ve never noticed an actual person doing is цыкать зубом. Apparently this is using your tongue to suck on your teeth, which I can imagine is annoying.

Getting back to the office, there are a number of seemingly innocuous things your coworkers can do to make you wish for a sensory deprivation chamber. These include tapping or drumming your fingers on your desk incessantly (постукивать пальцами по столу) and quiet humming (напевать под нос) or whistling, often without realizing. You should be extra careful with whistling because not only can it drive your officemates quietly insane, it’s also considered bad luck: Не свисти в доме – денег не будет. (Don’t whistle inside – you’ll lose all your money.)

One inescapable sound this winter was the sad chorus of nose-blowing all around us. Here’s Vasily Shukshin describing an unpleasant awakening in one of his short stories: Утром я проснулся оттого, что прямо под окном громко сморкался хозяин.
(I was awoken in the morning by the sound of my landlord loudly blowing his nose right under my window.)

One 17th-century book on etiquette warns young people against the dangers of noisy nose-blowing: И сия есть немалая гнусность, когда кто часто сморкает, яко бы в трубу трубит, или громко чхает…тем в церкви детей малых пужает и устрашает. (It is terribly vile when someone blows their nose as if blowing a trumpet, or sneezes loudly…thereby frightening young children in church.) So, you know, watch out for that.
Well, there’s probably no way to get through a column about irritating bodily actions without getting a little bit rude, so we have to mention farting. A childish word for it is пукать, and the more vulgar adult version is пердеть. As for a more neutral term, there’s the archaic пускать ветры (pass wind), or the modern испортить воздух.

But people aren’t going to stand for this anymore, it seems. In Malawi the president is seeking to pass a law that will punish those who “foul the air,” usually translated into Russian as: закон “о порче воздуха.”

And of course there’s burping (рыгать) and hiccupping (икать). One forum complaining about tourists in Italy listed among their other crimes their habit of burping and arguing in public: рыгают и ругаются в общественных местах.

Since we’re talking about sounds that drive you nuts, it seems appropriate to end on an almost universally disturbing sound: nails on a blackboard. You could use the phrase заскрипеть ногтем по доске, but Russians seem more upset by the wrong swipe of chalk across the blackboard (заскрипеть мелом по доске). But either way, if a sound really bothers you, you can say: Хуже чем ногтем по доске!

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Learning Russian but finding the lessons too formal? In her entertaining column The Russian Tongue, Sara Buzadzhi gives practical informal tips on everything from dealing with traffic cops to flirting in the grocery store. Sara’s columns are published with permission of, where they appear every two weeks.

Sara Buzadzhi is an English teacher and translator in Moscow.

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