“So how have you been, Svet?” a good old friend of mine, whom I had not seen for about six months, inquired the other day when we met for dinner.
“M-mm, quite good,” I replied, after a few seconds of hesitation.
“Na-a, don't believe you,” he smiled.
And I realized he was right. A much more expected typical Russian response to “How are you doing?” would be uttering something neutral-negative like “so-so” or “bearable, thanks,” or “all right, but...” followed by a series of explanations to why life's actually going not the way it should. Or, much more often, one, myself included, would go directly to a series of complaints, something along the lines of “Oh, look at this traffic (weather, economic crisis, health issues – you name it), how on earth could I be okay?”
Grouching about stuff is our national sport. Russians are incredibly versatile complainers. Whining has long become part of our national identity. Some of us do that as a way of attention - and empathy-seeking, others – merely out of habit. We are permanently unhappy about our long winters and short summers, our roads, our government, our police, our own countrymen, our food, ourselves and our close ones, and what not. We complain with taste and passion, almost taking pride in doing so. As if having been born in Russia had granted us with an unalienable right to grumble about everything, including the things we cannot change.
We also like to label Americans who'd always give you an unquestionable “Great!” to a “How are you today” “robot-like” and “fake.” Trying to take it easy or positive, even when interacting with strangers, just seems such a shallow and unauthentic life perception. Constant complaining feels much more real to us.
Not that Americans don't whimper, of course. Actually, I think they are just more elaborate and consistent complainers. Americans' allegations, I've noticed, tend to be quite pointed and precise: selected aspects of healthcare, certain wrong government policies of the lack of states' initiatives regarding particular socio-economic issues, service drawbacks, etc.
Yet perhaps it's simply part of human nature to lament about things on a regular basis. The state of discontent seems to be essential to being alive and sober (although a few drinks could turn some of us into even more vehement complainers), or at least this is the case in the Western world. The more we have, the more we tend to be dissatisfied. My Parisian acquaintance, a successful businesswoman, married to a no-less well-off guy, has had three babies one after another, and managed not only to keep her job in the midst of the economic crisis but to get a raise in position and salary. Still, she constantly whines about stuff. At the moment, for instance, she's simply mad because her employer has removed a company car from her social package. (Not to mention that this woman and her husband already have three cars of their own.)
Italians, I've observed, complain quite artfully as well. The Southern Italians chronically nag about the Northerners and vice versa, and all Italians like to make a fuss about everything: from improperly cooked pasta to the general lo stato decadente delle cose - “decaying state of things.”
But there are places where complaining isn't necessarily part of the daily routine. I'm writing this column from a remote Northern India locale, at the Himalayan foothills overlooking the Ganges River. I've been traveling here on assignment for about a week now and I have not met a single complainer so far, not even in the tiny impoverished villages in the midst of the thick Himalayan jungle.
“The moment one says 'this should or shouldn't be that way,' one risks getting unhappy,” a local guru told me (ashrams, or spiritual centers of sorts, with practicing yogi masters, are abundant in this area). In fact, I haven't met any unhappy people here, even in circumstances where I thought they should have been discontent at the very least. It seems that accepting things, at least the inevitable, is a basic belief here, as well as being responsible for one's thoughts, words and actions. They call it karma here, but I'd call it simple wisdom.
“Every time you want to complain, try to see a larger picture and look not at those who are above you, but at those who are below. And then you realize that you should only be grateful,” another yogi master I talked to mused.
Sounds damn fair to me. Just as the old proverb goes: “I complained about having no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.”
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.