Each of us has likely experienced culture shock at least once in our lives. Foreign customs and different mentalities might surprise us at best, or shock us at worst. One major source of bewilderment and confusion for native English speakers is the common use of the formal and informal “you” in other languages. Many individuals first realize how serious this whole formal/informal business is when traveling abroad and accidentally using the wrong form with a stranger, only to be greeted with an expression of astonishment or anger.
This is especially true with Russian, which has a system of addressing people that can be confusing even for those familiar with the formal and informal “you.” The good news, is that I have a few guidelines to help you navigate this confusing system.
When Should You Use Вы (formal “you”) Versus ты (informal “you”)?
An insider tip: You’ll never make a mistake if you use the formal Вы with anyone you don’t know. A retiree on a crowded bus? Politely offer him your seat and speak to him with Вы (Vy – formal “you”). A pretty girl on the subway that you want to get to know? Use Вы and you’ll double your chances: Девушка, можно с Вами познакомиться? (Devushka, mozhno s vami poznakomitsya? — “Young woman, can we get to know each other?”). A young professor at the university who you want to borrow a book from? Вы, Вы and again, Вы.
Do You Use ты (informal) In Russia At All?
Of course! You use ты with friends, parents and grandparents, siblings, and with peers of the same status. For the distinction between Вы (Vy) and ты (ty), there are two main criteria — age and social role. A person who is much older than you should be addressed as Вы. You also use Вы with your supervisor, even if they are the same age as you. By the way, do you know the Russian form of courtesy: First name + patronymic (or name derived from the father)? For example, if your boss’s name is Tatyana and her father’s name is Aleksander, then you should address her as Татьяна Александровна (Tatiana Aleksandrovna). Her brother Roman, who happens to run the next department over, would then be Роман Александрович (Roman Aleksandrovich). You may have noticed that the female and male forms of the patronymic are different. As a rule, the ending -a refers to a woman.
How Does That Work With The Patronymic?
The form of courtesy with the patronymic is really only used between Russians. When it comes to addressing people internationally and at the political level, you always use Ms./Mr. or title + surname. For example, Chancellor Merkel is addressed in Russian as канцлер Германии госпожа (kántsler Germániji gospozhá) Меркель, and President Putin as президент Путин. However, Putin’s Russian subordinates would call him Владимир Владимирович (Vladimir Vladimirovich — yes, his father’s name was also Vladimir). As you can see, the male form of the patronymic is established with the suffix -ович or -евич, and the female form with the suffix -овна or -евна. But beware, these are not to be confused with Russian surnames, which usually end in –ов (male) or –ова (female).
Often, patronymics and surnames sound very similar: Imagine that Ivan Ivanov’s father is also called Ivan. The name on his ID would be Иван Иванович Иванов (Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov). A woman named Aleksandra has a father named Aleksander (first name) Aleksandrov (surname). Her official name would then be Александра (Aleksandra — female first name) Александровна (Aleksandrovna – patronymic) Александрова (Aleksandrova — surname).
Talking With Relatives
What about aunts and uncles? Just like in English, it’s common in Russia to use тётя (tyotya — “aunt”) or дядя (dyadya — “uncle”) + first name — so тётя Лена and дядя Женя, for example. The short form is used for the first name, such as Лена instead of Елена (Elena) and Женя instead of Евгений (Yevgeny). Short forms of names are very popular in Russia. Often a name will have five different short forms, and these can only be used by friends, partners or parents. And to bring it back to formal versus informal, in some families you use Вы with aunts and uncles, but in others you use ты. It just depends!
Unfortunately, I never knew my grandfathers, so I can’t speak to that familial example. My paternal grandmother, Пелагея (Pelageya), I called баба Поля (baba Polja — Grandma Polya). But be careful! Баба in combination with a first name is a short form of бабушка (babushka — “grandma”), while баба on its own is a derogatory way to say “woman.” My maternal grandmother, Нина (Nina), who raised me, I lovingly called бабулик (babulik — “Grammy”) without the first name. For reference, I used ты with both grandmas.
All of this might be confusing at first — neither the formal and informal “you” nor patronymics exist in English. It was hard for me to switch from Russian norms, where formal address is dominant, to German (I now live in Berlin), where people have been shifting to the informal over the past few decades. Culture shock is part of language learning, but don’t worry, it just takes some practice to get the hang of it!