Sunday, February 1, 2015

Be Polite or Else!

By Stephen Wilson

(MOSCOW, RUSSIA)In recent weeks the Russian Duma or parliament has been passing a spate of laws designed to impose a new moral code on students. For instance, a famous film director and deputy of the Duma, Vladimir Bortko is proposing a new law which forces teachers to be a bit more polite to their pupils. The new law, (number 273 F3, 'On Education') if passed, would compel school teachers to address all school students with the more respectful ' you' which translates as 'Vee' or rather 'вы' instead of the less formal and more personal 'ты'. 

By addressing school students with the more authoritative 'you', teachers treat their school students with more deference! In the Russian language, it is deemed polite to address adults and strangers with a customary formal 'you' (вы) instead of the less formal 'you' ( 'ты.) Vladimir Bortko reasons that such an enforced standardised address will inspire people to respect and acknowledge the honour and dignity of each other. Bortko states, 'I am 68, and see that our people lack self-respect. This surfaces in all areas of life.... We need a situation where a child who comes from
home to school understands that he attends a government institution
where to address him with a 'formal you' (ВЫ' ) means people relate to him seriously. I think that this measure can change the character of our people in ten or more years.' Bortko also adds that it will be more difficult for a teacher to humiliate a student by scolding him with 'you are an idiot, sir.'

Although the Russian Duma comprises quite a number of cranks, 
demagogues and authoritarian types, Vladimir Bortko is no fool.

He is highly cultured, refined and thoughtful film director who has
directed great films such as Bulgakov's ' Heart of a Dog' and 'The
Master and Margarita' to name but a few.

The problem of ' politeness' in Russian schools and other spheres of
life remains a huge problem. Russian school students I frequently
encounter complain of how their teachers are persistently rude, impolite and angrily shout at them for petty reasons such as not correctly solving a maths problem or doing something perfectly. Some teachers have ill-chosen their profession and feel embittered against just about everything. They vent their anger on school students and do not even say 'hello ' or 'good morning ' to their colleagues. When the parents complained to the head of a school that persistent shouting at their daughter was upsetting her, the teacher answered, 'I scold all my students like this'. The teacher refused to apologise to the parents for this. She preferred to be fired than 'say sorry'. At least the teacher can't be accused of favouritism!

But would such a standardised address really make such a drastic
difference in schools as Bortko hopes? After all, most Russian school students are already addressed with a 'formal you' and the schools politeness has not substantially increased, never mind remained constant. A recent  survey by 'In  contact' by Pro Gorod asked Russians if they thought this new law would make much difference. As many as 47% respondents replied, 'No, it will only harm relations between pupils and teachers,' and 26.7% answered, 'It won't change anything' and only 25.7% stated, 'Yes, this will make children more polite.'

Being polite might strike a few people as trivial and banal. This may seem the case if you view politeness in the narrow sense as just saying 'please', 'Thank you' and 'bowing ' to others. In a deeper
sense, politeness is much more profound. It concerns how you perceive and relate to other people. Genuinely polite people treat others much better than vulgar people and are much more helpful, caring and loving.

Politeness in its highest form suggests 'love'. So learning to be polite is one of the first steps to trying to love people. It is true that a certain form of pretentious politeness is superficial and even offensive if it is not from the soul. But politeness, no matter how imperfect its form, assumes is better than 'a vulgar honesty' that at its worst can lead to nasty ugly scenes of violence!  Would a genuinely polite driver kill another driver because he refused to give way? He would be the first person to let the other driver go without fuss or anger.

Being addressed as an adult will certainly appeal to some very young pupils. Unlike adults who frown at every new wrinkle that appears, some children are dying to grow up. They even lie about being older. By addressing them with the formal 'you', might confer a certain dignity upon them. But Bortko's proposal has raised a lot of head wondering and wagging.

Some teachers even think that addressing pupils with the less formal 'you' improves the atmosphere at school. They argue that less formality between students and teachers creates a warmer, cozier and nicer family atmosphere. And a school ought to be like a second family.

Alas, some teachers see themselves as 'surrogate ' parents whose 
aim is to act as useful role-models. A lot of school students are growing up without fathers to emulate.

A teacher of English Oksana Chebortareva states, ' I don't take this
proposal seriously. Teachers are used to addressing their pupils in
the way they like and it would be difficult to get teachers to change
their behaviour when they are used to communicating in a different way'.

Mairi Koroleva, an academic, stated, 'The problem with adopting one general way to address students is Russia is so huge and has different cultural customs and traditions. In each culture, at schools teachers will address their pupils according to the cultural context. So in a Buddhist republic of Russia, they might address each other as either 'brother' or 'father' rather than the formal 'you'. There is nothing wrong with that because this way of addressing each other reflects the existing language and culture which ought to be preserved. We should be trying to preserve the diversity of addressing people which is reflected in different cultures.'

But the new proposals appear to imply you can 'force' people to be
polite. By using force you might get a counterfeit politeness, but
certainly not a genuine one. When you hear a shop-assistant 
mechanically and monotonously saying, 'Thank you and shop here
again' it sounds worse than aloof silence.

(The Russian government is also on the brink of passing new
legislation where school students would be forced to undertake
tests for drugs even without parental consent. Any signs of drug substances found will be recorded and put in student's medical
card. Critics say that this could ruin a school student's future career
and lead to him being black-listed.)

Despite the fact that many members of the Russian Duma have been implicated in corruption, they are attempting to police the morals of their  own citizens by forcing them to address each other in a particular way, forcing them not to swear or even to hold their own opinion which is at odds with the government. However, a truly moral and spiritual person will do good because it is the right thing to do and not because any government compels or threatens him or her. This simple basic point emphasized by most Russian philosophers is missed by the Russian duma. They are rudely forcing people to ' be polite'!


  1. I actually think this is a good idea. People need to be nudged to do the right thing at times. For example, why did we have to enact civil rights laws to outlaw hate and racism in certain areas? Ultimately, people's values are formed from the society around them. A civil society that respects everyone is important. A classless society that redistributes the wealth all around is a big family where we look out for everyone. Let's start by respecting everyone, and making it mandatory.

  2. Perhaps it is how people use the formal 'you' and 'informal' you which is more important. If you say the formal you in a sarcastic and arrogant way then it is still impolite. I would encourage people to use the formal 'you' in Russian but just leave room for applying it according to the situation which arises. I would prefer if some subtle qualifications were added to this law,as like any other it might be abused.

    There are civil laws in France and America to outlaw hate and racism but then in France insulting Muslms by drawing caricatures is viewed as 'freedom of speech'. People in America and Europe describe Russians, in newspapers and in everyday speech in a highly derogatively way which might be construed as 'racism'....In
    Europe it is legally okay to respect blacks and gays but when it comes to Russians ,well just read the western press. about this. By the way a lot of Russians think that Americans and Europeans really hate them.

    Obviously there mush be deep psychological reasons for why a person hates another person..Maybe there is a degree of distorted perception which fails to acknowledge the good side of even some so-called 'bad' people. Has the situation in America improved in regard to fighting racism? How come the police are arousing so much anger by the idiotic shootings of so many unarmed people....Are the police out of control in America or are they just a bit jumpy?

    Stephen Wilson
    Moscow, Russia