A Stupid American, and Misunderstandings Abound

By Sarah Ostman

I learned something last Thursday at the American-Moscow Exchange: I am a stupid American.

I should have known, sitting down across from a firing squad of Russian politicians, that they’d put us through the wringer. Though to their defense, I have no way of knowing if their questions were as accusatory as I imagined them to be, since none of them, save the interpreter, spoke English.

That interpreter, a lovely, unassuming, pink-faced man, laid it on early: “They want to know what you know about Russia,” he said.

My mind searched: Cold. Vodka. Putin. Bread lines. The falling of the wall. What?! Damn it, Germany, get out of my Russia file!

I had so, so little.

“Beets?” I stammered. I got no smiles.

But then I put aside my humiliation at embodying that awful stereotype known the world over, and we started talking. One thing that has stuck with me most was a question.

The Russians asked if reporters in the U.S. slandered politicians, printing things that are markedly untrue under a safety net of “I believe…” Such as, “I believe Mike Madigan is a raging alcoholic,” or “It occurs to me that maybe Mayor Daley slept with my wife.”

It happens all the time in Russia, they said. The things are obviously false, but by then, the damage is done.

We sat for a moment and then tried to explain how things are different here. For starters, reporters don’t really use “I” – ever. Opinion is kept for the opinion page. And we’d be hesitant to write something like that, unless we wanted to kiss any future conversations with those politicians goodbye. The Russians kept looking quizzically at us and then back at each other, asking one another questions in their language and obviously not getting any answers.

It’s possible that the group was blowing the problem out of proportion – they are, themselves, politicians, and certainly wired to worry about Politician PR.

But what really stuck with me was the lack of understanding that simple question illuminated. The differences between us were so rampant: Russia v. U.S., Politician v. Reporter. It was like we couldn’t find the bottom of the differences between our journalisms, that point where we could talk and could know they could understand.

Still — at the risk of sounding again like the stupid American — I did walk away feeling lucky, like our system isn’t working out quite so bad.

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