Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Code Breakers

“Sometimes I feel like I’m writing the same column over and over again,” I said to my wife, Liina. “Like I made the movie 101 Dalmatians, got good reviews, and so decided to remake the film using Labrador Retrievers.”

Liina just stared at me.

“You know, when I write about Estonian consumers allowing themselves to be screwed. Do you think that people notice the similarities or get tired of reading my pieces?”

“Well,” she said. “For one thing, you don’t have many competitors for your column. And secondly, the columns come out two weeks apart.”

That was not the answer I was after.

Estonians often brag about how straightforward and honest they are, how they’ll speak the truth even if it hurts. And how this is somehow a positive attribute.

When I was a kid, my mother had a cardinal rule for dealing with others: If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. I still think that most of the time this isn’t a bad rule. Ask yourself: In most instances, is there anything to be gained by saying exactly what you’re thinking? Fools almost always know—or at least strongly suspect—they’re fools. You telling them so isn’t going to make them less foolish; it’s only going to put you on their shitlist.

Liina believes that if you tell someone directly he’s a shithead that he’ll benefit and might even be grateful. “Hey, yes, you’re right. I am a shithead. Thanks for pointing that out. I wouldn’t have known it had you not said it. And since you’ve brought it to my attention, I’ll now rethink my shitheadedness and take constructive steps to be a better human being.”

Would other cultures be better off if they adopted the Estonian model and spoke the raw truth? I’m not convinced.

If you happen to disagree with someone, it’s more fruitful to get him talking, make him think you’re listening, make him think you care. Then, after you’ve softened the beachheads with some nodding, a few “ah hahs”, and a little pretend listening, you very gently suggest there might perhaps be another way of seeing the issue.

Liina claims it’s a simply difference in languages. A direct answer to a direct question is not rude in Estonian, she says, but it can be in English. She calls English a coded language. For example, if an American is asked how he liked the food and he answers “It was interesting,” this probably means he disliked it. (It at least suggests the host should not probe further.) If the same question is posed to an Estonian and he answers in his language that “Toit oli huvitav,” then you know the food challenged his palate. Liina admits an Estonian wouldn’t describe food with the word “interesting,” but it’s the best she could come up with on short notice.

“Raw honesty gives you a new point of view,” she says. “How could you not be happy about it? Isn’t that the whole point?” Well, Liina, thanks. That’s very, uh, interesting.

But what’s wrong with my coded language?

Estonians tend to attach gravity to the question, “Kuidas läheb?” I respect that, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a major achievement. For centuries, people in other cultures have asked “How’s it going?” (Comment ça va? Qué tal? Wie gehts? Kak dyela?) as a form of “hello,” and their civilizations haven’t yet collapsed. When I answer “fine”, I communicate that I’m grateful you asked but that I also understand you don’t want to hear the answer. Because Estonians eschew that perfunctory exchange doesn’t make them special. It makes them contrarian.

“Stop shitting on the Estonian soul,” Liina shouted when I read her that last paragraph. (The reader may decide himself whether Liina benefitted from my directness.)

But if the “how’s it going?” question is the mark of a coded language, then are not most languages coded? What then is Estonian’s code? Is it really not coded? And if yes, is the fact it’s not coded the very code itself? Maybe some sort of code might lend to more self-expression in Estonian society and therefore healthier living?

Liina argues that if I want honey from her lips that I shouldn’t ask her opinion. In one respect she’s right: I get good columns from arguing with her.

But maybe there’s a happy medium between the two extremes, Estonian and western. Maybe Liina does happen to have a point about my coded language. When an American friend tells me something is “just terrific,” I’m of course skeptical. Though when an Estonian friend tells me something is “pask,” I am also filled with doubt—it’s surely not that bad.

An old friend of mine used to wear a t-shirt that read: If you don’t have something nice to say, then come over here and sit by me. A wonderful sentiment, I think, beckoning those with nothing nice to say to vote with their feet, yet still protecting the optimists from a verbal haranguing. I ought to look into printing up several million of those for distribution in Estonia and the USA.

Liina can have the very first one.