Andrea Mitchell learns some Russian manners

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and pretty much everyone on Twitter had a good chortle at Andrea Mitchell's expense when, after she shouted out a question at a press briefing, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov dourly asked her: "Who is bringing you up?  Who is giving you your manners?"

T-Rex laughed along with the crowd when Lavrov told her she was free to shout again once they got their statements done.  Tillerson's guffaws were all over Twitter and the blogosphere.

What was surprising here was Mitchell's thin-skinned response.  She whined to MSNBC that Tillerson should have stuck up for her.  Then she sniffed that it was just typical "Putin hospitality," quoting former President Obama's Putin-hating ambassador, Michael McFaul.  Apparently, she expected Tillerson to defend her own obviously out-of-order behavior and considered Putin a brute for not rolling out the red carpet for her.

This was surprising from someone billed as a veteran foreign correspondent, supposedly familiar with the ways of foreign lands.

I don't really fault her for trying to get a question in in an unconventional way.  The news industry is competitive, and every once in a while, such a calculated faux pas yields a story.  But if one is going to do that, one must recognize that rebukes are the flip-side of taking the risk, and having a thick skin while on the job and trying to produce news is a must.

Stranger still is her apparent ignorance of one of the most important keys to understanding anything about the Russians and how they think: they are formal.

Formalism is a very Russian characteristic.  Formal describes how Russians are.  If you can recognize that, you can go pretty far to making yourself understandable and recognizable to a Russian.  The California-style laid-back, loosey-goosey, every-day-is-casual-Friday whatever culture of the sun-baked West Coast couldn't be more different from the formal, propriety-obsessed culture of the Russians, particularly the Russian state.

In his excellent book called Inside Out, detailing the experience of renovating and improving a building in post-Wall St. Petersburg Russia in the 1990s, Glenn Williamson, now a professor of real estate at Georgetown University, had this intriguing passage on page 13:

Sitting at the table during the negotiations was nevertheless a priceless experience. The Finns thought we owed them money for work they had done. We thought they owed us work that was incomplete. Finns tend to be laconic – yes or no, five or ten – and to the point. They mean what they say, exactly as they said it. Turks, on the other hand, tend to talk a lot. They are sincere, but the words are more about building a relationship, and less about what is actually said. Their first-choice solution to problems was often to suggest we go out to dinner.

On their part, Russians can be quite formal. The translator hired by Skanska to translate from Finnish to Russian was very dramatic, almost as if he were auditioning for a play. He would deliver the words with wild hand gestures to convey their full meaning. At one point, Kleptov turned away from his Finnish counterpart and spoke directly to the translator. "I don't care what he said," Kleptov declared, "but you are a translator and I am a director and you cannot speak to me in that way."

Sound like Lavrov?  Quite a bit.  And quite a useful thing to know when dealing with Russians: they like their propriety.  Such details ought to have been known to Mitchell if she were the experienced correspondent she claims to be and had any knowledge of Russian culture.  Apparently, she didn't.  No wonder she got Lavrov's lesson in Russian manners.