USC Digital Folklore Archives / May, 2014
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Rituals and Etiquette in Russian Drinking Culture

The informant, a first generation Russian-American, listed the following as customs and beliefs regarding drinking that he picked up on as he attended family dinners growing up:

  • “The pattern goes: toast, take the shot, toast, take the shot, and so on and so forth. To take a shot without toasting with the people at the table is a huge…like…it’s no good.”
  • Toasts can be made regarding celebrations, but also more generally to things like good health.
  • “One would not drink vodka without toasting, but one would not toast without vodka to drink.”

Drinking vodka mends a broken soul. Drinking is not for enjoying the taste, but for feeling the effects of the alcohol, which is believed to amplify the love among the people one is drinking with. It’s not solely about the drunkenness, but rather about the affection that the drunkenness gives rise to that is believed to be the cure/relief from the pains of life.

In this case, the informant has drawn conclusions regarding a cultural view not only on alcohol but also on community based on the gestures of a ritual.

Folk speech

“Sir Nikolai” – Russian Joke

Sir Nikolai

(The attachment contains the joke spoken in Russian, an additional translation, as well as some commentary by both the informant and collector.)

Transcript of audio file (condensed and edited):

Informant: This  one is what my grandpa always used to tell me. [Joke in Russian]. It means, “A man named Nikolai sitting at home doesn’t go outside much. Girls are gonna come over to your place and you’re gonna fart and they’re going to leave.” It’s a crude joke but it’s a lot funnier in Russian just because of the word play there. It’s just a little rhyme that my grandpa used to say to get my mom mad.

The informant heard this joke when he was around 10-years-old from his paternal grandfather who had learned the joke during his time serving the Russian army back in the ’40s. As the informant begins to explain in the recording, the “joke’s a lot funnier in Russian because of the word play.” While the translation may convey the “crudeness” that the informant’s mother may have found upsetting (i.e. the reference to flatulence as well as the possible sexual impotence of the main character), the translation preserves neither the pun nor the rhyme, which in this case is also the former. The word for “to come over” in Russian roughly transliterates to “preidut,” and “to fart” to ” perdut.” If one listens to the audio file again keeping both the cadence and the words in mind, the rhyme is more apparent than in the first listen.

When I asked the informant if he ever began performing the joke himself, he replied that he’s only ever done it with his grandpa when his mother was around. Even when he didn’t quite understand the exact word play when he was younger, he found the rhyme entertaining because he knew it was inappropriate based on his mother’s reaction and because of the pleasure his grandfather got from seeing him recite it. In a later part of the conversation with the informant, after having shared a few other jokes from his grandfather, the informant expressed deep veneration and affection for his grandfather who had always been present in his life. He then revealed that just that morning he had received a call from his father (the informant’s grandfather’s son) that the grandfather had to go back to the hospital because of a kidney failure. He went on to share that in more recent conversations with his grandpa, he began noticing that the man who was once so energetic and whose voice seemed booming had diminished into frailty from his illness. Along with being an incredible touching encounter with the informant, the experience also illustrated the continuing role of folklore in interpersonal relations. In this particular relationship, the informant is a first-generation Russian American. “It’s hard being Russian-American because I’m not fully American but also not Russian. My grandpa is my farthest tie to Russian culture.” And by “farthest tie” the informant intended that his grandpa goes the farthest back into the history of the culture; in other words, the grandpa is the informant’s closest tie to the deeper roots of his heritage, which he identifies through the folklore his grandpa shared with him. But of course, in addition to the association with ethnic identity, this particular piece of lore connects the informant on a personal, affectionate level with an influential figure in his childhood. If we are to follow the belief that humor reveals what lies below the surface of mundane vernacular, it would seem that in this particular performance of the folk speech, the informant, in the midst of his current grief over his grandfather, was letting surface the pleasant memories that he shared with him.

Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

The Blonde and the Tickle-Me-Elmos

The Joke:

A blonde girl was hired at a Tickle-Me-Elmo factory. The owner of the factory told the girl to tickle each of the finished Elmos twice before sending them out to be packaged. Later that day, the owner heard howls of laughter coming from the room the girl was assigned. When he went back to check what was going on, he saw the girl attaching two marbles in between the legs of the Elmos. As he started chastising her, she replied, “But you told me to give them two test-tickles.”


The informant claimed she remembered this joke from having performed it for an audition to MC a sixth grade talent show. She had learned it from her two older siblings who are 4 and 5 years older than she is.

That the informant had even understood the humor of this joke when she was 11 is rather astonishing. When asked why she finds the joke funny, the informant admitted that part of the humor for her now rests in how the joke is embedded in the memory of the experience, of knowing that the joke was inappropriate and yet telling it to a teacher, who had given her permission, anyway. In this situation, it seems there are multiple interactions at play: on one level, the lore is tied personally to the informant through the particular memory of having rebelled against decorum and on another, perhaps the lore itself has become how she has adapted the memory into the telling of the joke. In performing it as a sixth grader, the informant illustrated the use of humor – puns, innuendos – to subvert the rules she grew up on. Performing it now, the informant reveals how the performance of folklore can affect future performances of the piece. By telling the story in full with the joke weaved into it, the informant has the opportunity to not only entertain, but also share her experience of having grown up with older siblings and whatever other details she chooses to include. In short, this informant exemplifies that one’s experience in performing folklore can be the focus of the experience as a whole in and of itself.


The House-Sitter

The story:

A girl who was house-sitting heard banging in the basement. It was night, and she was alone. She called 911 to report the noise. The police said they would come in half an hour. Shortly after the call, while the girl was sitting in the living room, the SWAT team broke in. When the girl asked what was going, one of the officers told her that after she hung up the phone, the police heard a second click on the line – someone else had been listening, a murderer who had recently killed two victims.


The informant heard the story when he was around 11 years old at a summer camp. In this transmission, the story’s primary function was to entertain the informant who also explained that ever since he heard the story, he’s always “listened for another click.” The primary element at play seems to be that the source of the story’s tension, the murderer, had successfully kept his presence unknown to the house-sitter – in other words, like many scary stories, this one utilizes the existence of forces of fear that we cannot effectively control. The turn at the end of the story that provides the button works because it illustrates that such forces can be much closer than we anticipate them to be.

In this performance of he piece, the informant didn’t make much of an attempt to scare his audience with the story, but instead was trying to remember the piece as he used to tell it to his friends in middle school.

Collector: Why do you think you continued to tell the story?

Informant: I don’t know. Like…maybe I was just power obsessed, [name omitted].


Collector: You think?

Informant: I mean I don’t know. That’s just me speculating at this point. But I think that’s just what kids that age do. They just try to get the other person to think they know more.


In a similar vain to how children use riddles and jokes to assert their desire to subvert a system, perhaps scary stories function in a similar manner but more among peers. While I got the sense that the informant was merely joking when he mentioned the possibility of his use of the story as being manipulative, I wouldn’t be surprised if a collection of stories revealed that part of the appeal of transmitting scary stories is in the dominance granted in the active bearer who could control his/her audience’s reactions.


Haunted Hotel of the French Quarter

The urban legend:

“Back in the ’20s or so, a couple visited a hotel in the French Quarter. The only room that the hotel had available was rumored to be haunted, but not believing in superstitions, the couple took the room. Weeks after the trip, they received in the mail pictures of themselves in the hotel room – pictures taken from the ceiling of the room.When they called the hotel and asked where these pictures came from, the owner replied, ‘I warned you. The room is haunted. A man hung himself in that room years ago.'”


The informant first heard this story when she was 17 and on a ghost tour of the French Quarter in New Orleans, which was also her home town at the time. Ghost tours are perhaps more on the edge of folklore being that one of their objectives, in addition to preserving lore, must be to make a profit, and the stories the employees share surely come from an authored text of some training manual. Nevertheless, by virtue of a ghost tour existing in New Orleans, I would venture to guess that ghost stories play enough of a part in the culture that even the manual’s stories has its origins in native lore.

Keeping this in mind, I think it appropriate to first note the aesthetic of this ghost story. Like many ghost stories, the scare tactic of this story lies in the use of an unobserved presence: the Ghost that was in the room that the couple didn’t recognize was there. Then again, while no physical harm comes to any of the characters, they experience a subversion of belief through the evidence of what they previously didn’t believe to exist. What is also unsettling is that a haunted room in a hotel would be available despite the owner knowing it’s haunted. The ghost illustrates a continuing discomfort over the liminal space between life and death. While the story (as the informant told it) excludes any details as to why the man hung himself, the informant herself seemed to fear that he would reach out to the living even without considering that the ghost’s motivation may not have been out of malice. When I asked the informant if she remembered a more specific date for the occurrences in the story, she said she did not. It seems then that perhaps the element of time, the ambiguity over when the story occurred is less important, that the story’s having survived over the years is enough to be unsettling. Something to note, however, is that while the date is unspecified, both the fact that the story is placed in the reality of our world – in fact, an existing construction – and the ambiguity of whether it’s true contribute to the overall aesthetic of the piece.

However, being that the informant heard the story in a ghost tour, it’s difficult to pinpoint whether the story serves as anything more than entertainment in the existing culture. As for the informant herself, she explained that she shares the story to peers that tell her that they’re going to visit the French Quarter to “psyche them out” and also get them interested in the area. Interestingly, a story that very well could have come from lore, entered authored literature for tourism, and has returned to the realm of folklore to further tourism.


The Jersey Devil

The informant had heard the tale from his cousin whose primary residence was in Delaware. The informant was around 12 years old when he heard it.

The Legend:

Long ago, there  was a woman notorious for her promiscuous affairs with many men. After having birthed her 11th child each from a different father, she met an old man who warned that if she continued her behavior, her 13th child would be a demon. Sure enough, the woman birthed the 13th child, who was born with the head of a goat and the wings of a bat. The demon then killed its mother and the mid-wife. Subsequently, while the Jersey Devil has never been spotted, mysterious claw marks have appeared in new homes and construction sites, among which was the middle school that the informant’s cousin attended.



It seems that this urban legend gives rise to the taboo nature of a woman’s sexual promiscuity. Being that Delaware’s predominant religious denomination is Catholic, the story’s chastisement of adultery appears consistent. Also worth noting is that the the cursed child was the 13th. In many cultures, including our own, the number 13 often connotes misfortune and dark magic superstition (i.e. “Friday, the 13th”). But beyond the sexual undertones of the story, I would guess that the appeal of the story to middle schoolers lies in the possibility of a mythical creature that has survived the test of time. As for the aesthetic of the story, that this creature has not been sighted while “evidence” (the claw marks) of its existence is prevalent scratches away at a community’s fear of what cannot be controlled. Further inquiring into how the informant’s cousin first learned the story would be useful in determining whether the tale serves as a tool by parents to keep children safe or if it merely functions as a means of entertainment, as it did in the transmission from the cousin to informant.

For another reference to the Jersey Devil, see also:

Folk speech

Reality is in Perception

Zach is a double major in Industrial Engineering and Philosophy who shared with me a proverb from the 1938 book Alamut that explores complex philosophical ideas. He cited as his favorite for the manner it which it “pulls a complex idea from the esoteric, nebulous realm where philosophy lives and brings it down to a place where everyone can understand it.”



“I got a proverb. ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted.’ The only way you interact with reality is through your perception, and it’s refreshing to remind yourself that reality.. if you remind yourself that reality is perceived you can alter the world that you choose to live in. It’s like Heidegger, the priest and the gatekeeper. You know Foucault and the panopticon? It’s actually a prison designed by some engineer in the late 18th century and it had this guard tower in center with mirrors facing up. The guard could look at any of the prisoners at any time, but no prisoner could tell if they were being watched at any given moment. If you don’t know who he’s looking at, he’s looking at you. So they self-regulate.

Other people’s power is being exerted on you through your own mind, through the perception that they have encouraged you to accept. So when you remind yourself that reality is subjective, you can step back, reexamine this reality you’ve chosen to live in, and step outside this enframement surrounding you to live a more free life.”



This short proverb is able to fully demonstrate a set of complex philosophical concepts. Behind the fascade of simple logic lies a complex rationale for a large subset of human behavior. The simple statement condenses Zach’s lengthy analysis while managing to retain its essence; if the actual words reflected the complexity of the ideas that they represent, the purpose of a proverb – to pass complex pieces of wisdom along in a palatable form – would not be achieved.



Death by Chain Mail

Lisa is a sophomore at USC who is well versed in technology and the surrounding trends. A former internet fad – the chain email – is a good example of folklore due to the multiplicity and variation inherent to the phenomena, as well as the urban-legend-esque nature of the stories contained within them.



“A pretty popular thing in middle school was that everyone would send around those stupid freaking chain emails that were like ‘IF YOU DON’T FORWARD THIS TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW BLAHBLAHBLAH EVIL SPIRIT SLASH SERIAL KILLER WILL COME SKIN YOU ALIVE AND KILL YOUR ENTIRE FAMILY.’ Put that in all caps. And then there was always some story about last person who didn’t forward it and died in some super gory way. And even if you didn’t believe it, every day you would get like twenty of them in your inbox since we were middle schoolers and didn’t have anything we actually needed to email about but yeah, even though I didn’t really believe in it I kinda started to ’cause everyone else really seemed to believe in it and I didn’t think all my friends could really be that stupid so I thought there must be something to it. After a while I started forwarding some… cause they would basically guilt you into it cause they would always be stories about like seven year old girls who went missing and died in some really gory way! Hold on let me think of one..

It would always start out like ‘don’t ignore this! This is really true!’ And go like… uhh… and it was always in really shitty English with bad grammar and abbreviations that didn’t make sense and numbers for words and all that… uhhh… okay I’m probably just making this up but here:

‘my name is katie and i am 6 yrs old and 1 ago my dad got really mad at me and slit my throat and threw me down the sewer and no one ever found out and my body is still down there. last week a girl named jenna got this email and erased it and went to bed and forgot all about me. at midnight I went into her room and slit her throat and the next morning her parents came into her room and her bed was covered in blood and jenna was gone and no one can find her still. if you don’t forward this message to 10 ppl in the next 3 hrs i will come & kill u 2!!!!!!!!’”



The phenomena of the horror-story chain email that was popularized by prepubescent girls in the early 2000s is an interesting example of folklore in the digital age. Though the content itself was less than captivating and carried little to no credibility, the internet’s efficacy at rapid dissemination of information allowed for the widespread popularity of these stories and the superstitions surrounding them. Lisa noted that although she didn’t originally buy into the superstitious emails, the fact that everyone around her did and the constant influx of them into her inbox led her to grow skeptical and eventually send the emails herself. In doing so, she became an active contributor to the continuation and increasing popularity of the phenomena.  

Folk speech

No Such Thing as Luck

Dasha was born and raised in Russia, moving the United States when she was sixteen. She is now a sophomore at USC but still more closely identifies with Russian culture. She shared with me a common Russian proverb that her mom often says to her (which she typed for me on her computer since I don’t speak Russian) and translated the phrase to English.



“Бо́гу моли́сь, а добра́-ума́ держи́сь. Translated literally, it means trust in God, but steer away from the rocks. Meaning, I guess, mmm…. have faith in God and pray and all that good stuff but you can’t just hope that good things will come to you and like surrender all responsibility over what happens. Ultimately, whatever happens, you’re in control.”



This proverb is very similar to a saying my mom often will tell my sisters and me. Growing up and even still, she will say, “you’re the master of your fate and the captain of your soul.” She usually tells me this when I am faced with what I believe is a seemingly impossible task to remind me that with hard work and focused effort, I can achieve anything. Other times, usually when I am complaining about a bad grade or having played poorly in a basketball game, she tells me this proverb this to remind me that in order to accomplish something, I must take the initiative and really fight for what I want, and that had I done this, the results would have turned out better.

There is a duality inherent to both of these sayings: when something goes right in life, it is because you did that led to this good fortune. Inversely, when something goes wrong, it is usually due to bad decisions or lack of effort prior to the event. While sometimes circumstances are out of your control, few things occur due to sheer luck, good or bad. Your fate is in your own hands.




I never realized until this project, but the proverb my mother often is actually almost directly taken from William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus.” This poem possesses many of the same themes of the proverbs discussed in the analysis above.


If it looks like paint and smells like paint..

Zach, my friend and fellow sophomore at USC, is one of the most intelligent individuals I know yet simultaneously has one of the strangest senses of humor I’ve ever come across. He introduced me to a category of humor I had never heard of: the anti-joke. When asked for his favorite, he refused to pick one, claiming “there are too many to choose one.” I chose three of my favorites from the multitudes he listed off.



Zach: “What’s red and smells like blue paint?”

Me: “What.”

Zach: “Red paint.”


Zach: “What did Batman say to Robin before they got in the car.”

Me: “What.”

Zach: “Get in the car.”


Zach: “What would George Washington do if he were alive today?”

Me: “What.”

Zach: “Scream and scratch at the top of his coffin.”




These statements are in no way humorous. Instead, the anti-joke is a type of indirect humor that involves the joke-teller delivering something which is deliberately not funny. By setting itself up in the traditional form of a joke, the anti-joke builds the audience’s expectation for a funny punchline, toys with this expectation by instead delivering the most logical answer to the original question. Without this expectation, the anti-joke would be not be a category of humor at all. Yet the irony of the answer being so obvious and not funny is what provides the comedic value.

Personally, I didn’t understand the appeal of the anti-joke or other similar alternative forms of comedy for a long time. It wasn’t funny, and that’s the point of humor, right? However, once I understood that the purpose isn’t to be funny per say, but to invert expectations and parody the traditional idea of the joke, I found myself laughing along with every single one of the jokes that Zach was rattling off for their blatant non-attempt to be funny.