Intimacy and Interlocutor Distance in Russian and Polish Advertising Discourse

Annelie Chapman, University of California, Los Angeles

What is the appropriate interlocutor distance in an advertisement? This study presents examples of pre- and post-Soviet Russian and Polish advertisements that reflect fundamental cultural differences in the degree of intimacy considered appropriate to this genre of commercial public discourse. The expression of short versus long interlocutor distance has been proposed by Yokoyama to be systematically encoded in Russian as a pragma-linguistic reflection of the “svoj—čužoj” opposition, which has been traced to the origins of Slavic culture (Ivanov and Toporov). Drawing from ground-breaking studies of colloquial Russian by Zemskaja and her colleagues, Yokoyama has shown that “svoj” is the quintessential feature of private interpersonal communication, in contrast with public discourse, including that of the mass media, which has traditionally maintained greater interlocutor distance and assumes the addressee to be “čužoj.” This presentation will discuss the unique status of advertising as a public discourse genre which nonetheless allows for variation in the expression of short versus long interlocutor distance. The analysis will correlate the choice of second-person reference in recent Russian and Polish ads with the expression of short or long interlocutor distance. Patterns of usage reflect what appears to be a fundamental difference in the degree of intimacy permitted in Russian and Polish advertising, while similarities of usage suggest that interlocutor distance also encodes information about the age or status of the target consumer.

Russian advertising tends to follow the tradition of public discourse in a “čužoj” mode, with the unmarked case expressing long interlocutor distance by means of the second-person plural vy. In Polish, the tendency is for advertising discourse to be more “svoj,” with the unmarked case expressing short interlocutor distance by means of the second-person singular ty, and the marked case appropriating long interlocutor distance (by means of Państwo) to encode respect for the target addressee. A diachronic analysis reveals that interlocutor distance in Russian ads is being shortened. This may reflect a more gradual adoption by the Russians of a Western model based on ultra-intimate discourse. In addition, the range of variation in the interlocutor distance among Russian ads seems to be widening. This may be connected with a cross-cultural tendency to tailor the expression of interlocutor distance to the individual needs of the ad as a means of encoding pre-linguistic knowledge of the age or status of the target addressee, rather than conforming to genre-based constraints on the level of allowable intimacy to be expressed. In both Russia and Poland, the adoption of shorter interlocutor distance in the public discourse of advertising may influence cultural perceptions of what constitutes appropriate interlocutor distance in other spheres of public life, leading to changes in language use as a reflection of those perceptions.