Cross-cultural management is a fancy name for how to get along with international co-workers, because it can be hard. Mongolia is no different. Anybody who has worked with Mongolians can attest to their mystifying stoicism and endless uttering of margaash (which means tomorrow, the greatest excuse for procrastination). There’s also a reputation of perseverance and other positive traits that are less frequently noted. The line between proverbs and idioms are blurred. Sometimes proverbs get shortened and serve as idioms, and most idioms have a proverb or aphorisms behind them. Here are ten proverbs, or idiomatic aphorisms, that can help you understand the Mongolian perspective.
10. The last camel gets the heavy load (Сүүлийн тэмээний ачаа хүнд)
This is a simple sentence that gets used in several situations, and interpreted in several ways. You can express it as punishment for a person who has come up last; because that person was slow and scared, he or she came up last and gets the heaviest load. If the load is something good, you can also express it as a reward for people who have shown the most perseverance and let themselves come in last out of courtesy. In this case, it is usually used to reward the last person, which gets the odd remainder to himself. In fact, Mongols have sympathetic and motivational phrases for the last person in a race.
“Dinner’s ready. Let me pour this tsuivan out on all the plates.”
“Mom, that’s too much. Stop!”
“Son, the last camel gets the heavy load. You were the last, so I had to empty it on your plate.”
9. A bad person’s voice is loud (Муу хүний дуу чанга)
This might be something you notice right away–most Mongolians talk quietly, with little inflection. That can partly be attributed to this proverb. Loud conversation style with a high pitch is considered immature and evil. Talking softly and with little intonation can balance the idiosyncrasy of our language, which is lots of rough consonants at the base of the throat. When we think of a bad person with a loud voice, Adolf Hitler on a podium comes to mind.
“HEY, TUGSOO! HOW ARE YOU?”
“I’m not talking to you.”
“You, that’s what’s wrong. Stop shouting.”
“BUT THIS IS MY NORMAL VOICE.”
“We’re not friends anymore.”
8. Wolves come during rain (Чоно борооноор)
This is a proverb to explain that bad things happen during messy or hard-to-monitor circumstances. Wolves attack during rain, because for herders, this is when you’re scrambling to gather your herd and you’re not observing your surroundings fully. Also, the rainy weather leads to poor visibility. The main takeaway is that you should be alert during rain to detect sneaky wolves. This proverb is usually used when talking about a situation where things are out of control and some people have exploited that situation.
“Yo, Baldan. Did you hear about the Ganbats having their TV set stolen?”
“What is this, the 90s? Why did they get their 100k TV set stolen?”
“It could be made to look like a TV job. You know how they were ninja miners for the summer and found a 100g of gold, right? They were getting lots of threats that the gold would be stolen.”
“Poor guys. I hope they find the thief. Wolves always come during rain. He hit them during hard times.”
7. Suffer with your own rule , rather than frolic under someone else’s rule (Хүний эрхэнд жаргахаар өөрийн эрхэнд зов)
This is the quintessential phrase that expresses the Mongolian mentality–that of independence. Because of the vast area available for habitation and ease of mobilizing, for a long time, Mongols preferred to stubbornly do something themselves instead of listening to others and collaborating. Because the land is huge, whenever you had a disagreement with your clan, you could always branch out, because the land had enough for everybody… at least in the old sense.
“Dorj, how’s it going?”
“Not too shabby, man. I quit my job to start my own company.”
“But you’re a fresh college graduate. What could you possibly know about starting a company? Plus, you said your boss was wonderful.”
“Well, it still doesn’t beat just being on my own. I’d rather suffer with my own rule, rather than frolic away blissfully under someone else’s rule.”
“So, you prefer unemployment? Great.”
6. Man’s happiness lies in vacant steppes (Эр хүний жаргал эзгүй хээр)
This is the proverb that expresses a Mongolian man’s ideal environment, the outdoors. Our herders have machismo in the countryside that would make cowboys give up, and this proverb shapes a good part of that, but camping, fishing, and making khorkhog are a typical pastime equally enjoyed by men and women. Serene and pristine nature is the default position and docking station for our tiny little lives.
“Can you pop the trunk and take out the flamethrower? Let’s torch the meat and prepare the boodog.”
“Alright, Tsetsegee. This is great. Man’s happiness does indeed lie in vacant steppes.”
5. Push out the ghee butter that entered your mouth (Аманд орсон шар тосыг хэлээрээ түлхэх)
This means to ruin things when an opportunity presents itself to you. Ghee butter, or shar tos, is a dairy product made by boiling the top crust of milk–basically, it’s the creme de la creme, a really nutritious product often used as tallow for zul, religious lamps. To have it come to your mouth, but then accidentally (or intentionally) push it out of your mouth is a big screw-up. People use this proverb to express things with bitter disappointment.
“Hey, Zorigt. Why didn’t you get the promotion?”
“My boss wanted me to submit my annual appraisal and I submitted it late, so he got upset and withdrew the promotion.”
“You really pushed out the ghee butter that entered your mouth.”
“I know, right?”
4. Bad dogs can’t stomach ghee butter (Муу нохойн гэдсэнд шар тос зохихгүй)
This is on a related theme to the previous entry, and it basically means a person isn’t good enough to deserve something good. Again, the ghee butter is a reference to something dignified and good, and feeding a dog butter cream is a waste, because dogs can’t process it (along with chocolate and other goodies) and they can’t appreciate these finer things anyhow. This proverb is saying, “You know, sometimes you’re just not worth the thing you’re holding here.”
“Oh my god, Boldoo, are you choking?”
“Oh, thanks, Chimgee. I almost choked on this sushi. It’s mighty expensive and I can’t even eat it properly.”
“You know what they say, bad dogs can’t stomach butter cream.”
3. I’d rather give it to our dog, than the neighbor’s dog (Хүний нохой идэхээр өөрийн нохой идэг)
This is the second entry that involves dogs, and it is a proverb that’s similar to “charity starts at home”. It references a preference for family and friends when it comes to giving something away. Let’s say you’re giving away an old phone. Would you rather give it away to a complete stranger or your cousin? Most likely your cousin. But this viewpoint also abets cronyism and nepotism, which is a huge problem in Mongolia.
“Tulgaa, my cousin. How are you?”
“Just the girl I wanted to see, Navchaa. Our company’s hiring a web developer. Would you be interested?”
“Would I? It’s my dream to be a web developer. I’m glad I bumped into you.”
“Well, when I heard they were hiring, I thought you’d be a perfect fit. I’d rather give it to our dog, rather than the neighbor’s dog.”
2. Whether the rich eat carrots or candles doesn’t concern you (Баян хүн лаагаа иднэ үү, луувангаа иднэ үү хамаагүй)
This is a remnant of a mindset from a different time, a time when the poor were afraid to inquire about the rich. There is a short story of a newly rich man going to buy carrots for the first time, but mistakenly getting candles instead. When he awkwardly munches on the candles, the children in the street make fun of him. The rich man responds with, “So what? I’m rich, so whether I eat carrots or candles is none of your business.” Silly tale, I know, but it’s still often mentioned in passing and shows the indelible line of class in the Mongolian mindset.
“I bought a bunch of ingredients to try puntuuztei huurga yesterday and failed.”
“That’s because you’re an idiot.”
“Shut up. The rich can eat carrots or candles, and it wouldn’t concern you.“
“You’re not rich though.”
1. Like the mouse that hanged itself for the state (Төрийн төлөө оготно боож үхнэ)
This basically means don’t bother with politics, your efforts won’t amount to anything anyway. This is also a proverb that speaks volumes in its backstories. The proverb means that if you’re as small and as trivial as a mouse, the state moves on without your interference, even if you’ve hung yourself you won’t be missed. From here, you can see that Mongols are avid debaters of politics, needing a proverb to discourage them from state affairs.
“This politician should face jail time for what he did.”
“Just leave it, Maralaa. This is not our place and time.”
“But, he has to be held accountable by the authorities.”
“Come on! You’re obsessing over politics like the mouse that hanged itself for the good of the state. What good do you ever expect in return?”
Do you agree with them? Did we leave anything out? Leave us a comment and let us know what we should write about next.
UPDATE: Thanks to Gundegmaa Jargalsaikhan for correcting the translation of shar tos as ghee butter! 🙂
Natso Baatarkhuu lives in Mongolia and writes in English. His works have appeared in Cracked.com and The UB Post, and he started this website. He dreams of publishing novels and selling screenplays someday.