The proverb's meaning is that just as fish prefer muddy waters and avoid clear streams, people generally do not associate with those who are too ideal in terms of ethics, manners, and habits. In other words, being strictly honest and always making the right choice from the standpoint of society-imposed values will result in you being isolated and having no friends.

I will now elaborate to better explain the idea. The idea is that there are some good reasons to keep very upright people at arm's length:

  1. If someone is too strict towards himself or herself, he or she is likely to judge others by his or her high standards, which may lead him or her to make big deals out of minor matters, criticize others, report them, and refuse to forgive even small accidental wrongdoings. In contrast, those who are not ideal have no difficulties accepting that others are not, too.

  2. Very upright people are hard to cooperate with on matters where ethical flexibility is required. The ability to cooperate on such matters is important because problems sometimes arise whose only practical solution is to bend rules.

  3. Brutally honest people tend to create awkward and problematic situations by being too direct and honest. Friedrich Nietzsche said about it, "If you want to offend somebody, just tell him the truth."

  4. Strict people often lack common sense and human understanding on the emotional level and, as a result, tend to take decisions based on abstract logical considerations. This can sometimes lead to awful practical outcomes because of a failure to take the feelings of others into account and see all circumstances and nuances of a situation.

  5. Since there is no reason to be honest and upright just for the sake of being honest and upright, those who are always blindly honest and upright are likely to be close-minded, dogmatic people in the broad sense.

Intuitively led by the above reasons, many avoid associating with people who are too ideal from the standpoint of society-imposed values, and this is what the proverb is about.

I am curious how this idea is commonly or idiomatically expressed in Russian.

  • 4
    In general in orthodoxal religion and in Russian culture the meaning of that proverb is considered false, so no direct analog exists. Human being is cosidered to be an image if absolutly good god and so on. That means that being strictly honest and always making the right choice - is the best way to treat and make friends. Cultural difference as it is.
    – ksbes
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 13:47
  • i can't recall any persistent thread in Russian culture of advocacy for honesty, even in religious context, i don't think it's perceived as a moral imperative Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 18:32
  • 4
    There is какой-то он слишком правильный, which is a phrase with which other people may describe their dislike towards such person. There is also an advice of будь проще, и люди к тебе потянутся, which is somewhat related.
    – GSerg
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 19:20
  • 2
    @GSerg Из той же серии что-то вроде "у тебя крылья не растут ещё?" и т.п.
    – tum_
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 0:49
  • Человека, который боится запачкаться - в том числе и в моральном смысле, - могут обозвать чистюлей. Критикуется здесь именно страх, брезгливость, слабость. А вообще-то если и возникают выражения с таким смыслом, то всегда подразумевается, что нежелательная чистота - мнимая, ложная. Их смысл: "на самом деле ты не так свят, как ты думаешь", "тебе только кажется, что ты чист, потому не воображай о себе много". Как следствие, все эти поговорки - ёрнические, несерьёзные. А на самом деле само собой разумеется, что чем человек лучше, тем лучше для него и для всех.
    – Evgeniy
    Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 21:38

6 Answers 6


Nothing exactly equivalent comes to mind, but if someone is too upright or pretends to be and boasts about it or criticizes others from a moral high ground, people might ask him: Тебе нимб не жмет? Implying that he's acting too righteously, like he's a saint.


There's no proverb about fish in this respect, but I think (imho) that the general meaning is expressed in the following proverbs:

Молодец красив, да на душу крив.

Не все то золото, что блестит.


Идентичное по смыслу выражение мне в голову сразу не приходит. Разве что:

Правду говорить - друга не нажить. (это буквально пункт 3)

Живи для людей, поживут люди для тебя. (это похоже на пункт 1, хотя тут скорее речь идет о щедрости)

Есть идиомы со смыслом "не доверяй слишком законопослушным или честным на вид людям, они могут замышлять плохое". Например:

В тихом омуте черти водятся.

Но, насколько я понимаю, у вашего в выражения более мягкий смысл.

  • 2
    В тихом омуте... - это о другом, о людях, которые себе на уме и тихие с виду, омут не ассоциируется с прозрачной водой, скорее с мутной, что противоположно японской пословице Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 7:20

Somewhat related to fish, but might not quite grasp the sense is:

Ловить рыбу в мутной воде

See also this.

  • 1
    Минусовал не я, но это и впрямь о другом.
    – tum_
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 0:47
  • This is very similar in wording to the question, so I'd say it's a useful bit of info. However, it worth mentioning that this Russian saying covers something like taking advantage of a complicated situation without much respect to other people's benefit, providing that possible bad intentions stay e.g. hidden with misdirection, which doesn't really coincide with the OP saying's gist.
    – DK.
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 5:20

To mind comes a somewhat derogatory wording "солдатская прямота".

You can say, e.g.:

"Твоя солдатская прямота никому не приносит пользы, но лишь ранит и отталкивает людей."

Another potentially relevant saying is: "жизнь состоит из условностей". The spectrum of meanings of this saying is broad. On some occasions, it may mean that brutal tactless honesty is not necessarily the best way of conveying the truth, especially on sensitive matters.


There's an idiom светлее кочерги about people who make impression of very upright.

Otherwise, while the effect is certainly known, I struggle to find an exactly matching proverb or anything like that.

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