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Guide to Cultural Traits for Expats in Russia

Submitted: December 2013

Russian nationals are generally said to be rather glum, unhelpful and rude and while this may be true to some extent, people say that friendships with a Russian national, once developed, run really deep and usually bring out the warm and caring side.

Individuals do not usually enquire after an acquaintances health or general wellbeing during a chance encounter in the street. Such a question, so commonly used in ‘Western’ society, is reserved for conversations in the privacy of the home, and the response is expected to be an honest one.

The concept of queuing is not something that is observed in Russia and foreigners in the country might find it takes them a while to accept the general jostling in shops, buses and other public places. Older citizens are treated with respect and will often elbow themselves to the front of the queue with no or very little protest from others in the line. Most visitors report that they adopt the same attitude as the locals after a while.

Russians do not tend to smile at strangers. Indeed, shop staff, waiters in restaurants or other public service personnel do usually not smile even when they are going about their daily jobs. The reason for this can be found in the Russian belief that smiling should be reserved for genuine friends and situations. Smiling for no reason, to Russians, is insincere and considered an American trait.

It is said that most Russians adopt a ‘not my problem’ attitude that makes itself evident in almost all areas of daily life. This could be a customer service agent telling you they do not know the answer to your query without then suggesting how the information might be obtained from elsewhere; or it could be the seller of train tickets closing their booth without explanation or apology just as it is your turn.

It is said that in Russia, gender roles are still very clearly defined and men are expected to be chivalrous towards women and hold doors open for them, give up their seat on an overcrowded bus or train for a woman, carry a woman’s shopping bags and pay the bill in a restaurant. These actions are not reserved for a girlfriend or wife but are commonplace in Russian society.

Greeting amongst friends in Russia often involves women kissing each other on the cheek and men bear hugging one another. While this is acceptable among friends, other individuals usually employ eye contact and a firm handshake. Russian people consider handshakes over a threshold as extremely unlucky, so a visitor should be alert to not commit this basic error.

While Russian individuals respect each other’s personal space, they do tend to stand closer together in a group than is usual in most other societies. Keeping too big a distance between oneself and another individual during a conversation would be seen as impersonal and convey a message of disinterest and coldness.

Russian people consider a smart appearance and good posture to be vitally important not only when conducting business dealings but also when meeting new people in a social setting. Individuals should not keep their hands in their pockets when meeting and talking with people and should ensure they do not slouch as this would be construed as rude and such an individual would find it extremely difficult to be taken seriously by his companions.

While it may take a while for an expat to understand and accept some of the Russian traits and mannerisms, observing and experiencing them first hand is quite probably one of the many challenges an expatriate must overcome when settling into their adopted country.



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