Learn about Russia
If you want to learn about Russia you have come to the right place. It’s often easy to mistake Russians as rude and unwelcoming given the fact that they value direct communication and that small talk doesn’t come easy. For instance, communicating with strangers in a public place is relatively uncommon.
Moreover, given the fact that Russia is a large and diverse country, cultural standards and norms vary from place to place so do be sure to understand what one region after the other considers as respectful and disrespectful.
It’s important to bear in mind that Russians are generally straightforward and are generally comfortable with being honest. If you say or do anything that’s wrong in a Russian person’s opinion, you will be told so in a straightforward manner.
- Do not assume that everybody in Russia is ethnically Russian. Russia is a country of more than 190 nationalities, and referring to an ethnic as Russian is considered disrespectful. If you’re in doubt, ask about their “nationality”, customs and traditions, as they may be different from Russian customs.
- Show an appreciation for Russian culture. Discussing Russian literature, history, cultural norms and so forth is one way to break the ice with your hosts, and they will very much appreciate your interest.
- Smiling in Russia is traditionally reserved for friends, and smiling at a stranger may make them self-conscious. Smiling at a Russian in the street will not likely be responded back in kind. An automatic Western smile is widely regarded as insincere. Smiling is very rare in customer service as well. Sales assistants, public servants and the like are expected to look serious and businesslike. Hence the very common misconception about Russians that they are a very grim folk and never smile — they do, once they get to know you, and become very welcoming and kind.
- When approaching a stranger with a question, attempt to use Russian at first. Russians are very proud of their language and people will be noticeably more aloof if you approach them speaking English. Even just using the Russian equivalents of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ will make a noticeable difference to people. In fact, Russians love the few foreigners who make any attempt to speak their language.
- If you are communicating in Russian, always make it a point to use the formal word for “you”, instead of the informal word for “you” until or unless your acquaintance/friend invites you to use the informal “you” with them. This is expected out of every visitor to Russia, especially if they are meeting somebody older than them. A visitor using the informal word for “you” with somebody they have not met before can be interpreted as inconsiderate. That said, Russians know that their language is a difficult language to learn and they do not expect you to speak or become fluent in it. Whatever mistake you make, they will welcome your efforts.
- Do not overlook pregnant women, young children or the elderly on public transportation. Always offer your seat to them whenever you see them, otherwise you will be met with open stares or get called out publicly. This is expected out of any visitor to Russia.
- Women are traditionally treated with chivalry,and you’ll find this the case with virtually all countries within the CIS/CSTO area. Female travelers should not act surprised or indignant when their Russian male friends pay their bills at restaurants, open every door in front of them, offer their hand to help them climb down that little step or help them carry anything heavier than a handbag — this is not intended as condescending. Male travelers should understand that this will be expected of them by Russian women too.
- While tipping was traditionally frowned upon in Russia it has been emerging after the fall of communism. A customary tip in a restaurant is 10%, and should you leave more money than the exact total when paying your bill at a restaurant, particularly if it happens to be more or less like 10% above the total, it will be interpreted as a tip. If the service was particularly bad and you don’t want to leave a tip, ask for your change.
- The “OK” gesture is uncommon in Russia. It’s not a terrible offense, but elder people will possibly not understand what you are trying to say, so if you’re looking for a sign of approval or reassurance, a thumbs-up is probably a better way to go.
- Modesty is a virtue in Russia. Bragging or showing off your wealth is incredibly impolite in Russia, as is asking Russians questions about how much they earn or how much their personal belongings cost. Salaries are a strictly private matter unless you are well-acquainted with your hosts.
- Do not ask someone’s age. It is considered rude manners unless you’re celebrating someone’s birthday.
- It is considered extremely impolite to pass unwarranted comments or make jokes about someone’s family members in Russia. In the Business world, Russians often mix their business and personal relationships, since they very much value trust. This is also why Russians often like to hire their friends and relatives to work together. Russians will surprise you with big anger if you jump in to joke about their family members or give in your opinion about their family life without even asking them for it.
Things to Avoid
- At all costs, be cautious of discussing politics. Although it is legal to criticise the government, Russians in general are passive about their country’s politics. Offering your own opinions as a visitor comes across as judgmental unless you follow Russian news closely. Don’t be discouraged to discuss political issues as Russians in general are happy to explain, but know the position that being a visitor puts you in.
- At all costs, do not insult or speak badly of the country or its people. Russians in general have some patriotic and nationalistic views of their nation, and will defend against any outsider for speaking badly about their country. To avoid getting onto the bad side of the locals, it’s advisable to praise the country and not say anything negative about it. Always ask if you’re in doubt about something. Russians are happy to explain.
- At all costs, do not mention the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, the Crimean dispute, the war in Ukraine, as well as the ongoing insurgency in the North Caucasus. Russian society has a highly emotional stance on these issues, and they should be avoided if at all.
- Even though a large percentage of the population is adherents of Russian Orthodoxy, the majority of Russians is non-observant and never attend church services of any kind. On the contrary, a large percentage of the population in the North Caucasus are adherents of Islam and are far more religious than any other region in the country. With all of this being said, religion is a strictly private matter. An investigation into people’s faith is unacceptable conduct and will offend many Russians.
- At all costs, show extreme respect when visiting an Orthodox church. Inappropriate behavior within a church service is considered extremely disrespectful, for which you may be reprimanded or told off. It’s also advisable to be cautious about photographing certain things within a church. If you’re in doubt, always ask.
- Before entering a church, men should take off their head wear and women should cover their heads with head scarves, although you’re not required to.
- At all costs, be very respectful when talking about Russia’s involvement in World War II. That conflict was a major tragedy for Soviets and every family has at least one relative among the 25-30 million people who died—way above all of Western Europe and North America combined—and the scars of that conflict are still felt today. These events are “sacred” for many Russians and making any kind of judgement or jokes about it will be taken in the worst way possible, and it may be the quickest way to get into a physical confrontation.
- If you are invited to somebody’s home, bring them a small gift as a form of respect. However, most will end up protesting when offered a gift. Reply that it is a little something and offer the gift again and it will generally be accepted, hopefully. It is reasonable to bring a bottle of alcohol (in colloquial Russian) if you expect to spend the evening in a less formal way. Many Russian men consider that there can never be too much alcohol for a good evening, and eventually they turn out to be completely right!
- If you bring flowers, do not give yellow ones— in Russia, this color is considered as a sign of cheating in love and separation and especially never used for wedding bouquets. The other superstition is related to the number of flowers. This quantity must always be odd that is 3,5,7 and so on. An even number of flowers is always brought to funerals.
- Do not give a baby gift until after the baby is born to a particular family. It is bad luck to do so sooner. Verbal congratulations before a person’s birthday are often thought as a bad sign.
- When arriving at someone’s house, remove your outdoor shoes.You may be given slippers to wear. Russians usually cover their floors in living rooms with carpets that allow staying in socks or even barefoot.
- Be sure to dress well before entering your host’s house. Dressing well shows respect for your hosts, and formal clothes is a good choice when you arrive to someone you’re not acquainted with yet, especially if your host has certain social status (e.g. a professor). However, this rule may not work among young people.
- Never sit down on the floor. Russians regard this as bad manners, and even sitting down on a carpeted floor may result in some odd looks, and it is not very hygienic anyway. In addition there is no need for this at all: Russians always have enough appropriate furniture for sitting, including couches, armchairs, chairs, and stools for both hosts and guests.
- Never rest your feet/shoes on the seats. Russians regard this as bad and unhygienic manners. However resting your feet (without shoes, of course) on a couch is OK if you are well-acquainted with your hosts.
- Do not use your hosts’ marital bed for sitting. However you may lie on it for a while with their permission.
- Smoking in rooms will usually not be tolerated, even if your hosts themselves smoke. An appropriate place for smoking is a balcony, if it is an apartment, or the yard, if it is a detached or semidetached house.
- When having food with hosts, never get up until you are invited to leave the table. This is considered disrespectful. At any formal dinner, the guest of honor has the right to leave first.
- The hosts might get quite persistent when offering an alcoholic drink. You will often have to be very firm if you want to reject that 2nd (or the 3rd, 4th, 10th…) shot. Claiming problems with medicine or pregnancy is always an imperfect option. Simply and grimly stating that you are an alcoholic can do the job too, but will depress your hosts.
- On the other hand you can encounter a company of abstainers. Be aware of this especially if you know you are to dine with conservative Muslims. Even slight mentioning of alcohol in such companies is better to be avoided. Anti-alcohol sentiment is widely growing among advanced Russian youth, sometimes with a certain piece of maximalist denying ANY alcohol consumption.
- You will often be urged by your hostess to take second helpings. If so, take it as a form of respect. Moreover, she really will love you if you keep eating. However you may just politely say that you are satiated already and thank her, it will be perfectly understood. Finishing everything on your plate may encourage your host to persist that you eat another plate of food because they want to save face by making sure that you are full. This may make them disregard whether they have enough leftovers for themselves. If you leave a very small amount of food (like 2-5 bites worth) they will know that you were fed and you are full and satisfied.
- Do not rest your elbows on the table. This is considered rude.
- Do not lick your food off your knife. It’s considered rude and a sign of cruelty.
- Do not sit at the corner of a table. It’s considered bad luck.
- Never refuse an alcoholic drink with your Russian hosts. If you don’t feel like drinking, accept the drink nonetheless and keep the conversation going.
- Always offer to help your hosts clean up after a meal. Although they may sometimes protest, saying a simple “Are you sure” may prompt them to accept your offer. Offering to help your hosts cleanup is very respectful and it will make any family/acquaintance want to respect you more.
- You will be expected to try every dish on the table. If you don’t like something that your host has made, don’t say it out loud otherwise you could end up offending your hosts. Just have a small portion, keep it to the side and everything will be okay.
- Do not be surprised if unexpected guests turn up for a meal. Visiting on a spur of the moment is a typical Russian style of gathering with family and friends, so don’t let that bother or surprise you.
- Whistling is unacceptable in every Russian home. In Russia, It is a very common superstition that whistling would make the owner of the house poor. If you feel the need to whistle, do it outdoors not indoors.
- Do not shake hands with people while wearing gloves or standing in the doorway. It is associated with bad luck.
- Never talk loudly in public. Russians have a marvelous and intimately quiet way of speaking with one another in public. It’s best to try and follow suit to avoid standing out like a sore thumb.
- Never arrive late to any invitation/meeting. Russians pride themselves on punctuality. If you know you are going to be late, for example, due to a traffic jam or some other unpredictable circumstances, do not forget to call your partners beforehand, apologize and explain the situation.