After collectively spending over a year in Russia and Ukraine, I have compiled a list of eight cultural traits which you should be aware of when traveling to this part of the world. Understanding these cultural differences will help prevent misunderstandings and improve your relationships.
1. Contempt for Rules
Russians have a disdain for rules, and will often question the motives of any that you purpose or mention. If you want a Russian to follow a rule, make sure that they clearly understand the rationale behind it. Otherwise, they will likely just ignore it. This mindset is left over from Soviet times, when unnecessary rules and bureaucracy often got in the way of daily life. However, be alert, since some rules such as stop lights, cross walks and speed limits, which serve a good purpose, are also often ignored.
Do not confuse this contempt for rules as being the same as a desire to mess with authority. A confrontation with Russian police can quickly ruin a person’s day.
2. Hierarchical Society
Russians respect people with titles, and people with titles expect respect. Often a person will question the authority that you have to be making a request from them. If they find that you have little to no authority (even if you are just asking them to do their job), then do not except a speedy response or perhaps a response at all. However, if you or a connection of yours is higher up than them and could make their lives difficult, then you may find your request being promptly addressed with the highest attention. Providing an initial “tip” in cash for the good service that you know they will soon be providing to you can also remedy the situation.
3. Your Connections are Everything
Who you know makes a huge difference in Russia. People rely on their family and connections to solve their problems, and do not wait around for government assistance. Having a strong social circle is almost a prerequisite to getting ahead it Russia, and merit alone will only bring you so far. Russians will want to introduce you to their friends, family and business partners for the purpose of getting a second opinion about you.
4. Transactional Relationships
In Russia, all relationships are built on strong expectations which each side is responsible for meeting. Failure to meet expectations on your end may result in the relationship instantly falling apart. Russians more often view all deals as being win-lose and rarely ever win-win. Thus if they feel that you are getting away with not meeting some expectations, then they may quickly conclude that they must be the sucker being taken advantage of. Likewise during negotiations, if a Russian at least feels like they are getting the better deal, then they will be much more likely to agree to it. Again, their expectation from the start is that each party is vying for their own personal interests and that in the end someone will clearly come out on top.
5. Personal Responsibility
In Russia it’s your own fault, no matter what. Did you forgot to lock your car door and have your backpack stolen from the back seat? Then you are an idiot for forgetting to lock the car door, and should be happy that you even still have a car. Did you transfer a deposit for an apartment that you wanted to rent, only to later find out that the apartment did not actually exist (happened to me). Then you are an idiot for not getting the keys first. Did you flash some cash in a bar, and then get mugged on your way out? Well what did you expect by trying to show off?
While most people would blame the perpetrators of a crime and see themselves as a victim, Russians take more personal responsibility for any misfortunes that befallen them. Don’t expect the police to solve problems which resulted from your own stupidity.
6. Cold on the Outside / Warm on the Inside
Russians may portray a bit of a cold exterior to strangers. They like to observe and survey others first from a distance and over longer intervals of time before making a decision about them. This is partially done as a protection mechanism to prevent getting involved with someone who could cause them problems. However, once you have a Russian’s trust, they can be some of the warmest and selfless people that you will ever meet.
7. What the F*%k is PC?
There is very little political correctness in Russia. People say what they think and don’t worry about offending others. People prefer answers that are direct, accurate and true over those given out of politeness. Don’t be surprised if you are asked what you may consider to be very direct and personal questions early on in a conversation.
In Russian culture, men still pay for dates, hold doors and pull out chairs for women. On a metro or bus, it is also expected for a younger people and especially men to give up their seats for older men and women who may be standing. You might as well be chivalrous from the start, because even if you close your eyes and pretend to sleep, an old babushka may come over and start prodding you with her purse and ask if you are blind and cannot see that she is standing.
Russians also love flowers. Flowers are appropriate for every occasion or even for no occasion at all. There are plenty of 24 hour flower shops and people selling flowers on the streets outside of metro stations. This can be very useful if you are coming home late at night and need a formal apology in hand for your girlfriend or wife before even walking through the door. Just remember to buy an odd number of flowers, since bouquets with even numbers are only for funerals.
In Russia, a man typically does not try to shake a woman’s hand if the woman does not first offer her hand to the man. While a western woman may be insulted if a man does not offer her his hand, a Russian woman may be offended if he does. She may interpret such an action as the man ignoring her femininity, which is something that she takes great personal pride in. While a Russian woman wants to be respected as an equal, she also wants to be respected as a women. In Russia, the differences between men and women are celebrated, and being equal does not mean being exactly the same in every way.