10 notes from a Russian teacher in London about the way Russians communicate and address each other - something important you may not learn in a standard Russian course in London.
A couple of years ago, for various reasons, I was plunged straight back into Russian life and settled in Moscow for a few weeks socialising with a lot of professional people and strangers every day. By that time, I had lived in the UK for 10 years and although no one in Russia ever suspects me of being foreign, I feel it a bit. I couldn’t help observing and making mental notes all the time about how people interact. So here are some of my observations and recommendations for students who are learning Russian and will be dealing with Russians on a daily basis in business or social situations:
1. First impressions
When you first meet people, they look very serious and often gloomy. This is not a reflection of their state of mind and doesn’t mean that they are clinically depressed. Simply, in the Russian culture, smiling and joking with strangers is not a done thing. The concept of smiling as a matter of politeness is still foreign to us, and people only smile if they are genuinely amused or really like you. If you manage to charm them they soon relax and start being smiley and jokey in their turn. They just need to know that you will take them seriously and treat them with respect even if you giggle together!
2. Small talk
People often get down straight to business, without any niceties such as doing small talk for a few minutes first. So they may come across as rude to an Anglo-Saxon person. In fact, it only shows you that the situation is formal and professional and they don’t know you well enough to talk about anything other than business. Which takes us to the next point:
3. It’s all personal
Every relationship is personal. Even a professional one. The saying “nothing personal, just business” would not work in Russia at all. You have to get to know your business or professional partners on a personal level and acknowledge them as a human being rather than just someone to do business with. If you want to succeed in dealing with Russian partners, you’ve got to treat them as a friend.
4. Addressing people
If you are Russian, it’s important to remember people’s names and patronymics and use them all the time. It can be really difficult if you are dealing with a lot of new people in professional situations. I sometimes have to write them down not to get them wrong! However, if you are foreign, you can be exempt from that custom and allowed to use first names only.
Paying compliments is an important part of social interaction. Politically correct concerns do not exist, so women get compliments on their appearance from men all the time. If you want to befriend a Russian, start with a few compliments and don’t be afraid to be too personal. We love it!
Shaking hands when meeting is the usual thing to do for men but not for women. Some women shake hands, some prefer not to. I think the rule is that a woman should offer her hand for a handshake first. Shaking hands between two women would be very unusual. Some more old-fashioned men like to kiss a woman’s hand. It’s a sign of respect, and nothing more suggestive or personal. Contrary to popular opinion, Russians do not greet each other by kissing or touching, unless they are very close friends or family. The western European tradition of kissing strangers when greeting them and saying good-bye would be viewed as very strange.
7. Being grateful
When someone does you a favour, it’s important to be grateful and show it. Russians do not write thank you cards and do not like communicating in writing at all, but they do like giving and receiving gifts, flowers (for women), bottles of posh booze (for men), chocolates and other tokens of gratitude. Flattery and compliments are very common.
8. It’s good to talk!
If you need to get hold of someone, give them a call. As I said in the previous section, Russians do not like writing letters, cards, e-mails and even text messages. People ignore texts and can’t be bothered to reply because they find it fiddly and time consuming. They would rather call and talk. Again, it makes communication more personal. So make sure you cover telephone vocabulary in your Russian lessons!
9. We are all big softies…
When you have managed to make friends, you will discover that under their harsh appearance most Russians (especially men) are very soft, fragile and often romantic. I think Russians are the only nation left in the world that really appreciates (and creates) poetry.
10. Personal space
And last but not least: Russian culture is “communal” (it must be something to do with the cold climate!) and people are unaware of the concept of personal space. On public transport you might be squashed very closely against total strangers (not a pleasant experience most of the time!) and people will come very close to you while queuing and sometimes talking. So it’s quite likely that your personal space will be invaded in crowded places – it’s not personal, we just like to flock together!