Meeting Russians

Some Good Things to Do

When joining someone who is having a meal, at the beginning of a meal with others, or when you approach someone who is already eating (even with no intent of joining them) wish them “приятного аппетита!”

Wash hands before eating.  It is considered very uncultured not to do so, even if you don’t think your hands are dirty.

When visiting a private apartment, especially in winter, you should always take off your outdoor shoes or boots. Often you will be offered тапочки (slippers).

When someone returns from a shower or bath, greet them with “с легким паром!” This is as common as saying “bless you” (“Будьте здоровы!”) in the U.S, when someone sneezes.

When Russians go visiting, see someone off, or take part in practically any happy or sad ritual, they bring flowers.  Flowers can be bought at a variety of locations. The number of flowers should be odd, as even numbers are thought to be bad luck and are only given at funerals. When visiting someone, you may want to bring an edible delicacy, but be sensible in the amount you buy.  Those Russians who are truly interested in you will become distressed if they feel that you think they’re only interested in what you can bring them.

The custom of amateur entertainment is more widespread in Russia than in the U.S. If it is suggested that you or your group of friends perform at a party or other social or ceremonial event, join in (enthusiastically, if possible!) rather than react to the request with incredulous horror. Amateur performances are considered a way to give other people pleasure and have a good time. If you play a musical instrument, by all means bring it with you. (Note: instruments should be declared on your customs form when entering the country.)

Cultivate an expression of polite attention while listening to explanations on excursions. There will be times when more will be explained than you wish to hear, but exert yourself. Everyone should be responsible for asking at least one intelligent question per excursion.

If you will be visiting a Russian Orthodox Church on an excursion or on your own, remember that there are strict rules for attire.  Women must be in skirts and must cover their heads (usually done with a decorative scarf).  It is also considered rude to keep your hands in your pockets while inside a church and you may be scolded by an offended babushka if you forget.

Some Things to Avoid

Putting feet on chairs or coffee tables. This is exceptionally rude in Russia and includes not only private homes, but also classrooms, auditoriums, airports, metro benches, etc.  Americans are notorious for offending their hosts by such behavior.

Casually saying, “Sure, I’ll probably come,” in response to an invitation and then not showing up; or informally inviting someone somewhere (“Come visit sometime”) and not following up. Russians take invitations and responses thereto more literally than Americans do. They also interpret “probably” and “maybe” to mean “yes,” when Americans are more likely to interpret these phrases as “I don’t know” or “no.” If you’re not sure you can attend, the best words to use are simply “I don’t know” until you can give a definite answer.

Sitting with legs wide apart or resting one foot on the opposite knee is considered rude and may bring forth an umbrella whack from a бабушка.  As we once heard a Russian say, “No nice Russian girl would talk to a Russian guy sitting like that.”

Eating or generally being indoors with a hat on. No matter how attached you are to your Red Sox cap, it should never be worn at meals, in class, or in polite society indoors.

Standing with your hands in your pockets may be considered crude, especially in churches, as mentioned above.

Sitting with your feet on your own chair, tilting back your chair in class, or sleeping with your head on the desk.

Being boisterous in public, talking or laughing loudly, pushing or running on the street.  You may see Russian teenagers acting this way these days, but it is still not acceptable behavior – especially for anyone over the age of 15.

Whistling at a performance or sports event.  This signifies disapproval.

Sitting on the floor anywhere.  This is simply not done in Russia.

Americans usually mean well but out of sheer ignorance or thoughtlessness sometimes do things that give their hosts the impression that Americans are self-centered barbarians. Here are a few such behaviors, as observed by other Americans:

Accepting an invitation to a function, such as a meeting arranged by the student club, then deciding at the last minute that it would be more fun to go out for pizza and not showing up, thus leaving a group of peers who have made a trip for nothing. If you agree to participate in something, follow through.

Eagerly telling all about yourself and the American way of life, but not showing interest in the hosts’ way of life, will leave a bad impression. Interact!

Showing no interest in cultural-historical places that local citizens deem important.

Because material goods are often more expensive and/or difficult to obtain, it is also necessary to show more respect towards your own and others’ possessions. The attitude that we are Americans, and therefore we are automatically entitled to the best, is one that we must all be on guard against, especially since local friends will often try to give us the best, just because we are Americans. It is far too easy to develop an exaggerated idea of one’s own importance.

Finally, one of the greatest concerns of American students in Russia is that it is often difficult to make friends in this culture.  The American practice of making friends quickly and casually is unusual to Russians, most of whom have well-established and close-knit groups of friends, little changed since grammar school.  They do not make great efforts to interact with new people and breaking into these circles can require effort and patience on the part of the foreigner.  Moreover, because most of your classes will be taken with other international students, it requires extra physical effort (and generally, extra-curricular activities) to meet Russian students of your own age.  Your Resident Coordinator will be able to help you locate extracurricular activities, but significant initiative must also come from you.  Please also remember that one way not to make local friends is to spend your time speaking English with Americans or other foreigners. Venture out on your own!