Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Russia is a vast country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your Russian language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, Russians have certain expectations towards guests at dinner.
So you are invited to a Russian dinner party, and you have the time of your life. You eat as much of the excessive amount of food served as you possibly can until you can hardly speak, join in all the toasts that are made, after which you down every drop of alcohol to the lees, and join in to sing a few traditional songs. You leave satisfied with the bonding and forging of new friendships. In addition, you follow all the right protocols, such as not greeting at the threshold, removing your shoes, and complimenting the hostess on her cooking skills. You even remember to bring sweets for the kids and an odd number of flowers for the hostess. So you leave feeling confident, admirable and totally satisfied.
Because you have enjoyed the evening a great deal, you decide to write a “thank you” letter expressing your gratitude and complimenting your friends for hosting a spectacular event. To your surprise, your friends receive the written thank you card with surprise at best, suspicion at worst. In fact, a letter claiming “the food was delicious and the company was wonderful” might lead your friends to wonder if in fact the food was delicious and the company wonderful. This is because giving a card is too formal. However, this does not mean you shouldn’t compliment the host and hostess the next day. It’s perfectly fine (and preferable) to do so informally.
After you’ve aced the initial protocols by greeting in the proper location, presenting the appropriate gifts, and removing your outside shoes, you will more than likely be led to the dinner table where you’ll be presented with a smorgasbord of “закуски,” or appetizers, before the main meal is served. Russian parties do not usually contain aperitifs, or drinks served before meals. Закуски will contain different salads, pickles, cheese and cold meat. Feel free to help yourself. Just know that Russian hosts expect you to eat whatever you take.
Try to come with an empty stomach since Russian housewives will think you’re unhappy if you don’t stuff your belly until you can hardly speak. Refusing food is not popular in a country where overfeeding guests is a tradition.
Although by dessert time more food may feel like a health hazard, your host will nonetheless serve dessert along with tea or coffee. This is usually when members present toasts to the host, the hostess’ cooking skills and friendship. You will be expected to join in and give your own toast as well as listen to others’ toasts. If the evening is moving along quite well, you’ll be invited to sing with the rest of the party-goers. Knowing the songs gets you kudos, but what if you don’t know the words? Well, this will most likely elicit surprise. An Englishman attending a Russian wedding recalled being urged to sing traditional songs along with the crowd. A fellow drunken guest could not believe that he knew none of the songs.
So you’ve been invited to have dinner at the home of your Russian friends. Upon arrival, you shake your host’s hand at the door, kiss his wife on both cheeks and give her four yellow chrysanthemums. After a light drink, you politely refuse a second helping of food, listen to the other members sing their hearts out and finally leave. The evening has been quite enjoyable, in your opinion, and you send a sincere note of thanks. So why does the host either avoid you or frown while passing you at the office? You don’t realize the debacle you’ve made by not adhering to implied protocols of Russian culture.
Russian superstition prohibits anyone from greeting near a door, so that threshold handshake should have waited until you had entered the home and perhaps had been guided into the dining area. Don’t forget to remove your outside shoes before trekking through the house.
To add insult to injury, you brought four yellow chrysanthemums….four being an even number, which is reserved for funerals. Kissing the wife is a nice thought, but don’t kiss her if you are a male unless she’s an old pal. Additionally, Russians usually offer shots of alcohol, so you’ll stand out for drinking lightly. You’ll also disappoint the wife for refusing a second helping of food. Furthermore, don’t be a wallflower. Try to engage in the fun. If you don’t know the words to the songs, try moving your lips. Lastly, writing a “thank you” letter is just too formal. Saying “thank you”- “спасибо” goes a long way.
In Russia, first impressions are very important. If you want to be seen as a decision-maker and be taken seriously, you need to dress accordingly. Wear a dark and conservative suit. The Russians will also scrutinize your watch, belt, and shoes, so make sure they are immaculate.
Don’t take your jacket off during negotiations unless your host invites you to do so. Such an invitation is a favorable sign, for it indicates that the formalities are over and the meeting is moving on to the real work.
Since many Russians are not fluent in English, have one side of your business card printed in Russian. As they also respect education and professionalism, make sure your card includes degrees and other qualifications.
Remember hierarchy when greeting people. In Russia, a subordinate greets their boss first, while a visitor will greet the staff of the company hosting the conference. When you enter a room, greet the people already present. Enter the room completely before shaking someone’s hand, because reaching across the threshold is believed to bring bad luck. Russians also consider it rude to shake hands while wearing gloves.
Russians aren’t believers in the adage “time is money.” Meetings can start late or be canceled at the last minute. Once they start, they can run for a long time – and it is rude to cut a meeting short to run off on some other errand. Schedule your time accordingly.
Russians most enjoy a traditional sit-down meal with family and friends. “Застолье,” a word that can also mean celebration or banquet, is one form of the sit-down dinner and literally translates to English as “at the table.” During this type of get-together, relationships with friends and family are strengthened and business partnerships are formed or further bonded.
This is more than a mere meal in Russian culture and it takes practice to master the art of socializing at such an event. There are many aspects to “застолье” in addition to sharing a hearty meal. It’s more like a formal event, where an introduction is presented at the start of the meal with a toast following shortly afterwards. Even conversation is conducted according to tradition and a more formal structure. Discussions throughout the meal are more than small talk or idle chit-chat, so guests should be prepared to contribute something meaningful to whatever topics are covered.
Unlike many informal gatherings, this type of dinner is an opportunity for Russians to indulge their love of culture and ceremony. For that reason, each guest is expected to display a level of skill in presenting themselves at the dinner. While older Russians may be patient with those still learning what is expected of them, every guest is should practice his or her “застолье” skills. Undoubtedly, individuals are expected to show improvement, as they attend more of these sit-down dinners.