The Basics of Social Etiquette in Russia

By OptiLingo

How to Avoid Social Taboos and Awkward Moments

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 place a lot of value on social etiquette in a variety of interactions.

Say It with Flowers

When it comes to expressing one’s thoughts and emotions with flowers in Russia, the task is far from one size fits all. If the number and color of flowers are not considered, a kind gesture may actually be perceived as a fiasco. Flowers are given for a variety of reasons: birthdays, dates, teachers, political celebrations, first and last days of school, parties, funerals, even airport reunions. Snowdrops and violets are even sold in February to celebrate the burgeoning spring.

Russian etiquette has an unusual obsession when it comes to flowers. An odd number of flowers should always be given unless you’re attending a funeral. It is very important, and Russians take it very seriously. Make sure the number is odd, as an even number, used for funerals, is frowned upon in other situations.

You should also be color conscious. The most prominent colors, red, white and yellow, each has a distinct purpose. Yellow symbolizes separation, thereby being the official color for funerals to mourn and respect the separation brought on by death. Symbolizing innocence, white flowers are appropriate for weddings and baby showers. Red flowers are the symbol of love and romantic relationship. They are also popular on the political side and represent triumph and patriotism. You might give a veteran some red carnations on Victory Day. During the Soviet era, red carnations were always used in political ceremonies and parades.

Proper Forms of Address

The Russian language has two forms of address: the formal second person plural, “Вы,” and the familiar second person singular, “ты.” They are similar to the French “vous” and “tu,” with “vous” also being formal and plural. The phrase “second person,” by the way, means that these words all mean “you.”

Always use the formal version, “Вы,” when you are being introduced to someone, and continue using it until they invite you to switch to the less formal address. If they do so, it’s an indication that your friendship has reached a deeper and warmer level. It is considered very rude to address someone as “ты” when being introduced to them, unless they are a child.

During an introduction in the business environment, use “Вы” along with the person’s name and patronymic. The patronymic is the person’s father’s name paired with a suffix: “евна”/ “овна” for a woman or girl, and “евич”/ “ович” for a man or boy. Thus, НаташаСергеевна would mean “Natasha, daughter of Sergey,” while МихаилАлександрович means “Mikhail, son of Alexander.”

Never address somebody by just their first name in a formal or business setting; it is considered rude. In such a setting, use titles and surnames when being introduced to somebody, and continue using them until they invite you to use their given name. Use the first name and patronymic until and unless they tell you to do otherwise. In the non-working environment patronymics are usually not used, but they are always used in a formal setting when addressing doctors, professors,etc.

When you’re in doubt about the proper way to address somebody, say “извините, пожалуйста” (Excuse me, please). They will then tell you how they want to be addressed.

Greetings with a Host

The host will be happy to have you visit and will most certainly initiate some form of non-verbal greeting, such as a handshake. Just beware that greeting across the threshold is taboo as well as giving something through it. There are many explanations to that, from the existence of the mythical “домовойwho protects the home and dwells at the threshold and therefore shouldn’t be disturbed, to the belief in the precepts of forefathers and the idea that the threshold is the border between two worlds. However, most of Russians won’t be able to explain the reason why but everyone knows about this taboo and beliefs that breaking it will bring a bad luck incident. Once you’re inside, be sure to remove your gloves before shaking hands. However, handshakes are not compulsory. Your host or hostess may initiate a hug or maybe just a nod. Follow their lead and avoid embarrassment.

If you’re a man and don’t know your host’s wife well, greeting with words or a handshake will suffice, but keep in mind that in Russia handshakes are not that common between a man and a woman. Don’t give her a hug or a kiss unless she’s a close friend of yours. In addition, avoid kissing women and children on the forehead, as this act is reserved for funerals.

As you enter the home, be sure to remove your shoes. Your host may or may not offer you a pair of slippers, so feel free to bring slippers, suitable indoor shoes or presentable socks.

Always bring a gift, but nothing too expensive on the first meeting; it’s important to give gifts that can be reciprocated. If there are children, be sure to bring sweets. Wine or whiskey are suitable gifts for the host, cake and chocolates are very common gifts to bring or even some good quality tea or coffee. It’s not typical to bring Russian vodka. If you are visiting as a foreigner, bring something exotic, common in the country you are coming from, gifts from duty free are always welcomed.

Avoiding Taboos While Maintaining a Sense of Humor

In Russian culture, there are still some topics that are considered to be taboo. A woman’s age is one of those things. In fact, the age of a woman is never discussed, even in close, intimate gatherings. For instance, the subject of a woman’s age is often avoided entirely, even at her own birthday party.

This devotion to custom and tradition was once made abundantly clear to the rest of the world. The occasion was the 70th birthday of Valentina Tereshkova, the world’s first female astronaut. While the media from television, radio, newspapers and magazines expressed congratulations to Valentina, not one mention was made of her age. It seems that even reporters knew enough not to ask.

Russians don’t take every aspect of their society that seriously, however. In fact, they will joke about virtually any topic, if they think they can get a good laugh out of it. Through the years, Russian society has found that a joke, even one considered off color, can bring joy to difficult times and alleviate stress and tension.

Certainly, Russians share our sense of humor over such things as marriage and in-laws, but they also find a reason to laugh at their own culture. Jokes about “водка,” drinking in general, the “new Russians” (“новыерусские”), and corrupt police officers are commonplace.Sarcastic humor is also very common for Russians and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

If you happen to be caught in a conversation in which the Russian sense of humor is being tested, you may be expected to offer your own jokes. It would be impolite to refuse. In offering your own jokes, remember there is a culture barrier, so jokes about baseball or other western activities may not be appreciated. It’s best to try a more universal blend of humor.

Public Interactions and Expectations

Russians tend to be reserved with strangers: They rarely make eye contact with them or smile at them. On the other hand, Russians smile warmly at friends. In business and casual settings, you need to make and maintain eye contact with the people there. Failing to do so will make you seem both rude and untrustworthy.

During the Soviet era, communal living became the norm, and Russians are thus accustomed to close quarters. They will, therefore, stand very close to people during conversations. Russians tend to be physically demonstrative with friends. Women will walk arm in arm in public. A Russian who knows you well may pat you on the shoulder or even hug you. A handshake, however, is the most commonly used greeting, especially in business. As already mentioned, it is considered bad luck to reach across a threshold to shake hands.

Russians may cut in line or jostle people while waiting for public transportation. Don’t take this personally. These admittedly annoying habits date back to the Soviet era, when people had to push ahead in line to buy the few things available or grab a seat on a bus or train to make sure they got to work on time.

Stand up straight if you want to be taken seriously at a business meeting. Slouching is seen as a sign of both incompetence and rudeness. It is also considered impolite to put your hands in your pockets; keep them out where people can see them.