How to Make a Bad Impression in Russia
by Paul Lorho
When I decided to go to Russia with my brother, we were insufficiently prepared for the culture shock that we were about to face. This is why, if you intend to visit Russia someday soon, our failures may help you to build some true and generous relationships by understanding some of the principles of Russian culture.
Here is an anecdote about my brother and I landing at 6 am in Moscow. We took a cab that we later found to be much more expensive than normal… We arrived in front of an gigantic building in a suburb where we had to check in. In fact, nothing indicated that this was our hostel. The door was made of heavy steel; I remember us wondering “Wow is this a bunker? Are you sure this is the right door?”. There was a man outside, we went to ask him. Surprisingly, he got very close to us. In fact, it appeared that in Russia, there is no such idea like the persona bubble, so you might happen to be almost nose to nose with people sometimes when you’re talking on the street and it’s just fine.
We had to ring at the interphone, say the three words we knew in Russian “Good morning, we have a reservation”. The man replied in perfect English “Sure come up!”. After four flights of stairs up, we arrived. We rang at the door and a man only opened a wooden door behind the steel door to check who we were. We told him we were French tourists with a reservation and he finally opened the steel door.
The first thing that went wrong, was when we both tried shaking hands with the guard through the doorway. This is considered bad luck! You have to do it either inside or outside, but make a choice. Secondly, my brother tried to shake hands with his gloves on, which is totally disrespectful for Russians and of course the man didn’t shake our hands and did not quite like us.
Even if it’s -30°C outside Russians take off their gloves when shaking somebody else’s hand. In fact, it is an old but really important tradition. Some say that it is meant to check that you have nothing to hide. However, if you really are too cold just say the words "давай по-зимнему" meaning “let’s do it the winter way” and you’ll shake hands with gloves on.
Thirdly, we entered the flat with our shoes on, stepping on the clean and stainless floor. The cleaning lady that was witnessing this outrageous and barbaric act came to us saying things in Russian that I hope were not as bad as they seemed… We quickly understood her message and got rid of our shoes. There is always a room near the entrance for shoes in Russian apartments. Also, most of the time, Russians tend to stock extra pairs of sandals for guests, put them on and just feel at home.
With our sandals on, when paying, we handed the rubles to the woman at the front desk. She asked me to put the money on the desk first and only then took it, then I opened my hand to take the change and she left it on the desk again. I was confused. It is another custom not to give money into someone’s hands directly.
During the check in, my brother told me another woman was standing next to us, he tried a soft handshake but quickly figured out by her disconcerted look that men and women don’t shake hands. When we decided to head for a quick breakfast we met many Russians eating altogether at a table. We decided to sit where there was enough space: in the corners. People looked at us quite strangely for a moment but understanding that we were some other random strangers so they explained to us that seating at the corner of a table means that you won’t get married for 7 years! We laughed quite a lot and ended up getting along with them very well, asking about places to visit, moments to experience, full of curiosity and enthusiasm on our journey.
Meanwhile, there was a growing number of bottles left on the floor, we found out later that leaving an empty bottle on a table could make you lose money according to Russian superstition. We decided to head off to our room, because there were many people and a lot of noise in the kitchen, we said a quick “goodbye” and went for a nap. This was surely seen as very impolite and we only started to understand that within the following days. When leaving, say goodbye to each person you meet if you don’t want to hear them say “Ykhadit pa angliski” meaning literally “to leave the English way”.
Last but not least, a birthday party took place at the hostel, it was a series on non-ending toasts during which people were reciting long and sincere lists of wishes. By the way, two more pieces of advice: Never say happy birthday in advance, it can bring bad luck and if you were to buy flowers only buy an odd number, including for funerals.
First impressions matter and especially to Russians having such important and original codes of conduct. After six months in Russia, I can testify that once you get to know them, they will give a lot back to you. It reminds me of an experience I have had at a colleague’s, we were having dinner and I was complimenting him on the meal, on the decoration, at one moment, I told him that I really liked the traditional tea pot and my friend stood up, grabbed it and said: “Here it’s yours!” It was a family heirloom!
So, understand and embrace these cultures’ differences and you will find incredible friends.