Russians are slow to make friends but once they do, they are the most generous, warm-hearted people you can hope to meet. They are proud of their country and ready to welcome foreigners and show them the best that it has to offer. They view foreigners, in general, as guests to be helped and looked after.
Typical Habits and Customs
The traditional welcome to official guests is bread and salt, stemming from the days when the Czar would visit outlying cities and towns across his empire. Today a young woman in national dress offers a loaf of bread on an embroidered towel with an open salt container in a hole on top. The guest breaks off a piece of bread, dips it in the salt and eats it as a demonstration of respect for the host. The tradition also applies at weddings, symbolizing the bride and groom being welcomed into each other’s families.
It is customary to give business gifts at the end of large business presentations and press conferences, as well as at New Year. After one-on-one meetings, a smaller souvenir, such as a mug, pen, keychain or similar item engraved with your company logo, is appreciated.
At celebrations large and small, toasts – often lengthy ones – are mandatory. Even at work parties, alcohol and toasts are the norm, with the beverage of choice being shots of vodka or cognac. After a few celebrations, you should get used to it! If put on the spot, you may offer a traditional toast of your home country (if it’s more than three or four words), or simply use the opportunity to thank your hosts for their hospitality and express a wish for future such happy occasions. If you do not drink, it’s important to make it clear at the very beginning and stick to it religiously. In Moscow, people are generally accepting of that, and you may use your juice glass to toast. Note that “just one” is generally not an option – either you drink, or you do not.
If a man invites a woman, or even a group of people, to a restaurant, he will traditionally pay the entire bill. If a woman invites a man, traditionally they will either share the bill, or the man will pay. If a woman invites a group of people to a restaurant, the bill may be split (with the exception of birthday parties), or a man in the group will offer to cover the bill. It is, however, becoming more acceptable for a woman to cover the bill, if she so wishes, especially in business situations.
Orthodox church services may be several hours long and are typically conducted standing. Women wear headscarves and men remove their hats.
When toasting the dead, glasses should not touch. Flower arrangements should have an even number of flowers (this is why it’s considered unlucky to give someone a gift of an even number of flowers).
Things to Do
Remember the following things to help you fit in and be a polite guest.
- When you first arrive, bring small souvenirs (key chains, magnets, etc.) from your hometown as gifts for co-workers, household staff, and anyone who is helpful in getting you situated
- When visiting, bring a small gift such as bottle of wine, a cake or chocolates
- When you visit a Russian home, be prepared to exchange your shoes for slippers or walk in stockings/socks
- In winter, wear winter boots but take a change of shoes for the office
Things to Avoid
Russians are a very superstitious people, and the following rules apply, whether or not someone can explain why!
- Don’t give a clock or a watch as a gift – it is said to cause arguments and fighting in the recipient’s family
- Never shake hands over a threshold; enter first – this guards against discord in the relationship
- Never light a cigarette from a candle
- Don’t leave empty bottles (wine, beer) on the table; put them on the floor
- Don’t eat from a knife blade
- Don’t boast about anticipated future success – you may jinx it
- Don’t whistle indoors – it will cause you to loose money
- When describing someone else’s physical misfortune (for example, a friend’s broken leg), never point to yourself to illustrate – you will put yourself at risk of the same fate
- If you return to a house because you forgot something, always look in a mirror