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Culture Shocks Facing Russians Abroad

Imran Hussain

In the first of our “Culture Shocks” series we focused on the difficulties individuals from the Arab states may encounter when relocating to a country that embraces Western culture, such as the obvious candidates of the USA and the UK. In this follow up edition we will be looking at this issue from the perspective of citizens from Russia looking to either relocate or conduct business with Western countries and we will offer advice that will help them to be successful in their endeavours.

Although Russia is a member of the EU and does share many cultural commonalities with Western countries, there are a few key areas – mainly concerning social and business etiquette – that HNWIs would do well to be aware of and the differences concerning them.

Casual Atmosphere

Perhaps one striking difference that Russians will first encounter upon dealing with Western society is their preference for light hearted, playful but very surface conversations. To come across as visibly miserable or to seem uptight is to be seen by others as “bringing down the mood” and is seen as an anti-social and unattractive trait to have.

The reasons for this stem from the difference in outlook in general in Western cultures. Where Russia may be considered to have a “survivor” mentality, i.e. you are lucky to be alive, in Western cultures happiness and an optimistic outlook is expected regardless of your situation.

With a few notable exceptions, such as a student/teacher and doctor/patient relationship, in most cases people in Western society would prefer to be referred to by their first names. Calling a business colleague or acquaintance by their last name may be considered overly formal and cold. There may of course be some exceptions to this in the workplace, some employers would insist on you referring to them by last name as a mark of respect, but this is considered unusual and anachronistic in the modern Western workplace.

Another factor to consider is pronunciation. Many people who learn English as a second language are taught to speak with “Royal Pronunciation”, also known as the Queen’s English. Although this is technically the perfect way to speak English, in modern Western culture the pronunciation is a lot less formal. You may be perceived as “snooty” or arrogant if your accent has “airs” as people may interpret it as you thinking you are better than them.

Western society also frowns upon people who let the world know they are feeling sad or under the weather. It may come as a bit of a shock to observe how everybody walks around with a smile on their face in Western society, but this is considered social etiquette, particularly during transactional interactions e.g. paying for items at a supermarket.

If you are asked how you are feeling as a greeting, it is generally expected that you reply that you are happy and well, even if you are not so. If you are asked this when feeling upset or tired and you reply honestly, it may create a slightly awkward situation for the other person. Generally in Western culture, people do not want to hear the woes of others unless they are family or very close friends.

It is also encouraged to avoid subjects which are potentially touchy for Western citizens which may be considered normal for others. For example, asking somebody about their political or religious views may be deemed inappropriate and intrusive unless you know them very well already.

Throwing in jokes during conversations is also encouraged in order to keep the mood light-hearted and encourage a fun, friendly atmosphere. Obviously this should be calibrated to the situation, but a slightly jokey atmosphere is still permissible in most business and workplace scenarios.

Business Conversations

Russian culture and Western culture have perhaps opposite procedure in terms of the general conductance of a business conversation. Where in Russia it is conventional for two people to speak for a while about general conversational topics before getting to the heart of the matter, in Western society this approach may be considered an annoyance as you are “skirting around the issue”. Therefore, when beginning a business conversation, it is best to introduce yourself and to then get to the reason for your conversation immediately so as not to be considered a time waster.

Conversely, once business has been conducted, it is then considered pleasant in Western culture for a few non-business conversations to be discussed in order for the conversation to wind down and to then part on good terms. An abrupt end to the conversation once the reason for the call has been accomplished may be perceived as rude.

Certain phrasing which may be acceptable in Russia may also be deemed inappropriate during a business call. Wording should be chosen carefully. For example, if during business dealings the other person says something factually incorrect, you should be tactful in informing them of their error. Saying to them “Sorry but I think you may be mistaken” is considered less confrontational than simply saying “You’re wrong” even though the intentions behind both sentences are indeed the same.

Gifts

It is customary in Russia for friends, business partners and even casual acquaintances to greet each other with small gifts as a token of good will. In Western society, giving and receiving gifts is usually reserved for very few and special occasions, such as birthdays and festive holidays. To give a gift simply upon meeting somebody may catch the other person off guard and may result in an awkward experience for them when they do not have a return gift for you.

In business relationships, the giving of a gift whilst doing business may be misconstrued as an attempt to bribe and may even land you in legal trouble. Obviously this would be a very extreme example, but giving a gift as part of a business relationship is not a very good idea in Western society, particularly if dealing with American companies.

If you would still insist upon giving a gift, the most acceptable form would be something small which is indicative of having Russian origin, for example a Russian label Vodka.

Sexism

In the majority of Western society, women and men are considered equal members of the workplace. Common Russian courtesies, such as kissing a woman’s cheek or hand or behaving with “gallantry”, although not intended to be so, may be construed as being sexist or patronising towards women. It is safest to treat men and women exactly the same in order to avoid any accusations of sexism.

Visits

There are a number of conventional Russian behaviours which may not be considered acceptable in Western society. A main one would be that spontaneous and unannounced visits to your colleagues and acquaintances homes may not be warmly received by them. In Western culture, meetings outside of the workplace are usually organised beforehand and reserved for the weekends. If you drop in on a colleague on a week night without giving them prior notice they may find it intrusive and uncomfortable.

Smoking / Drinking

Although many Western cultures certainly do indulge in alcohol consumption, it is usually confined to the weekends. If you are seen to be drinking alcohol during the day, particularly during employment hours, then people may automatically place preconceived notions on you. Drinking is considered a social activity and usually not one to be indulged in unless for a special social occasion.

Smoking is being targeted increasingly as the government continues to add regulations restricting it and making it difficult for smokers to participate in social activities without having to retreat to a specifically designated smoking zone. These anti-smoking laws and regulations are very tightly adhered to and you are likely to encounter social and legal resistance if you smoke in an area which is not permitted. As a general rule, only smoke when you are outside to be safe.

What to Take From This

All of the factors mentioned are things to consider for the high net worth Russian looking to do business with or relocate to a Western cultured destination. However, travel does broaden the mind and the prospective visitor should not be discouraged by these differences. Western society is considered highly tolerant and so long as your intentions are good, you will be warmly received with open arms.

Posted in Articles, Editorial.

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