A Guide To Russian Business Etiquette And Culture.
Closing the Culture Gap. A guide to Russian business etiquette and culture. Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver. Hanns Johst, Schlageter, act 1 scene 1Making the appointment:Obtaining an appointment can be time consuming and often very challenging, especiallywhen trying to make an appointment with a top director. Therefore, patience is an absolutevirtue and once an appointment has been made, you should do everything in your power toavoid cancelling.Ideally appointments should be planned and scheduled well in advance and it is advisableto confirm your appointment several times as the meeting date draws near. The end of Julyand the month of August is a difficult time for making appointments as this is the time ofyear when most business people take their annual holidays.Schedules often can and do change with very little notice with business meetings oftenseeming to be open-ended affairs. A visitor is, however, expected to be punctual while atthe same time being flexible.Punctuality is (especially for a first meeting) is expected. However, it is not unusual foryour Russian counterpart to be late for a meeting – even up to being an hour or two, if theydeem the meeting to be of a low priority.Although lateness is frowned on in other circles, it is in your best interests to arrivepunctually, and to ensure you do not die of boredom, should you be likely to be keptwaiting, carry some work or another diversion with you, to fill in the time.Allow plenty of time for both travelling to the appointment and for the appointment itself,as not only can appointments start late, but often have a habit of running well over time –even if started on time.Although the working day starts at 9am and finishes at 6pm; it is not very often that youwill get to see anyone much before 10am and the working day tends to finish at 5pm in theprovinces.Business attire:Russian business people pay an infinite amount of attention to how look and the old sayingthat, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression,” is especially true inRussia.The Russian proverb says, "They meet you depending on how youre dressed and they saygood bye depending on how wise you seem," and today’s Russian’s spend more of theirdisposable income and family budget on clothing than any other country in the world; with 1
the top brands such as Versace, Gucci, Calvin Klein and Hugo Boss, being very much invogue.For those Russians, not being in a position to afford such brand names, it is quite usual tosee people very smartly smartly-dressed, all the same, in cheaper but well-made clothing,rather than the brand name fake items of clothing widely available throughout Russia.Suits, smart shirts and ties are the norm for men, whether it is in the office or a restaurantand you should try to avoid wearing the same shirt and tie every day. Dark colours andwhite shirts are for special occasions only, while dark blue or lighter colour tones areperfectly acceptable.On Friday’s, which is “dressing down day,” it is acceptable to go to the office in smartcasual wear. However, if you are attending meetings, especially for the first time, then dodress in suit, shirt and tie.In winter dress in warm (it goes without saying) outer clothing, with hats and gloves, aswell as a good pair of insulted boots with good treads, as the pavements are often very icyand, therefore, slippery. It is best to keep, which most Russians do, a separate pair of shoesin winter in the office – changing from your boots to shoes upon arrival at work.Conversational and small talk tips:Try to speak in a calm, moderate, tone of voice at all times. It is considered nekylurniy(non-cultured) to raise your voice in the office or at meeting.Your Russian colleagues will be delighted if you make the effort to speak even a fewsentences of their language. Nevertheless, if your Russian party speaks your language,your decision to speak Russian may cause confusion (e.g.--they might think that theirEnglish is not good enough).Russians are sometimes very careful about what they say, and may revert to speakingmetaphorically, symbolically, and perhaps even cryptically. Consequently, there is a greatdeal of reliance on nonverbal communication. At other times, however, they can beextremely frank; it all depends on the situation.Russian people sometimes tend to touch each other during conversation, which is a sign ofconfidence.Many Russians are enthusiastic about discussing politics and the challenges of living inRussia. Participating in this kind of discussion and expressing your views (even if they areopposite) is more welcome than just being an active listener.Talking about Russian culture and history may be very much an appreciated gesture here.Russians are extremely educated – so dont be surprised if they start to talk about thehistory (more likely than culture) of your own country. You should be prepared for this,somewhere along the line. 2
Personal questions are best avoided, although you may be subject to these inquiries. Makethe effort to answer these questions as best as you are willing to allow, since your Russianpeers may press you for details.Approach compliments with caution, since they may cause Russians to feel a sense ofmisplaced obligation. For example, if you are visiting a home and begin enthusiasticallyadmiring a decorative object, your hosts may insist that you take it.There is tremendous affection for children in this culture; if you are a parent, showingphotographs of your children can be an effective way of building good will.In conversation, it can be permissible to discuss your feelings and hopes for the future.Sometimes, your Russian companions will be far more interested in the personal side ofyour character than your business agenda.Talking about the arts and literature in best avoided if you do not at least have somebackground information on world famous Russian persons such as Tchaikovski, Prokofiev,Tolstoy, Chekov, Pushkin, Malevich, Barishnikov or Plesetskaya.Should you become involved in such a conversation, dont be surprised how easily thediscussion on Chekovs novels can be changed to Picassos paintings, Mozarts music orthe impact of Yalta Conference in 1943 on the worlds history. Russians like to makeparallels, find clues and make leads.Welcome topics of conversation: • The changes taking place in Russia • Current events • World War II • Economic difficulties • Positive contrasts and comparisons between Russia and your country [let your Russian companions bring up this subject first] • Books • Films • Sports, especially football and formula 1 • Food (usually a favourite topic) and restaurants • Cars and motorcyclesBest avoided topics of conversation: • Complaints about Russia (most Russians are very proud of their country, despite its inadequacies and this type of conversation is really the sole domain of family and close friends) • The Holocaust • The Czar and the monarchy • Ethnic minorities • Religion • Comparing/contrasting Russia to other developing countries 3
• Comparing/contrasting Moscow and Saint PetersburgHow to address others with tact and respect: • As a rule only people who are very close friends or relations refer to one another by the first name. • It is perfectly appropriate, when meeting someone, to simply state your family name without any additional greeting. • Ensure that you learn the titles of everyone you plan to encounter, as these distinctions are extremely important in this culture. • Usually, Russians have three names. The first name is a given name, while the last name is the fathers family name. The middle name is a version of the fathers first name, known as a patronymic; for a man, it ends with the suffixes “vich” or “ovich” meaning “son of.” For a woman, the patronymic is also the fathers first name but with suffixes “a” or “ovna” added, which means “daughter of.” When you become well acquainted with a person, you may be invited to refer to him or her by the first name and patronymic. • As a visitor, it is appropriate to refer to your Russian colleague by either “gaspodin” [a courtesy title similar to “Mr.”] or “gaspazhah” [similar to “Mrs.” or “Miss”] plus his or her surname. • Some names are so common that you will need additional information to identify the correct person. In official circles, Russians use a persons birth date to differentiate between identically named individuals. Moreover, Russians often use prefixes “senior” and “junior” after a name to differentiate between two persons [especially men] that are identically named. • Women, who get married, take their husbands last name, but indicate their gender by changing the last letter when it is a vowel [which it almost always is] into an “a.” • Some names are so common that you will need additional information to identify the correct person. In official circles, Russians use a persons birth date to differentiate between identically named individuals.Selecting and giving appropriate gifts: • Russians take pleasure as well as care in choosing and giving and receiving gifts. Be sure to bring an assortment of gifts, so that you will always have something appropriate to give. • Cheaper gifts do not have to be wrapped, while more expensive ones ought to be. • Gifts for children are usually opened in private, while gifts for adults are generally opened in the presence of others. If your gift was a hit, you will hear many thank- you’s. • Russians spend a lot of money on gifts. Avoid giving gifts such as pencils, pens, lighters (unless they are expensive ones), cheap wine or vodka, notebooks, etc. 4
• When invited to a Russian home, bring a gift of chocolates, dessert items, a good bottle of wine or other alcohol [try to select something other than vodka, which is widely available]. • Bringing a bouquet of flowers (not too expensive though) for women you are visiting (doesnt really matter how many of them are in the family youre visiting) is a good idea. Make sure you have an odd number of flowers. Even numbers are usually for funerals. • Gifts are expected for social events, especially as “thank-yous” for private dinner parties or overnight stays in someones home. Thank-you notes and holiday cards are not considered appropriate because they have no practical use. • If there are children in the family, it is thoughtful acknowledge them with a small gift, such as a toy or candy. • Avoid giving corporate knives, for the opening letters as presents, as they (especially with the older generation) signify the “cutting off” of a relationship. • NB. Finally, it is considered bad luck to give a pregnant woman a baby gift until after the baby is born.All about giving flowers:In Russia, flowers are a gift given almost exclusively for women. The only few exceptionswould be male teachers, doctors and visiting celebrities.If you are visiting a family home, it is quite customary to bring along a bouquet of flowersfor a wife, sister or mother. These female relatives are likely to be present at the time ofyour visit.Pink, cream, orange, and blue coloured flowers, are rarely awarded any special meaningand, thus, are quite acceptable selections.Yellow flowers are best avoided (unless you picked them up yourself on a trip to thecountryside). Some white flowers should also be approached with a degree of caution.As in many other countries, flowers are an essentially romantic gift and red lowersespecially in rich and dark shades, will be perceived as a display of love or strongaffection.Other appreciated gifts; having been invited someone’s home or a family occasion:Wine or other alcohol (anything of good quality, apart from vodka, a good bottle medium-dry red wine or whiskey is always appreciated, for example) • A box of fine chocolates • When in season – usually about the middle of August till the end of October…a good-sized melon (dina) or water melon (arbus) • A good quality cake/tort • Towels • Cameras 5
• Watches • Kitchenware equipment or good quality tableware/dinner service • A good quality photo album, as Russians adore showing photos of family, friends and special occasions to others, which is also a very sure sign of acceptance should they start showing them to you as well • Perfume, cologne, or a even nice bouquet of flowers, for the hostess (as a thank- you for an overnight stay)Birthdays:Birthdays are taken seriously in Russia and should not be discounted as merely ‘anotherday older and deeper in debt’ and, moreover, a birthday celebration can often be spreadover several days.As I have already mentioned, Russian’s love giving and receiving gifts and a birthday iscertainly a special time for doing just that – rejoicing the day you were born and of giving(hosting) parties and receiving presents and, in most cases, literally mixing work withpleasure.Birthdays at the office:To have your birthday and not celebrate the occasion with your colleagues, in the office, isreally just not cricket and could actually be interpreted as a complete lack of respect andcontempt…in other words – a snub to the very people you work or could be working with.As a new departmental manager or director, you would be highly respected, by yoursubordinates (and Russian peers) should you take the time to find out the dates of peoplesbirthdays, in your department (as well as those of your Russian peers, from otherdepartmants) and acknowledge them appropriately – especially for the ladies; with a nicebouquet of flowers, for example.It is not unusual to celebrate a birthday, in the office, during the working day, with somecake, fruit, and a light buffet affair, and some beverage and toasts; which is always done incomplete moderation and with responsibility and respect to the daily functions of the officeroutine. Meaning… the work is not interrupted unduly and within a few minutes people areback at their place of work. In fact, it often enhances the working environment andeffectiveness of the company team; due to the fact that it gives people (from differentdepartments) a chance to meet and even discuss things, in an informal way.And, by observing that one simple (but very important and even enjoyable) facet ofRussian culture, will gain you infinite respect and lots of Brownie points among yourteam. Should you try to ban this tradition from the workplace, you will likely end up with avery miserable team, unwilling – even refusing to go that “extra mile” for you and evenworse – a high staff turnover and probably be labelled an autocratic and a grumpy oldmisery, behind your back, into the bargain. 6