1. Don’t Show Up Empty Handed
If you’re asked to join on a dinner, or even stop by for a visit, don’t show up without anything to offer in return. It’s not always most important what you do bring, but moreso what you don’t. Bringing some chocolates, flowers (no even-numbered flowers, please), or even a toy for the kid is a better idea than to have no idea.
In Russia, hosts usually prepare for their company by offering their best prepared meals and special foods they normally wouldn’t splurge on themselves. If you show up with nothing, it’s a sign that you haven’t a care for the hospitality in the first place.
2. Don’t Forget to Take Your Shoes Off
This rule applies to both Russian and Asian cultures. In many Russian apartments, there are many rugs, on the floors and even the walls (quite an interesting tradition). Some may be quite nice – like Persian rugs and intricate designs, and often aren’t the simple type that you just vacuum up to clean. This tradition has been going on for centuries, and hosts usually offer tapochki (slippers). At nice parties, some women may bring an extra pair of heels or shoes for inside use.
3. Never Whistle While Indoors
Did You Just Hear That? Oh, yeah, that.. Sounded like bad luck. Superstitions say that it could lead to financial ruin, poverty, or just another invasion of cockroaches.
When Getting Acquainted…
4. Never Sit at the Corner of a Dinner Table
Forever Alone – Strangely I learned this one the hard way. It is said that the one who chooses a seat at the corner of a table is destined to never get married. For certain, they will never find their lover. This is mostly directed towards younger women, and some traditions say you won’t get married for 7 years. So most of the time kids don’t get scolded for this one.
5. Never Agree to Vodka If …
The shot glasses were turned, and we were “in” for drinking with our friends. Drinking with friends or with others you just got acquainted with, once that bottle is opened, it is not stored away, set aside, or rightfully refused. I’ll clarify not all Russians I met were drinkers, and surely not all of them that did drink were alcoholics. BUT I did find several situations of drinking in Russia where some people around me, and myself included, had plenty enough. Which leads me to my next one.
6. Don’t Ruin the Toast…
Na Zdorov’ye! Or not? Before you make a special toast with your evening meal or perhaps just a casual blessing of vodka, keep in mind the proper toasts. The rules to Russian toasts are quite diverse, especially among nations of the former Eastern bloc.
I recall variations and traditions of toasting and drinking across Georgia, Moldova, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia that were in many ways similar but in some key ways different. If there was a Georgian present, you always knew, because after one man gave a toast, the second Georgian would be ready to toast. Until the next man, and on and on.
But “Na Zdorov’ye”, literally meaning, For Your Health, is a Polish toast. Some suggest “Za zdoro v’ye” “Zah Vas”, which means, “To You”
7. Keep the Empty Bottles off…
Once vodka is finished, it’s a rule that the bottle should be placed on the ground (if in the company as a guest, or one’s home) as another is introduced. Russians are quite superstitious, and to leave an empty bottle on the table can irk some.
8. Never Take the Last Shirt
A funny Russian phrase begins with, Никогда отдать последную рубашку (nee-cog-dah ot-dat pos-led-nuyu rybashku) – Do not take back the last t-shirt. To put it in simpler terms – no matter of what expense you have for yourself, never be the one that takes the last. Always give back, and keep giving.
While living in Russia and meeting locals and their friends or families, I noticed some people who otherwise did not have much, were politely inclined to give what they felt was able to be given. The special bottle of the families’ wines produced and made in their own Moldovan or Georgian homes, for instance, were the proper and chosen drinks for a common meal with guests. And while Moldovans and Georgians are different, some of the traditions I saw were quite similar.
This is not limited to common accommodations and drinks, but also photos, and other decorations you may find intriguing in one’s home. Don’t simply take something just because it is offered – some Russkies may offer something not to get rid of it, but out of simply a respectful and caring act.
Unless if you’re into taking all that you can like some traveling gypsy, have some respect for the cultural norms, and understand that you can always refuse the first few times, even when your friends may insist. Personally, I only took gifts that had a strong memorable or shared aspect between the people I came to know, and the time we shared together. Likewise, I tried to give back anything that I could; as it is always nice to return this favor.
9. Never Lick The Food Off of a Knife.
Apparently it is unacceptable to lick any food or “remainders” off of a trusty utensil. It’s considered rude and a sign of cruelty. Why would you lick the knife you used to tear through your food? Are you a savage? Such is a lesson learned in Novgorod…
10. Informal Dress Codes Are Not So Usual
Russians are known to dress quite nice, for a variety of occasions. A casual neighborhood, city park walk or even a meal with friends. Nice dresses and heels, suits or ties, it’s common to see others’ dressing their best as a sign of respect. I personally liked this a lot about Russian culture. In Moscow, I once saw a young teenager no older than 14 walk past me in a fully tailored suit in a mall on a Tuesday afternoon. I was a little surprised.
Dinner parties, trips to the opera, ballet, or even a theater – dress nicely, and expect others to do so too. Dining out is often considered a nice occasion, so the ripped jeans and Pearl Jam t-shirts can stay at home. Even if the venue is not so formal, it’s a good idea to be prepared.
11. Going Dutch is Not Expected
This is where Russkies and some Westerners have some differences – while we live in different and changing times , the tradition of covering a meal and evening with a female is generally upheld. If you ask a nice lady out for diner, I wouldn’t expect her to pay for the meal or anywhere else you decide to go. Some may offer to split the bill, but I wouldn’t count on it. Hell, some of them may not even bring their rubles with them for such an occasion. If you expect to see her again, it’s a safe bet that you should be ready to foot the bill like a gentleman.
12. Don’t Smile Profusely
Maybe the hardest thing in Russia wasn’t just learning the language and it’s different parts. It was hard not to be stared at, to be stared down, rather by people. While riding the metro it isn’t hard to be noticed as a foreigner. It’s the little things you do. But one little thing that isn’t widely accepted is to smile for no reason.
Russians have a saying, “To smile with no reason, is a sign of a fool.” And that’s a strong use of the word “fool”. In college a Russian professor once told me, “It’s not so common and maybe taken as a sign of being drunk or mentally ill.” Her words, not mine.
13. Don’t Expect A Lady to Carry
If you’re accustomed to all things that are politically correct, double think it for a second. That lady carrying her luggage down the metro steps, or the lady at the airport getting ready to get her bags ready for her departure – always be there to lend a hand. It’s polite, and as a man you are expected to be the one that assists in such a situation. You will see this even when getting in a taxi – the drivers will commonly be the ones that assist in the luggage. Such is a lesson in everyday life – lend a helping hand.
14. Never Disrespect Invalids
When you board a bus, or the city metro, you’ll first notice that younger people will always be ready to lend a seat to the elderly, women, and children. This is a common norm you will run into everywhere, and may not always be the case in some countries. While some may be offended in some countries being offered this privilege, it’s a sign of respect in Russia, and especially when elderly or pregnant women are standing there waiting for a seat it’s downright rude.
15. Never Crack a Joke about One’s Family
Though a lot of jokes you may hear in Russia and CIS, or perhaps even in many non-American countries may not be the most politically correct- you still should abide by a common rule. Never, ever, joke of the family members.
Growing up, I heard a plethora of “your momma” jokes, and while those jokes aren’t the type we often hear later on in life, it’s the same idea. The jokes surrounding others’ family members are generally taboo to make, and to be quite honest – risky. You can crack a joke on ethnicity, appearance, or gender based jokes, but if you insult another’s mother and father, it may not come across as a joke at all.
16. An Empty Purse is a Horrible Gift
Giving an empty purse as a gift is yet another superstition. Why is it empty? Do you wish financial hardship and poverty on your lover? Are you single again? Well to be fair, it applies to any money holding object one could thrown in as a gift.
17. Bodily Functions Are Frowned Upon
It is incredibly impolite, and you should not expect any kind of pride associated with such things. Burping loudly is not a game changing display of authority or humor. So if it happens, don’t make a big deal out of it. Some say not to even apologize, but to simply ignore it. It’s not of the most epic impressions you would want to make, so keep it in mind.
18. Never Show the Soles of Your Feet
This is common in many countries, but particularly it’s another thing they say you shouldn’t do in Russia. While on the metro once, I saw the angry looks of a few glances towards a foreign firmed of mine sitting across from me. She sat there texting, with her legs crossed – one over the other and her soles in the direction of the person sitting next to her. Shoe’s aren’t though to be the cleanest things one can point in the direct vicinity of another person, especially a stranger.
19. Don’t Go for Shock Value
Despite what many Western journalists portrayed as an act of protest, the infamous Pussy Riot “protest” in the Cathredral of the Sacred heart was less impressive to the Russians I spoke with. Russians explained to me the history of this church – a long symbol of Orthodox and Christian faith in Russian history – which was even destroyed by the Soviets and turned into a pool. Following the collapse of the USSR, Russians contributed to charity and funded what they had left to rebuild this monument.
A lot of those who I spoke with were not impressed at all, or supportive of Pussy Riot. “If they wanted to protest, why would they have chosen such a place?” I guess the line between controversy and shock value hit it off pretty well here.
20. Never Confuse Her Neighbors
“Don’t they speak Russian in Ukraine? So what’s the difference?” That’s a great question I have heard friends and family asked after I came home from Kiev. While living there, I sought to find the differences between what made Russian and Ukraine different. But it is common for some people to either ignorantly or simply unknowingly confuse Russia and it’s neighbors apart form each other.
The best thing I could do, was to acknowledge there were differences; be it politics, language, history, culture and anything else. It’s twice as interesting to have visited countries with vastly different views on wine such as in my wine tasting adventures in Georgia and Moldova. But for my time spent in Russia, it was quite interesting hearing what Russians had to say, and what their neighbors all had to say about each other.
All in all, you could never shake off the truth that the region was rich of thousands of years of culture, some shared, some bitter, but all in all, interesting as a foreigner.
21. Never Shake a Hand Through a Doorway
Russian’s are very superstitious, so superstitious in fact, it ties into getting acquainted. It is considered rude to shake hands with your gloves on – so take your gloves off before any proper interaction occurs. Additionally, shaking ones hand at the door is considered back luck. So make sure to take your gloves off, and save the hand shaking for indoors. And even then you have to take off your snow boots or else you’ll come across like a total ass.