Tips for understanding Russian culture

Tips for understanding Russian culture

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Cross-cultural coach Margarita Gokun Silver explains and ins and outs of understanding Russian culture, socially, culturally and actively.

Tips for understanding the Russians

The title seems ambitious, so I'll start with the disclaimer: in no ways will I attempt to educate you on how to understand every single Russian who lives in Russia and beyond. My intention here is simply to help you understand the average Russian mindset, based on cultural variables of environment, time, action, communication, space, power, individualism, rules, competition, change and thinking (per Cultural Orientations Guide by Joerg Schmitz).

Most of our habits, values, and behaviours can be neatly filed under each one of the above cultural variables and the total sum of those variables will more or less describe what I call our personal cultural blueprints. Not all Russians are going to have the same cultural blueprint just as not all Americans or all Germans or all Brazilians will be same. But there will be close similarities between people coming from the same culture - just as there will be differences between people from different cultures.

The tips you'll find below will highlight the differences (or the similarities) between your cultural blueprint and the cultural blueprint of the majority of the Russians. In the interest of space and brevity, I'll choose five variables that I believe are among the most important.

The cultural variable of time

If you already had a chance to work in Russia or with Russians, you'll probably agree that most Russians see time as fluid rather than fixed. They understand the importance of time but don't feel the need to control or manage it precisely. That's why meetings usually run longer than expected and deadlines have a tendency to slide.

The majority of Russians also adhere to a multi-focus mentality of time – that is they'd rather work on a multitude of projects and relationships at any one time. That's why you'll often find your colleagues trying to complete several tasks simultaneously and that's why your staff will think nothing of dropping by your office at all hours to ask you a question or to discuss something (even if you desperately need to concentrate).

The cultural variable of action

The majority of people in Russia prefer to build relationships first and only concentrate on accomplishing tasks after. This indicates a strong preference for being and that's why you'll often find it difficult to create quick friendships with Russians (they take their time getting to know you and getting to trust you enough to call you a friend); you'll have to invest considerable amounts of time and effort in building relationships with possible business contacts; and you'll have to earn the trust of every new person you meet.

The cultural variable of communication

Most Russians excel in high-context communication style and they pay specific attention to symbolism, non-verbal cues, and artful language. That's why sometimes you'll find your contacts speak for 15 minutes where you'd think five minutes would have been enough and that's why you'll need to watch out for misunderstandings of symbolic and non-verbal clues.

Russians are also formal in their communication - the use of patronymic (father's name) is expected when you address an older person or a person, higher than in you in hierarchy.

The cultural variable of power

Most Russians place a high premium on power structures and emphasize recognition of power and status of different individuals. Relationships have been known to be strained where seating arrangements or speaking turns were not followed.

That is why you'll need to be careful to know the intricacies of Russian power structure and of how the hierarchy affects relationships. This variable is also responsible for the lack of initiative in the workplace - the belief is that the boss knows best and the boss is the one in the position to dictate.

The cultural variable of rules

Friendship is one of the most important values in the Russian society and a Russian friend will go an extra mile for you always (even at three in the morning). You'll be expected to do the same for a friend and this is where the particularistic attitude towards rules in Russia takes root.

The Russian's sense of obligation is primarily around their families and friends and, thus, rules are meant to be bent and broken, when exceptions for friends or family are needed. This tendency also plays a huge role in the Russians' creative streak – that's why Russians excel at fixing things that Westerners would consider broken for good. Russians believe that every situation deserves a unique approach and that rules are simply expressions of intent and loose guidelines. No wonder the black, under-the-table economy is thriving in Russia.

What has been your experience with the above mentioned variables?

Margarita Gokun Silver / Expatica

Margarita Gokun Silver is a cross-cultural and expatriate coach with experience of living and working in Russia. The post above is based on her online course 'Living and Working in Russia' and the module of Culture Mastery, also available online. She can be reached at GlobalCoachCenter.com.   

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1 Comment To This Article

  • Lydia posted:

    on 20th February 2016, 23:01:20 - Reply

    I'm an interpreter and this article is great, can be helpful for me to help my fellow Americans understand Russians. I would also add that trust once lost will take effort to regain.