Or ‘How to cause an international incident!’
From the outside it seems like a veritable minefield: all the minutiae that goes along with trying-to-do-the-right-thing by your Russian hosts. That’s even before we get to the intricacies and formalities adopted – and indeed assumed – by the Russian business world: another layer apart in its own right.
We can only hope that we are granted some leeway by virtue of the fact that we are “not from here” in all things. Though it would be reasonable to assume that the more professional you are, the less leeway you will be given.
A contact of mine did in fact travel to Moscow in a professional capacity (his tale is featured way back in: “Business In The City of Extremes”). He reported extended business meetings starting with a game of chess, much to his bemusement. Whilst his Oligarc employer and the chosen opponent strategised over a chequered playing surface, he in turn had already timed a trip to the bathroom and engineered a late return – in a strategy all of his own. He couldn’t possibly re-enter the room as this would disturb the players (how rude!) so for an hour or two; he was free to roam Moscow unhindered.
Let’s leave the business world behind for a minute and just deal with matters on a much simpler ‘tourist’ level, for along that other path lies madness. Having been to Russian (Slavic) households here in the UK, I have indeed remembered to take my shoes off at the door and have brought a small gift – a token for politeness sake. The handshakes were less firm as I was encountering hostesses rather than hosts, and similarly – excuse the female stereotyping – I had brought chocolate. It was either that or flowers. Though not yellow ones: they are for funerals only!
Eye contact is worth mentioning too: held perhaps for sincerity’s sake? To show that you mean it – what ever “it” is. I read that a suitable time-of-day greeting is the done thing too, but I haven’t got that far. There is only so much formality that I can deal with at once: baby steps, then.
The gift-reactions were notable: in one instance a simple “thank you” (well it was only a token) and in another: a notable – almost ritualised – half-refusal: “oh please …” followed by the inevitable acceptance. That’s part of the game; the theatrical surprise, the issue/gift is pressed, and the recipient yields and graciously accepts. If that summary sounds cold or cynical, it really isn’t meant that way.
I really enjoy the company and mannerisms of the latter acquaintance, the coffee and the plate of snacks. The bagging-up of remainders, offered as a take away, the protestations at my thanks “please … it’s nothing”, the samovar in the corner. It’s all so warm.
Also, be prepared for casual intrusions into your ‘deeper’ life during conversation – even “too much” information or the crossing of those invisible boundaries that we all assume, here in the West. I’m ‘poor’ with boundaries anyway; so, no problems there. I went for coffee, and received earnest career advice into the bargain (for free – I didn’t ask); all based upon their ongoing assessment and summary of my character! It’s all meant well, so why not enjoy the ride?
‘They’ can be quite tactile: female friends may kiss cheeks, male friends my hug and pat backs. All a little too much for the more starchy Brits perhaps, but nonetheless a physical reminder that yes, we are alive after all. These things feel good.
There is a curious paradox though: a kind of hot and cold. Whilst on the outside of their lives, your reception may well be distinctly cool. No beaming American-smiles on first meetings – and perhaps even a probationary period prior to acceptance. Couple this with the physical invasion of personal space (by our standards, of course) and the sudden over-familiarity (again to us) and you have a puzzle indeed. It’s one that I enjoy tackling anyway.
(Photo by Ben K Adams)