Do you find the traditions and beliefs of other cultures fascinating? I’m assuming that’s partly why you are here of course. Having been in the “tourist bubble” (haven’t we all?) I’ve seen the foreign land around me reduced to a 3D slideshow, so close and simultaneously so far away. Knowing little or nothing of the language or people, I could only glide through as a ghost and look in awe at the parade of daily life before me. Interactions were at a minimum.
Strangers, not friends
The phrase, “You get out what you put in” is perfectly suited to such a scenario, perhaps especially so in Russia. As a stranger you are likely to receive a barrage of quizzical looks (yes, they can tell, you know) but very little else. Here a “stranger” is not (to coin a phrase), “A friend that you don’t yet know”, but instead; an outsider and someone to be wary of. There is a psychological barrier that is almost tangible in its potency, the absolute antithesis of the beaming “have a nice day” mentality so beloved of the USA.
Language helps of course, but you may as well resign yourself to the fact that you are likely in for a long haul if you intend breaking the ice with strangers, especially if you are on the street in the cold light of day. No, they don’t particularly want to know you personally, but (paradoxically) are usually predisposed to help you about town if you inquire in a formal and respectful manner.
So language is a good step forward, the next is some understanding of the culture and tradition behind it. Without that; you may be considered to be just another “ignorant foreigner” (or worse) putting his foot in his mouth, and yes -they will likely make it clear- verbally or otherwise- that you have done something pretty dumb. Trust me, I know. It’s important to understand that much of this (though not all) is born from a predilection toward plain speaking. So, in direct interactions: if you do something bad; they’ll tell you. If you do something good; they’ll tell you. There is very little sugar coating or soft soap, so statements carry more weight and therefore mean more. I suggest pausing for thought before jumping to “offence”.
The following text has again been translated via a Russian-to-English translation from a larger work, then further adapted and expanded here. Although the original author prefers to remain nameless, you can find the original (translated) work and a lot more on Live Journal.
Chivalry is not dead
“For the most part, the rules of behaviour and etiquette coincide with those routinely accepted in Europe. However there are also peculiarities and customs unique to Slavic nations and even to Russia alone. Tradition and family are still highly regarded in these cultures, arguably more so than in the West, for example.
Russian culture usually follows traditional ideas of defining “real men”, “real women” and their respective roles. Therefore respectful attention and care of familiar (and unfamiliar) females will be accepted with gratitude, even expected. For example, a man may offer a hand to a woman, to help her out of a car or to traverse some stairs. He will likely open doors for her and let her pass first as a matter of course. It’s a hard-wired mode of behaviour, as Alexandra Buck writes on
the Berkely Centre site:-
“…it is ingrained in their minds that if a woman is in their presence, they, as men, should be on their best, most polite behavior… men help women because they are women”
In Russia the man still (usually) pays for his female companion in a restaurant or on public transport. The downside is that -in some less enlightened viewpoints- there is still some resistance to a woman who seeks to move away from her “role”.
Russian women also like to receive tokens of appreciation, such as a bouquet of flowers, a box of good chocolates, or even a tasty cake. Flowers require a little thought in selection however as even-numbered bouquets, or ones containing carnations are used in ceremonies of mourning! In short; it’s best not to try to impress a woman with funeral decorations!
Foreign women should be forewarned that Russian men will -on occasion- offer to assist you or to even pay for you. Bluntly rejecting their care and attention, especially in an offhand, dismissive or downright rude manner will likely cause offence (especially so in the latter instance). Such attention is routine, even expected, in Russian culture. As in the West, common courtesy also extends to offering seats on public transport to the elderly, and again: to women (especially those who are pregnant).”
No surprises so far (except perhaps the flowers), more next time.