Russian Customs, Etiquette, and Popular Superstitions

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Russian Customs, Etiquette, and Popular Superstitions

Even if you are not planning to be in Russia for long, you should make every effort to learn at least a few basic words and phrases in Russian. You colleagues, neighbours, friends, and others will be impressed and the gesture will be highly appreciated. Russians generally consider their language to be a very difficult one for foreigners to learn. With the exception of your Russian teacher, they will not expect you to become fluent in Russian, but they will be amazed if you are able to carry on a simple conversation a few months after your arrival.

Even if you fail to learn much Russian, learning the alphabet (there are only 31 letters plus two silent symbols) will make a quantum improvement in your ability to move around independently. Russian is laden with imported words from other languages - once you can decode the letters, these words ("bar", "restoran", "stadion", "musey") appear to you, as if by magic.

Never shake hands with or kiss someone over the threshold of the doorstep or you will quarrel with this person (an old superstition).

Take off your gloves when shaking hands.

Returning home if you forgot something brings back luck. If it happens that you must return for something, looking in a mirror before leaving again dispels the "bad luck".

Before leaving the house on a trip, it is customary to sit down on one's suitcase for a minute or so to reflect on the trip (silently, for 4-5 seconds) and to recall whether you have forgotten anything.

It you are not married, never sit down at the corner of a square table. If you do, you will not get married for seven years.

Spitting three times over your left shoulder prevents bad luck. (You my hear Russians say "tfu-tfu-tfu" - a "spitting" incantation against bad luck.) So does knocking on wood.

Do not put your hands in your pockets.

Do not sit with your legs wide apart.

Do not cross your legs with the ankle on the knee or put your feet on the table. It is considered impolite to show others the soles of your shoes.

Whistling is regarded as a sure way to guarantee that you will soon part with all your money.

Never light a cigarette from a candle. This is also said to bring bad luck.

Never pour wine backhanded. It is impolite and also signifies that you will "pour" your money away.

If you spit salt on the table, you will be plagued by bad luck unless you throw three pinches of salt over your left shoulder immediately.

Always bring a gift for the hostess if invited into a Russian home. A box of candy and/or flowers are traditional gifts for the hostess, as is a bottle of good wine, cognac or vodka for the host. Arriving "with empty hands" is considered the poorest manners.

Never give an even number of flowers to someone - even numbers are for funerals only!

When entering a Russian home, offer to take off your shoes. In most cases your host will provide you with slippers (called "tapochki" in Russian).

Be prepared to accept smoking.

Be prepared to accept all food and alcohol when visiting friends. Refusing a drink or toast is a serious breach of etiquette. An open bottle often has to be finished. However, Russians will understand if you do not drink at all (e.g. for health reasons or because of religious beliefs, or because you have to drive later).

 Be prepared to give toasts at dinners and presentations. Do not say "Na Zdoroviye" ("To your health" - this is actually a toast only in Poland) - the correct form is "Vashe Zdoroviye" ("Your health"). Russian toasts can be very long and elaborate. For birthdays, weddings and other important events, friends and colleagues often write poems for the person they wish to congratulate. You don't have to do that of course, but it helps to be prepared to at least say a few sentences. While the toast is being sad, do not continue eating or drinking. You are expected to listen, regardless of the length of the speech. An easy and amusing toast a foreigner can make is that the host's fame has spread abroad, and they are now known in your country too. Chinking glasses with everyone else (or as far as you can reach) is considered usual.

At birthday parties, by tradition, all the toasts are to some aspect of the birthday boy/girl - try to think of some witty compliments. There may often be a toast to their parents, "who gave him/her to us" - even if they aren't present. If one or other of the parents is no longer alive, you don't chink glasses for this toast.

If you plan on visiting a Russian Orthodox Church, dress conservatively (no shirt skirts or shorts). Women must cover their hair before entering the church, so bring a headscarf. Men, on the other hand, must remove headwear (hats, caps). Some extremely severe monasteries may insist on women donning a wraparound long skirt - if so, these will be provided on free loan at the gateway entrance, and using them is obligatory. Better to wait outside if you don't wish to respect their dress code requirements.

On public transportation, younger men and women should give up their seat to mothers with small children, pregnant women and elderly people. Certain seats may be marked for the use of these categories of people anyhow.

Men should offer to carry parcels and heavy bags for women they accompanying. This is local custom, regardless of what you may be used to or believe in at home.

That conveniently free seat on the jam-packed tram or bus is for the conductor - you are not allowed to sit there!

When going to the theatre or a concert, you are expected to check your coat and any larger bags at the coat check. When squeezing past others into your seat, take care to face them as you pass - doing it "the way you are used to" is regarded as "shoving your ass in their face" in Russia, and is a social no-no.

Always emphasize the good and the beautiful things you like in Moscow and Russia, try not to criticize and compare. Russians know that there are a lot of problems in this country, but they are also very proud of their history and culture. They will highly appreciate it if you show them that you like it here - or at least like some of it!

Small gifts are much appreciated. Keep a list of people who have been nice and helpful to you, such as your concierge, parking lot attendant, your favourite vendor at the supermarket, a friendly neighbour, etc. Give them a small gift such as a box of chocolate or candy or a small souvenir from your home country for major holidays, such as New Year's. Only women are given gifts on March 8th and flowers will be much appreciated, along with a nice card. Pretty calendars and company gifts such as coffee mugs and pens are also good. And, of course, don't forget about your driver, nanny, housekeeper and other friendly helpers. Along with a "real" gift, they will also appreciate a cash bonus.

Along with your baggage, bring a good amount of patience, sympathy, tolerance, and your sense of humour. These should get you through most difficulties. Russians are used to long centuries of foreigners bringing their eccentric habits and peculiarities with them to Russia - and they will tolerate almost any accidental indiscretions if you can manage a friendly grin as you commit them.

Based on the materials from the book "Living in Moscow" by Barbara Spier.