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Manners and Customs of the Russians
December 25, 2006 17:49



Bread and Salt
How are you? or Kak dela?
Conversation
The more the merrier (Personal Space)
"Laughter for no reason is a hallmark of a fool"
Going out
Drinking
On a visit
Family
Business
Sit For the Road! - Na dorozhku!

Bread and Salt

In Russia dear guests are traditionally welcomed with bread and salt. The guest should break off a piece of bread, dip it in salt and eat. This ritual has become a symbol of communion with the basic life values of the hosts; it also means that the guest has become a friend and is ready “to eat a bushel of salt” with them, i.e. share all their troubles and cares.

The custom of welcoming guests with bread and salt has been known in Russia for ages. The combination of bread and salt plays the role of a very capacious symbol: bread stands for wishing wealth and well-being, whereas salt is believed to protect a person from evil spirits and hostile influences. Treating the guest with bread-and-salt established relations of love and trust among guests and hosts, whereas the refusal to taste bread-and-salt was regarded as an insult. It is not without reason that they say “even the tsar does not refuse from bread-and-salt”. According to those traditional concepts, the greatest reproach to an ungrateful person would be to say: “You have forgotten my bread-and-salt”.

The famous 16th century book Domostroy setting out rules of house management and family life recommended to treat a foe with drink and bread-and-salt, so that “to establish friendship instead of enmity”. In the Novgorod Province if a visitor refused from food, the hosts would say with insult spoke: “How can you go from the empty house!” The word khlebosolstvo - a combination of khleb (bread) and sol’(salt) still stands for hospitality, i.e. kindliness and generosity shown in treating a guest. In the 16th century Russian sovereigns had a custom of passing bread and salt to the guests from his own table: bread was meant to express his favor, and salt stood for love.

The expression khleb-sol’ (bread-salt) in Russia was the generalized name for food and treat. An invitation to khleb-sol’ (bread-salt) was the formula of inviting to a feast. The old Russian way of wishing “Bon appetit!” (Priyatnogo appetita!) sounded as Khleb da sol’! (literally meaning “bread and salt”). This formula was believed to bear a special meaning and have the power of driving away evil spirits and any sort of harm.

The custom of bread-and-salt is now rarely observed in daily life, but is performed as a tradition on special occasions, especially Russian weddings.

How are you? or Kak dela?

If you ask a Russian "How are you?" / Kak dela?", you risk to get a complete report on how he/she really is. The formalism of the Europeans or Westerners at this point can hardly be understood in Russia. Do not be surprised at the ease with which the Russians discuss their personal life. When in a train, you might hear quite intimate details of your casual fellow passenger's affaires and feelings; if you willingly support the conversation, you will be treated to some personal stories and regales, whichever your companion has at hand.

Conversation
 

Unlike Englishmen, the Russians are unable to speak about weather throughout a transatlantic voyage. Boring will be themes of food and drinks and clothes (though everything depends…). Concrete discussion of money matters, manifest demonstration of one's financial and career success and self-advertising are not acceptable. It is considered tactless to ask about a person's age, or in any way touch upon this theme, especially if it might turn a sore subject. The Russians still feel uneasy about speaking openly about sex, though mass media here do their best to change the situation. Despite the global notoriety of Russian foul language, it will be frowned upon in an educated, well-mannered society. It still retains its extremely negative connotation, so be careful when displaying your probable mastery of the language. Obscene and rude jokes are not welcomed either, though it depends on the company you are in.
 

In spite of the abovementioned restrictions, it is customary to speak about lots of things here: personal affaires, professional interests and hobbies, talents and achievements of children, health, and any personal or financial problems, novelties of cultural and literary life. Of special interest are themes of philosophy and politics.
 

We will be pleased to hear certain praises related to our achievements in space exploration, economic development, figure skating and other sports, ballet and especially in art and literature (those are spheres of our innate pride). If you show proper interest in the spiritual and cultural life of this country, respect is guaranteed.
 

The Russians are patriots. Let all the criticism and mockery you might hear from this people about this country not mislead you. It would be a great mistake of yours to join in the criticism. Especially painful are the issues of the Second World War and the war in Chechnya.

The more the merrier (Something about Personal Space)
 

There is no sense in asking a Russian how many bedrooms there are in his/her apartments, because most probably there is none. Each room serves several purposes - yes, we have to cope with it! The Russians are used to living cooped up together: may be it is our innate feeling of collectivism that helps us feel comfortably in our dens. Even if a Russian person has one's own room, he/she often feels like sitting in the kitchen or a living-room and mixing with others.
 

The personal space here is 'medium', that is smaller than is customary among the English-speaking people and bigger than that in Latin America. Do not get offended if you are slightly touched at hands or shoulders in a friendly conversation - it does not mean any intention of sexual harassment but pure fellow feeling. At the same time, the Russians can't stand when strangers touch them, for instance in a crowd. When trying to make your way in a crowd, you'd better not use your hands - it is customary here to force through with one's body than with the hands.
 

It is ok in Russia to eye openly another person's belongings, which might be accepted by a Westerner as a bold intrusion into one's privacy. At the same time, a long look into another person's eyes during a conversation seems indelicate to a Russian. It is habitual to look shortly in your companion's eyes and then move away your look, which risks to be interpreted by a Westerner as a sign of insincerity or abashment. In fact it is a token of respect and certain distance implying one's modesty.

"Laughter for no reason is a hallmark of a fool" vs. "Keep smiling"
 

When first in Russia you might be surprised why there are so few people laughing and smiling in the streets and in public places. The Russians are rather reserved in public: good manners here imply a quiet voice, calm looks and gestures and decent clothes. Subdued expression is far more common here than loud carefree merrymaking without excuse; the latter might even provoke some suspicious looks or growling of elderly people ("Have they nothing to think about?").
 

Please try not to take it personally if a shop-assistant or an attendant scowls at you instead of smiling helpfully: it only means that she/he is tired of carrying the burdens of this hard life, and you are here waiting for something.
 

The Russians can hardly adopt formal smiling at official receptions and similar occasions. If you want to see a smile, just try to be sincere and friendly.
 

The American 'keep smiling' manner, manifesting one's permanent good spirits and humorous outlook is at risk of being misunderstood. You have to remember the Russian saying: "Laughter for no good reason is a hallmark of a fool". The affected demonstration of happiness and successfulness might be perceived as a sign of one's tactlessness or hard-heartedness (it is unnatural to be always happy while there are so many grieves in the world, the Russians believe at heart). In Russia you can be less secretive about your problems than it is customary in your country: you will most probably meet compassion and help.

Going out
 

The Russians like to dress up, especially when visiting theatres or high-style restaurants. Most Russians do not share the "looks aren't important" mentality that has spread through the West. Bear it in mind if you want to produce a perfect impression.
 

When in a bar or a restaurant avoid to display counting the change or checking the bill. Such 'pettiness' risks to repel the Russians, who might think it abasing human dignity. So, you'd better do it secretly.

Drinking
 

Drinking often becomes the easiest way to find a common language - that's most true in Russia. So, if your health allows, do not refuse to whip up, yet be careful! Do not forget to take a snack and avoid mixing drinks.
 

It will be highly appreciated if you can say some sophisticated and inspiring toasts: in Russia it won't do drinking with mere 'Cheers!', though…there might be situations when it does not matter any longer:) Yet, when you do not know what to say, "Vashe zdorovie!(To your health!) or "Za vas!" will be ok.
 

It is a custom at an in-home party that the host (master of the house) is the first to do the honors of the table; then the guests are welcomed to toast and it is good to say something pleasant in honor of the hosts and all present.
 

After an especially important toast you will have to drink to the bottom. You might hear a special remark "Pei do dna!"(which means 'Drink to the bottom!' repeated till your glass is emptied.
 

If you are arranging a party with the Russians, keep in mind that we prefer to drink sitting rather than standing or walking, as is the custom at formal parties. Traditionally, these are men who do the pouring.

On a visit
 

When visiting a household do not forget to bring small presents or something "for tea" or wine or flowers as appropriate. Prepare to put off your shoes at the entryway and put on 'tapochki'
 

It would be strange of you to eat before visiting a Russian home - prepare to consume big quantities of delicious dishes. Do not stuff yourself on the first few courses. There may be several more coming, and you will be expected to eat a portion of each. Do not even try to balk it - your hosts will be truly upset. Yet, be careful when it comes to drinking: your drinking background may be far behind the experience of your Russian friends. Your glass will be repeatedly filled to the brim, but you are not obliged to drink it all to the bottom, unless specified. Let it not slip your mind to marvel at the food and drinks. The hostess will be happy to share with you some secret recipes which she probably learnt from her granny or from a fashionable magazine. However, be careful when praising some of their belongings - it might be understood as a desire to have it and it will be presented to you, if presentable at all.

Family
 

Family relations in Russia are based on paternalistic principles. The Russians feel almost Oriental reverence for the old folks at home and disapprove of the people who send their old relatives to hostels for the elderly. If appropriate, show your love for your family and parents. Your Russian friends will be also happy to speak about their children's successes, hobbies and plans for future.
 

Russian women are considered the best wives: they are charming, active but not domineering and, which is most important, have the inborn feeling of responsibility for their family. However, marriages with foreigners often occur problematic, as there are usually lots of barriers (cultural, psychological, language, etc.)and differences of views and opinions.

Business
 

Keep in mind the Russian holiday schedule and do not plan any big deal in January or in early May. It takes people some more time to recover normal working shape after the holidays.
 

It is typical of the Russians to work by fits and starts. Stable and even working regime is too tiring for its monotonous character. So, do not get exasperated at the plenty of breaks for tea-drinking, smoking and chatting. And do not try to enforce a rigid schedule (our relationship with Time is something special!) - we will either find ways to disregard it or get sick at such lack of freedom. It would be more efficient to inspire us with some idea and the spirit of enthusiastic team work. As for those 'socializing breaks' they may appear quite indispensable for keeping up friendly relations within a working team, which is the basis of good working atmosphere in this country. Remember that the Russians are collectivists.
 

Are you about to swear off working in Russia? Have a look at the advantages. We can cope with a variety of tasks, even if some of them are beyond our functions - and be so proud of our smartness and content with the success itself that you can profit by rich compliments instead of the deserved extra money remuneration (you'd better not, of course).

Sit For the Road! - Na dorozhku!

You’d better make no resistance when you are asked to sit down before starting off for a journey (even if you are in a hurry and might miss your flight!) in Russia. Here they believe it is necessary to sit for a while for the road (“na dorozhku!”), to have it lucky and safe.

This long-standing custom, somewhat superstitious, is rooted in a ritual of pagan believers in the Old Rus; believing that good and evil spirits rule over the world, they had a variety of rites to please the good ones and deceive the evil ones.

This very ritual was recommended in order to deceive the domestic spirits so that they would not follow one on the road. The spirits will think that the person is not going anywhere and will not go cling to him/her. It was believed that if a person started off right away, there would be no way. If a person returns to the house (to take something forgotten) before going away, the spirits will understand that he/she was trying to dupe them and will pick on him and spoil the road.

Most of the Russians nowadays do not even know about the old meaning of this custom, and yet the tradition is widely spread. They find it rather useful: after the fuss of packing it is good to take a seat, count to ten, give oneself a pause and collect one’s thoughts. Perhaps some good spirit will prompt to some important things you have forgotten J Or else, you can use this pause for a prayer, again for a lucky and safe road!

 


Tags: Russian Customs Russian Mentality    

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