Saturday, April 9, 2011

What You Need to Know About Your Russian-Speaking Friend

Every culture has its own peculiarities. We, the Russian-speakers, are, of course, no exception. In this post, I will share some of the things you should expect if you are planning to spend time with Russian-speaking friends or colleagues.

1. We are joyful people who love to celebrate, spend time with friends, and enjoy existence. A week doesn't pass by without my parents having at least one group of friends over at their place. A Russian-speaking party is very different from the Anglo-Saxon party, for example. For one, nobody stands while trying to balance the plate and the glass. Everybody sits around a big table. Regardless of the economic situation of your Russian-speaking hosts, food will be abundant and will consist of several courses with many food choices. Nobody will ever ask you eat off a paper plate and drink out of plastic cups. The table will be beautifully and properly laid, there will be beautiful table linens and dinnerware. 

There will not necessarily be alcohol. (No, we are not all alcoholics, no matter what you might have heard.) If guests at my parents' house request alcohol, there is likely to be a lot of confusion followed by a frantic search for that half-finished bottle of wine that somebody brought over last summer. As I was growing up, my parents never bought a single bottle of vodka. There was champagne for New Year's (one bottle that would be divided among a dozen guests) but vodka never made an appearance. There will never be any drinking of alcohol without plentiful food to accompany it. Asking people to drink wine and only offering them some cheese with it is considered unacceptable.

Your place at the table is usually assigned to you by the hostess. It is rude to rush to a place of your own choosing because it will spoil the hostess's seating plan. My mother, for example, often leaves cards with the guests' names (and a little gift inside) next to the plates she assigned them. If you saw how my mother lays a table, you'd think she was brought up in the palace of the Queen of England. The next time I visit my parents, I'll take a picture and post it on the blog. I promise that you will be stunned. We, however, consider it business as usual.

Parties last a lot longer than in North America. Here in the US, I'm usually disappointed whenever I go to a party by the fact that people begin to leave the moment when the gathering reaches the degree of warmth and mutual contentment after which a party in my culture continues for several more hours.

2. People are very direct. Politeness is not highly valued. I had to learn to say "please," "thank you," "how are you?", etc. after I emigrated. Nobody is afraid of passing judgment on anything or anybody. (Which is something you would have never guessed after reading this blog for a while, right? :-) If your Russian-speaking friend thinks you gained weight, got a horrible haircut, are wearing an ugly dress or silly shoes, s/he will inform you of that in no uncertain terms.

3. People require (and expect others to require) a lot less personal space. It is completely normal to show up at a fiend's place unannounced with your entire family and expect an elaborate meal to be served to you. And, of course, if you show up unannounced, people will leave everything they are doing and will feed and entertain you joyfully.

4. In spite of all the hospitality, this is a very closed culture and it's extremely difficult to gain access to it. People will be nice and kind to you but it will take a lot of effort for them to see you as somebody who can be trusted.

P.S. If you are asking over somebody who is not just a Russian-speaker but specifically from Russia, make sure you have some tea in the house. Russian people drink tea all the time. After about 15 minutes in your house, your Russian friend is likely to start getting antsy and will send wistful glances in the direction of the tea-kettle. A Russian person's first response to any trouble you might share with them is to offer to make you a cup of tea. I'm from Ukraine, so for me it was something I had to get used to when I first started living with a Russian person. 


el said...

RE 3 --- Clarissa, I wouldn't have advised that. Your readers may take you on your word and appear anannounced. My late grandmother was a very social person, who loved guests and prepared wonderful tables like you described in 1, but wouldn't appreciate being expected to serve an elaborate meal (which has to be prepared in advance to be ready) to somebody's entire family out of the blue. Besides, the Russians your US readers will see have already been living abroad for a while and it changes people somewhat, they do take at least some parts from US culture.

el said...

Forgot to add: I sometimes read Miss Manners Column and some people are so clueless how to politely behave in their own culture (USA) that many of them would read point 3 and decide they got a Permission From Authority to arrive thus. Such people have the highest chance to enter words "how to behave Russian friend" into Google and find you too.

Besides, in every culture there are more and less sociable people. My grandmother loved guests, while some of her friends would practically die first before they let somebody into their homes. It greatly depends on character too, not only culture.

In short, the 1st rule of behavior to anybody from any culture seems to be:
a) think whether you would like it - if no, stop!
b) if yes, think whether there is the smallest chance they wouldn't like it. Yes? Stop.

If a or b, then ASK!

To be clear, I loved your post. Just pont 3 should come with "Don't Try It At Home". And I don't think Russian friends would suddenly drop in to their English friends and expect a meal. If they went to USA, they were bound to learn something from the majority culture, even if it was acceptable to do it at home among their circle of friends.

Elisabeth said...

Ad. 1, I (as a Scandinavian person now living in England) also find parties here absurdly short - usually, I've only just found myself settling in and getting cosy with the company and the refreshments, when people start sighing and looking at their watches and reaching for the coats. My first two birthdays in England I hosted little parties and got ridiculously offended when - after all my efforts - people started leaving after less than three hours. This year I tell myself I'll be more prepared for it, but honestly, I'm not so sure...

JaneB said...

Ah yes, the tea-thing... as a British person, the first step in addressing any issue is a cup of tea... I first got to know a Russian person well when I worked in Canada. We were both post-docs, and united in our despair at the prevalence of coffee drinking and the way that people went for a meal or to the pub, ate (or drank one beer), then went home just as the conversation got going...

Steve Hayes said...

You inspired me to post something on my blog with a link to yours Notes from underground: A quick introduction to Russian culture. When I went to Russia I quickly learnt that if you go visiting people you must go hungry.

Pagan Topologist said...

Are there large differences amongst the different Slavic cultures?

Clarissa said...

I overslept and woke up to discover that this post has been extremely popular. I'm very glad.

David: your question merits a separate post. because there are, indeed, significant differences between us.