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The Biggest Culture Shocks Americans Face in Russia

by Tim Wenger Mar 7, 2018

I’ve never been to Russia. The traveler in me knows that what a government does and how the people act are often very different, and in my experience with Russians that has certainly been the case. For example, I recently met a Russian girl on a long-haul flight from Doha to Denpasar. She was a musician from Moscow, and as we sat next to each other I ended up chatting with her most of the way when we weren’t napping. We became friends and toured around the island of Bali together that weekend. Facebook keeps us in touch these days, until we meet again — in Russia, perhaps.

Lately, with all the news coverage (the Olympics scandals and the investigation into the 2016 US election), I’ve caught myself wondering what it’s like on the other side. In particular, what culture shocks do Americans face in Russia? On top of that, what do average Russians think about Americans who come for a visit? I took to Quora and some of Matador’s editorial content for some insight.

On first impressions and Russians’ disdain for small talk

Americans are chatty and often quite loud. This is in stark contrast to many Russians, as Thomas Breckinridge explains on Quora: “In American culture, we’re much more free with general information. Our way of doing things is to understand the whole so that the parts can be modified as needed to achieve the overall goal. Russians very much go the other way: no one will ever give you the big picture of what’s going on, only the barest information necessary to complete the next step.”

Do Russians enjoy chatting with Americans? “That totally depends on the American tourist,” notes Boris Ezomo on Quora. A fitting answer, I suppose. This holds true for people of any nationality, traveling to any destination. Thinking back to my friend from Moscow, our conversations, while enjoyable, were often quite brief. Plenty of time passed in silence, and I was reminded of an episode of Invisibilia in which they covered the difficulty of working at McDonald’s in Russia, simply because the employees are expected to smile so much. This could explain why: “Russians don’t like to waste their time on empty words that don’t really mean anything: we are very direct and prefer to get straight to the point of the conversation,” Marina Vinogradova explained in a piece for Matador. “If you meet your neighbor and you don’t really have anything to say to him, you don’t stop for a chat about the weather and the latest football game. You just say hello and carry on with whatever you were doing.”

Matador Network editor, Morgane Croissant, traveled to Russia and has nothing but positive things to say about her interactions with the locals: “Although they may not be chatty, the people I dealt with showed genuine interest in me and my trip and were extremely helpful — my Russian was very approximate, but the people I asked for direction or help always made sure I was given the right information and was not getting lost.” A great example of the locals’ kindness is when Morgane was crossing the border between Belarus and Russia. She explains: “I had to fill in an immigration form that was in entirely in Russian. I was not able to understand 80% of it, so, without asking, the older train employee in charge of my car brought a full teapot and cups into my compartment and spent 30 minutes filling it up with me.”

I did ask my friend about traveling to Russia and she encouraged it, noting that both Moscow and St. Petersburg are quite accustomed to tourists. Just don’t bring up politics. “Politics are a different matter,” noted Laura Hancock via Quora. “But in terms of the people, yeah. Russians seem to like Americans, or, at least, they liked me. And I liked them.”

On lifestyle differences

How do four weeks of paid vacation sound? Pretty darn good to most Americans, of which 23% receive no paid vacation time at all. “People get at least 4 weeks of vacation a year and a couple trips a year are not unheard of,” explains Maria Guzenko on Quora.

Maria also noted the efficient public transit in Moscow and walking culture as big pluses, when compared to the States. “I really enjoyed the ‘walking culture’ in Russia, where young people meet up and go for a walk through the city (гулять). Instead of sitting on your butt in a bar, you get to explore the city and be physically active.”

Russians aren’t big on living up to expectations, it seems. “I like the fact, that nobody pressures you into anything,” Dmitriy Kim said on Quora. “Like there is no accepted common opinion about anything, therefore you can choose your life path without being looked upon with judgement. This cynicism and nihilism make life here somewhat relaxed.”

Members of the LGBTQ community may offer different opinions, however, particularly depending on the location within the country, with many areas being historically difficult for LGBTQ people to live.

On Russia’s flair for the dramatic

“Russians are much more superstitious than Americans,” notes Kirill Valyas on Quora. Marina Vinogradova agreed in her Matador piece: “Our folklore has myriads of superstitions relating to all spheres of life. Even if you don’t really believe in mystiсism, hundreds of weird superstitions constantly pop up into your head: do not shake hands over a doorstep or you will have a quarrel. Do not sit at the corner of the table or you will never get married. Do not return to the house if you forgot something or you will have bad luck during the day.”

The dramatics of social interactions are quite different as well, as Lee The on Quora describes the Russian expressions as such: “An artistic leaning towards the florid, by American standards. If you look at Russian ice dancers at the Olympics etc. vs. American ice dancers, the Russian dancers are doing, like Romeo and Juliet — ending with the double suicide of course, while the American dancers are being either kind of jazzy or cheerfully romantic. Likewise the costumes, with the Russians tending towards fluttery black and white stuff.”

On hospitality

Food and beverage-wise, soup, pancakes, tea, and of course, vodka, are big in Russia. All stand as a common base for social activities, Marina noted for Matador: “Many places in the world are known for their love of tea, but no one drinks as much tea as Russians do. I personally drink about 3 litres of tea every day: when I am cold, when I am bored, when I chat with my family, when I visit my friends, when I have a snack and before I go to bed.” Additionally, “‘Without soup, your stomach will dry up!’ my mom used to tell me.”

With all of these traditions and superstitions, it seems as though Americans have a bit of reading to do before landing in Russia. Maybe a bit of practice on that poker face is in order, as well. Working in our favor, however, is the embracingly friendly welcome Russians are known for when visited. Aleksandr Tikhonov brings up this point: “I’d like to add that Russians actually LIKE foreigners — including Americans, of course. We will ask a lot, tell even more, invite you somewhere, then probably eat, drink, and discuss a lot. We’re fun to hang out with, really.”

“Once someone crosses the threshold of your house, he gets the most comfortable bed, the softest slippers, and the greatest meal in the history of humankind,” Marina Vinagradova noted in her Matador article. “That rule applies to relatives, friends, friends of relatives and pretty much everyone else.”

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