One of the most trying parts of adjusting to life in a foreign country is learning to understand and adapt to the cultural differences between your home country and the country you are living in. Russian culture is very different from US (and Western) culture and it can be a bit of an adjustment. At first, I think I found aspects of the culture very difficult – but as time went on, I realized that if I wanted to enjoy my time there it would be better to recognize these differences and learn from them. For those of you who saw this Buzzfeed post entitled, “16 things Russians do that Americans might find weird“, it was kind of my inspiration for this post, except I want to share my own list (some items may cross paths).
* The home of a Russian can be like a revolving door. Americans tend to be very private and are not always as open and social as Russians are. We keep to ourselves and if we plan a social gathering, we plan it ahead of time and everybody goes home at the end of the evening. Not necessarily so with Russians. My first semester, I remember coming home regularly to find new visitors at the apartment – having dinner, hanging out, sleeping on the floor, in the spare room… you get my point. Since I was renting a bedroom in the apartment, I always felt intimidated and didn’t know how to respond to all these people I did not know. I would usually just say hello and go to my room and hide. If a friend or family member needs a place to stay, no big deal. A dinner party turns into an overnight – no big deal. These sorts of things would cut too far into American privacy. As time went on, I began to enjoy this aspect of Russian culture. I adjusted to people coming in and out and moving in and out and I actually still have friends on Facebook that I met through my host sister and my time living in the apartment. In fact, now that I’m home, I miss all of the social interaction that would take place on any given day and I’m very grateful that I chose to live with babushka.
* Russian Tapochki. Speaking of living in a Russian home or having guests to your home, tapochki (Russian for slippers) are one of those Russian cultural norms that have become engrained in my mind. You don’t have to be living in Russia very long before you start noticing that you immediately check your dirty shoes at the doorway and slip on your slippers to wear throughout the house. And if you have guests, it is always good to keep extra pairs of tapochki for them to wear when they are over. Walking around in socks is not acceptable. Whenever babushka would see me walking around in my socks (which was usually after I had been for a jog), she would always ask what I was doing and tell me my feet would get all dirty. The result has been that I can no longer walk around my own home here in the US with socks or bare feet without feeling like I am doing something terribly wrong. My tapochki always remain at the doorway ready for my arrival home.
* Dressing up to do ANYTHING. As a bonafide American slob, I have no problems taking my dog for a walk wearing my sweatpants or pajamas. Or going to the local convenience store in my pj’s. In Russia, this would just not be acceptable. Especially with Russian women, who dress up for any occasion – usually equipped with 5 inch heals and lots of make up. When I am there, I never go outside in public without making sure I am somewhat presentable.
* The money tray. I still have not been able to break this habit. I remember my friend telling me that when shopping at a Produkti or a grocery store, it is considered rude to hand the money directly to the cashier – why would they want to come in contact with your dirty hands, after all? That’s why there is a little money tray by every register. The idea is that you put the money on the tray and the cashier will take it and issue you change in the same way. I am regularly guilty for my American habit of just handing the money directly to the cashier, which usually ends with a not so nice glare from the clerk.
* Calling females some variant of “Girl”. Another cultural difference I had trouble with – referring to every young woman as “devushka” (which is like girl or young lady). Need to ask directions on the street? Address her with “devushka”! Calling your waitress, yell “devushka!” The Buzzfeed article is slightly wrong in that the older a woman gets, the form of girl often changes. You can refer to a woman older than a girl (usually 40′s/50′s) as “zhenshchina” (woman) or “babushka” (grandma), which is reserved for the old Russian woman (usually wearing the scarf on her head). It goes against every grain in my body to call a female “girl” or “woman” or “babushka”, so I usually just said, “excuse me please.”
* Paying for everything with cash (and exact change). Russia is a cash culture. Sure, they have banks and credit/bank cards, but most small groceries and restaurants will only accept cash. Additionally, many of the clerks at the small produkti’s will roll their eyes at you if you give them a 1,000 ruble bill (which is about $30 US dollars) when paying for something that’s only 100 or 200 rubles. And it’s quite common for a cashier to ask you if you have the necessary change for the till. Sometimes, they will even go so far as to poke at your wallet looking for change for you, if they think you didn’t understand. Yup.
* Soviet eccentricities. Some aspects of Russian culture will never be understood without taking the time to understand how things were in Soviet times. I remember my host sister saying that there are many eccentricities that still exist among the older generation. For instance, the Soviet command economy was regularly experiencing shortages of different items – one such item was matches. My host sister told me that some of the older generation will still leave their stove running if they are running low on matches, even though matches are easy to find nowadays. I suspect the bag-hoarding (which is very true) is also a left over byproduct of Soviet times. Then again, you have to pay for bags at the grocery stores, so reusing them saves money; plus, they make perfect trash bags at home.
* Having connections. The prevalence of connections in Russia is another thing that dates back to Soviet times. Again, with the command economy shortages, an economy of favors developed called blat - to have blat meant that one had connections and could obtain needed items through these connections, from daily necessities to personal favors. While blat may not be as prevalent in modern day Russia, there is still a certain amount of favor-networking that takes place, very different from anything I’m accustomed to here in the states. I remember when I asked a friend back home to connect me with someone for an interview for a paper I was writing, one of my fellow students commented “Way to do like the Russians – using your connections to get an interview”. If you want to read a really interesting book about the economy of favors that developed during Soviet times, Alena Ledeneva wrote one all about blat.
* Russia is a tea culture. Sure they now have a Starbucks in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and many Russians love coffee, but in general tea is where it’s at. One of the local Russian food chains in St. Petersburg is called “Chaynaya Lozhka“, which means teaspoon. Everywhere you go, you can pretty much get a good pot of tea and sit and have a nice conversation with friends. And lingering for hours over a pot of tea is normal. I love seeing all the Russians on the train as they fill their little cups from the samovar and drink tea with their little packed lunches.
* Dill is king. The last thing I will leave you with today in regards to Russian culture is the over-abundance of the use of dill in every kind of cuisine. Russians adore dill so much, it just kind of makes its way into everything. Don’t get me wrong, I love dill – can’t make borsch without it, and dill pickles are one of my favorite pastimes, but sometimes there is just too much usage of dill. In fact, there is a FB page (Dillwatch) started by expats in Russia who capture all the abominable uses of dill – buzz feed recently posted an article about it (however, I will say that the Lays cucumber & dill potato chips are wicked tasty). In reality, dill is a wonderful herb thought to have many beneficial properties in Russian culture. Don’t diss dill, but be prepared to see its usage in ways you never thought possible because Russians absolutely dig the stuff.
While this list certainly doesn’t cover all aspects of Russian culture, it is a starting point. The longer I spent my time in Russia, the more I fell in love with the culture. It is very different from the United States, but that is what makes it so interesting.