Culture Shock in Russia

Culture Shock in Russia

Moscow : Russia | May 24, 2011 at 12:09 AM PDT
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For expats traveling to Russia, especially if they are unfamiliar with local culture, culture shock is nearly unavoidable. But there is no reason for concern, as almost all foreigners in Russia will feel this way at some point.

There are different reasons why people experience culture shock in Russia, but one of the main ones is certainly the language. English speakers will have a difficult time since the Russian language uses many unfamiliar, guttural sounds. In addition, the Russian language has Cyrillic letters, which can quickly confuse travelers. Even for those who are intermediate or advanced Russian speakers, it will take some time to get used to the rich vocabulary and the modern speech rate in Russia.

Social norms are something that no one can truly prepare for. Norms differ from country to country, or even from county to county, and the only way to get familiar with them is to socialize and communicate with local people. During the first couple of days or even weeks, being a foreigner in Russia is not easy. You never know whether it is appropriate to smile, for example, at a salesperson, or you can find yourself being pushed by people in the Metro while not knowing what should be your appropriate reaction. A Russian would probably feel the same in a foreign country. The pitfall of adjusting to social norms is the temptation to avoid interacting with people altogether. What is necessary to get familiar with the standards of behavior in Russia is constant interaction.

Issues of social interaction leads us to another aspect of cultural shock in Russia. You may find that it is very difficult to make friends with local people. The main reason for this is language barrier. Additionally, people in big Russian cities (just as in any other metropolis) live pretty busy lives, and have less time to make new friends; but don't give up. Russian people do not typically smile in greeting. In their culture, a smile without obvious reason is considered a sign of insincerity, emotional imbalance or evil intent. Russians smile only if they've been exposed to something funny, or as a sign of friendship.

Also, in this culture, people are more aggressive and straightforward. Russians will openly ask questions about your financial situation or your religious and political beliefs. A foreigner should not get offended as they are actually not being rude. In Russia, it is considered a normal course of conversation.

People in Russia can also be more physically aggressive. Anyone using public transportation is likely to experience this. People will push strangers just to get through, or will stand right up close to other people. Also, waiters, salespersons, or other service industry personnel may not be as polite as you would expect. Here, the customer is not always right. And there is really nothing much you can do about it.

Another thing that surprises many foreigners in Russian metropolises is people's appearance. Russians care about how they look in public, will dress smartly and are meticulously groomed.

Many foreigners are shocked by abiding Soviet images and symbols all around Russia. People in Russia do not see them as pure symbols of communism. For them, they represent a part of their history, and Russians see no grounds to remove such symbols. They are very proud of their history, and will often talk about it, at length and with the slightest provocation.

One more issue that may surprise foreigners is seemingly contradictory low standard of living and very high level of education. Do not be surprised if a cleaning lady in your company holds more than one degrees.

Expats in Russia should not worry about offending Russians by not knowing or understanding their culture. Russians are well accustomed to Western culture and are forgiving when foreigners make mistakes. The best thing a foreigner can do is to ask a Russian about customs, culture and habits. In most cases, the locals are happy to share.

For additional information and a full series of video city guides on expatriate living in Moscow, please visit Expat Eye. Our virtual city guides give new and prospective expats a comprehensive look at life in their new home, including subjects such as housing, transport, international schools, local health care, language and the expat community.

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