What surprised me most about Russians

What surprised me most about Russians
23 January 2020

Now that I have been in Moscow for almost 3 months, I think it’s time to look back and reflect on it. Those who have never been to Moscow or have only been here for a few days as tourists may find these interesting and useful. What surprised me most about Russians may also apply to you too.

I have lived in Vietnam, Sweden, and Britain, so I am used to culture shocks. Russia (and Moscow) is however another country altogether with little in common to all three. 

The customer is always right? Not in Russia! 

Customer service is above all an American concept: treat the customer well and make them happy, and they will want to return, and your business will thrive! It makes sense in American culture where strangers readily smile and talk. This is similar in Western Europe. In Russia however, the rules are different. Sometimes, you will have to wait longer. Sometimes, you get a drink that’s not what you ordered. Sometimes, they may be annoyed at you. Just accept it is my advice!

The upside is that some can also be very kind, if you come back everyday and they become more familiar with you. The cashier at the supermarket was at first very formal, but after a month of me going there, she became friendly and curious about me.

People are very, very direct

Directness is the rule. Instead of speaking full sentences, you hear in public words (in Russian) like “girl!” or “young man!”. In the supermarket it’s “bag?” or “customer card?”. If you do something un-Russian in public, you will be reminded in a very forward manner. It is the complete opposite for Britain, where I spent an exchange semester. Politeness is most important, and the more polite you are, the longer the sentences become. Often Brits may not say what they really mean.

There are upsides and downsides to both. On the one hand, Russians are quite honest so you know exactly what they think. But I am also not fully used to it. It does get better with time!

In Russia there are many rules…

Long list of rules for using an elevator with some official signatures and stamps. Long list of rules in the metro. It was a little intimidating to me when I see them! Even my customer card at VkusWill (ВкусВилл) has unbelievably complex rules for bonuses!

Complex visa rules are a problem for those planning a longer stay in Russia. I have heard of several cases where foreigners have to leave every 90 days, go home and renew their visa, and go back to Russia. You also need to register with the authorities if you are here more than 7 days.

…but many Russians tend to be flexible with them

The upside is that I notice many people seem to ignore many rules also. People in Russia are quite flexible. I don’t think anyone has read the metro or elevator rules. You can negotiate, you can persuade someone to make an exception, and it works if done right. Under the surface, things are not as strict as the rules seem. This also depends on who you are dealing with, so it can vary.

But Russian visa rules are very strict and there will be no exceptions, don’t forget! Things related to security are very strictly enforced.

A Russian stranger and a Russian friend are very different from each other

I touched upon this earlier, as there is a perception that Russians are unfriendly. They don’t smile much and tourists coming in contact with Russians will deal with customer service staff who, as mentioned above, tend to strengthen the stereotype. 

However, once you get to know Russians some more, they become very different and in my view they are friendlier than people in many other countries. It is just about being patient and wait for them to get familiar with you.

Nick Nguyen

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