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September 25, 2011

3 Tips for understanding the Russians

Let me start with the disclaimer: in no ways will I attempt to educate you on how to understand every single Russian who lives in Russia and beyond. My intention here is simply to help you understand the average Russian mindset, based on three out of the 11 cultural variables of environment, time, action, communication, space, power, individualism, rules, competition, change and thinking (per Cultural Orientations Guide by Joerg Schmitz).

Most of our habits, values, and behaviors can be neatly filed under each one of the above cultural variables and the total sum of those variables will more or less describe what I call our personal cultural blueprints. Not all Russians are going to have the same cultural blueprint just as not all Americans or all Germans or all Brazilians will be same. But there will be close similarities between people coming from the same culture – just as there will be differences between people from different cultures.

The tips you’ll find below will highlight the differences (or the similarities) between your cultural blueprint and the cultural blueprint of the majority of the Russians. In the interest of space and brevity, I’ll choose three variables that I believe are among the most important.

The Cultural Variable of Time
If you already had a chance to work in Russia or with Russians, you’ll probably agree that most Russians see time as fluid rather than fixed. They understand the importance of time but don’t feel the need to control or manage it precisely. That’s why meetings usually run longer than expected and deadlines have a tendency to slide. The majority of Russians also adhere to a multi-focus mentality of time – that is they’d rather work on a multitude of projects and relationships at any one time. That’s why you’ll often find your colleagues trying to complete several tasks simultaneously and that’s why your staff will think nothing of dropping by your office at all hours to ask you a question or to discuss something (even if you desperately need to concentrate).

The Cultural Variable of Action
The majority of people in Russia prefer to build relationships first and only concentrate on accomplishing tasks after. This indicates a strong preference for being and that’s why you’ll often find it difficult to create quick friendships with Russians (they take their time getting to know you and getting to trust you enough to call you a friend); you’ll have to invest considerable amounts of time and effort in building relationships with possible business contacts; and you’ll have to earn the trust of every new person you meet.

The Cultural Variable of Communication
Most Russians excel in high-context communication style and they pay specific attention to symbolism, non-verbal cues, and artful language. That’s why sometimes you’ll find your contacts speak for fifteen minutes where you’d think five minutes would have been enough and that’s why you’ll need to watch out for misunderstandings of symbolic and non-verbal clues. Russians are also formal in their communication – the use of patronymic (father’s name) is expected when you address an older person or a person, higher than in you in hierarchy.
What has been your experience with the above mentioned variables?

Margarita Gokun Silver is an Expatriate and Cross-Cultural Coach with experience of living and working in Russia. The post above is based on the online course “Living and Working in Russia” that she developed and on the module of Culture Mastery. Culture Mastery is designed to build intercultural competence and is available as a stand alone program. Margarita can be reached at

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