Knowing business etiquette is important for a successful cross-cultural communication anywhere in the world. Business environment in Russia is becoming less and less unique and more similar to the business environment in the large companies elsewhere. But it is still useful to understand the local differences. Learn the dos and don’ts of meeting Russian business people.
In general – being more than 15 min late is not good, but not a crime at all. If you are in a big city and are late because of any reason (you overslept) – traffic jam is your friend. Apologize for being late and blame it on the heavy traffic in the city. You will always be understood and forgiven. Or, say you got lost in a Moscow subway (foreigners who are brave enough to take subway on their own melt our hearts). But make sure you mention how gorgeous our subway is. We, Russians have strong patriotic feelings about Metro, ballet, caviar, Gagarin, chocolates and several other things.
If you meet a man in a business meeting – a firm handshake is mandatory, if there are several people in a room – handshakes with all the men in the room are mandatory. In Western firms you may also use handshakes with women, but if you are far from Moscow or in a very “Russian-style” company – women might be not used to handshakes. If you see that women do not extend their hands for a handshake – you can just say hello, acknowledge them and maybe bow a bit.
As for the business cards exchange – no rituals here. Most likely people at the meeting will just pass you their business cards and you should do the same. Nobody will pay attention at how you handle business cards (with one hand or both hands). Business cards are just a convenient way to exchange contact info. Some people will not even have cards with them because of various reasons (new to the company etc.)
You will be offered tea or coffee in any office meeting. Choose what you want and accept with brief thanks. If you do not drink instant coffee and are outside of the capital – choosing tea is your best bet – it will be a good brewed tea since tea culture is prominent here.
When served tea or coffee, it is a good time to mention how much you value Russian hospitality. You can tell a story of how your host of the trip cooked a festive meal for you or showed you the city the night before. We love when foreigners appreciate our hospitality and love to hear good stories. If you have learned even 1-2 words in Russian and will use these we will be delighted! You can also tell that you are in our city for the first time and it is totally beautiful. Or, that you are in our city for the tenth time, but it continues to amaze you. Or, if you are visiting a very small town and nothing really amazed you – say how good it is to get out of a big city, how calm and nice it is here. If that city reminds you of your home city – make sure you talk about it. Or say that you have never been in such a cold weather. Russians like when foreigners are curious and explore.
But in the same time – make sure that the small talk lasts no longer than 5-10 min. We do not like useless chitchat. Move to the core of your subject right away. Say – I thank you for welcoming me here, our meeting is very important, let’s talk business. Russians are very direct, so you can talk freely about your goals and expectations.
You better stay serious, when talking business. No need to smile much. Russians tend to approach business meetings seriously, too many smiles may ruin their perception of you and make them wonder whether you have serious intentions.
In the same time – even if people do not smile at you at the first meeting – never forget you are meeting with the human beings. If you will be able to connect to them on the emotional level – next time they see you – they will smile because they know you and like you and that will be a sign of appreciation, not the smile “out of custom”. So, try to make an emotional connection with your audience. To do that well – observe what you see around.
It is quite likely that the meeting will be in a managing director’s office (you are a foreigner, so you are treated with deep respect and the CEO might personally welcome you).
If you have a tête-à-tête meeting with the CEO in his/her office – that is a best chance to build a connection. If your host has a photo with the President (or Montserrat Caballe or Pamela Anderson), proudly displayed in the office – make sure you show your appreciation. Do not hesitate to ask about the story behind the photo. There will be a story, make sure you listen well!
If you see some fancy diplomas – that might also be a good conversation starter, although displaying diplomas in Russia is not as popular as displaying diplomas in the US. If the diploma is in English and you recognize its value – definitely speak about that. If the diploma is in Russian – just ask and react depending on the case.
Some people give out clues on their life by displaying hunting trophies (worst scenario:) or their miscellaneous collections (of ceramic frogs for example). If you also happen to collect ceramic frogs or have a deep knowledge on the subject or your cousin collects ceramic frogs – talk about it, if you have no clue on the subject or no stories – you better stay silent.
Finally – photos of the family. In most cases you will not see them in offices of Russian people since people do not like to mix business and personal life. If you see western kind photos of wife and kids, proudly displayed – that instantly gives out a clue that the director has studied abroad. Again – if you also have kids – talk about them, if that is a distant subject for you – just notice and mention only if/when it is relevant in the conversation.
After the business is done, you will see that your hosts are more prone to chat than before. That is a great time to talk about almost any subject. It is quite possible that your host will invite you for lunch or dinner after the meeting. Agree! You will have a great time and will be able to get to know these people. Relax about not being allowed to pay for your meal and drinks. Hosts will always pay, it is part of our hospitality, so do not insist. Try to avoid business talks at the dinner table (talking about business at lunch is acceptable).
You do not have to drink vodka or drink any alcohol if you do not wish to do so. Just say that you cannot drink due to some health issues and there will be no questions asked.
Be a good listener, most stories will be long, bear with that. If your host tells a joke – laugh or smile even if it does not sound funny (we have a good sense of humor, but very often our humor is “insiders jokes”, based on Russian books or cartoons or movies, so not all foreigners understand it). Tell your own long stories, your host will listen to you attentively. And, what is most important – relax and have fun! Russian people may look unapproachable from a first glance, but if you make a connection with them, especially if you share a meal – you might be surprised how warm they (we:) are.
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.