Russia is a beautiful country that is geographically diverse and yet united in its cultures and traditions. The Russians consider their traditions to be very important, and it is very important that you follow these social norms to blend in better. These taboos may sound like mere superstitions to a foreigner, but they are taken quite seriously here. Being accepted by a Russian as one of their own is a great compliment. Plus, blending in has the added advantage of not exposing yourself to swindlers and to improve your privacy and security. So read on as we dive into these interesting and often curious no-nos when you are here, so you know what not to do in Russia.
1. Don’t whistle indoors
Unlike other countries, whistling in Russia is seen as a sign of disapproval and unhappiness. Whistling does not have to the same connotation it does elsewhere, and so you may end up offending someone unknowingly. More importantly, whistling indoors is something you should never do as it is said to bring bad luck into the home, especially if you do so in private homes. The belief is that you will whistle all your money and fortune away. So keep your hosts happy and avoid whistling, especially indoors.
2. Do not go for an empty seat in public transport
Public transport in Russia has a different culture to it as well. Fighting with someone else for your seat, or feeling entitled to an empty seat just because you saw it first is a mark of rudeness. You cannot put dibs on a seat when there may be senior citizens, pregnant women, or differently abled people who may need the seat more than you. You may sit in the seat until someone more deserving boards the public transport vehicle. Otherwise, simply walk to the back of the vehicle and stand.
3. Don’t sit by the corner of the table
This is a belief that is often ignored by younger girls but is worth a mention. If you are single, you will not get married for seven years if you sit at the corner of a table. This is usually related to big festive occasions where lots of people sit at a large table together. So if you find yourself at the corner of a table, ask a married person to switch with you and they will happily do so.
4. Don’t accept an offer the first time
Russians are very indirect and polite people and will make extravagant offers as a sign of respect and etiquette. Directly accepting these offers may be seen as rude, as traditionally Russians will not accept a kind offer unless it is made three times. For example, if you visit a Russian home and compliment a piece of decor, your hostess may offer it to you. In this case, your first instinct must be to reject it. If you accept it directly, you may be seen as ungrateful and disrespectful. These kind offers can often even be lip service, and your host may feel burdened if you say yes to them. So remember this social norm and don’t be your direct self.
5. Don’t exchange money with people in the evening
Russians have a lot of beliefs and omens about money. If you wish to exchange money, then don’t do so in the evening. It is believed that this can bring ruin and misfortune upon a person. For example, if you wish to pay a taxi driver or store owner money, then it is better to place it upon the dashboard or on a tray so that you are not directly exchanging money in the evenings. It is believed that the money can carry negative energy and ill omens across hands. Once you have left the premises, then your link with the money has been broken and the other person can pick up the money.
6. Don’t go to a date without flowers for the lady
Bringing flowers for a lady on a date may be an optional and casual thing in other countries, but in Russia, it is almost compulsory. Otherwise, you will be seen as rude, or not caring for her feelings at all. In Russia, the dating culture is very much traditional and considered to be similar to courting, where the man tries to impress the lady with flowers, candies and so on. So no matter how much of an egalitarian your Russian date may be otherwise, this is one tiny social norm where she would like to be treated like a lady.
7. Don’t shake hands over a threshold
Russians do not like communicating over the threshold of a door. It is said that this will bring misfortune to both people, and make them lose their wealth. Therefore, remember not to talk or shake hands at the door. Since one of you need to walk in or out, often your host will either invite you inside to finish your chat or walk out with you to your car.
8. Don’t attempt to drink like Russians
Russians are known for their drinking sessions, where people, typically men, will consume a notorious amount of alcohol over the course of one evening, and there is little food available to keep one sober. Often, there is no break between bottles. Unless you can hold an unlimited number of drinks, you should err on the side of caution and opt out of the drinking game altogether. Or eat your meal beforehand so you don’t get drunk. Citing medical or religious reasons will work. Remember that you are the guest, and if you lose control of yourself and need others to take care of you or nurse you to normalcy, you may leave a bad impression or make your hosts feel bad.
9. Don’t leave empty bottles on the table
Empty bottles on a table is an ill omen that will predict an empty house. Russians believe that if you leave an empty bottle on a table, especially in a private home, it will bring financial troubles to the owner of the place. So avoid doing this, and place your empty water bottles back in your bag, or get rid of them.
10. Do not wear T-Shirts with foreign flags or symbols
Showing your alliance to another country is a huge no-no in Russia. This is a mark of disrespect to the locals of this country. So even though you may come from a country where anything flies, and you might think you have the technical ‘right’ to wear whatever you want, remember that the people of Russia have a different perspective on what is and isn’t appropriate. Wearing clothes you wish to is not so much as a mark of your freedom here, as it is an unnecessary political statement. It is best to opt for clothing that is neutral and does not have a country’s flag or any other symbol on it. Remember that even though these days you may see many youngsters wearing such inappropriate clothing, you are still a foreigner in another land, so it is best to follow the traditional rules as a mark of respect.
Curious customs and cultures
Every country and place comes with its own set of social norms and customs that you may need to pay attention to, so as to avoid disrespecting the society there. If you think that these beliefs and norms are too complicated and difficult to remember, worry not, since most modern Russians have started to ignore them as well. Except for the norms of politeness and decorum, you can get away with not remembering most of the superstitious beliefs, as long as you heed the advice of an elderly person reminding you of them. Overall, just be a kind and respectful person, and people will be more accommodating of your social faux pas.
Editor's note: In light of the 2022 political and military situation in Russia, Trip101 urges you to be apprised of the latest news if you have any urgent plans to travel to Russia. Do note that some bookings and services have been suspended or may not be available at this moment.
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