The do’s and don’ts of Russian business etiquette have a lot in common with various business cultures you can find in both Europe and Asia. That’s to be expected:
After all, Russia is a country which sits on a crossroads between the two continents.
As with all regional commercial practices though, Russian business culture is informed by and derived from wider Russian values, habits and culture.
Here are some things to know about Russian culture – specifically as it relates to business – which will help make your next business trip, meeting or negotiation a success… Things to know about Russian culture.Russia can be viewed as part of Asia and part of Europe. Wider Russian culture has elements common to both – and many which are uniquely Russian.
Much like China, it can also be easy to forget just how big Russia is:
The country covers a total of nine time zones. Its size means there can be a lot of cultural and linguistic divergence between different areas.
But one of the main differences is generational rather than geographical:
- Older Russians will tend to be more conservative (of course, this is generally the case in most countries. But in Russia, it is often distinctly noticeable). Older Russians will also tend to have stronger communal tendencies, partly through having grown up under the communist system.
- Younger Russians will tend to be more progressive and individualistic, though this isn’t always the case.
There are also several other important things to know about Russian culture. These may help you understand a little bit more about Russian habits and values and how they prefer to do business:
1) Russian pride and heritage
A little Russian cultural awareness can go a long way:
- Patriotism: national pride is a common trait throughout most of Russia. Most Russian people will be proud of their country and their heritage.
- Art and literature: most Russians will – quite rightly – consider themselves to be from a part of the world with a rich artistic and literary history. Being able to talk about literature and art – especially Russian literature and art – will stand you in good stead, as this tends to be admired.
- Having a little bit of “soul”: the ability to have almost metaphysical conversations on certain subjects will also be generally admired. The word “dusha” in Russian means soul. Having a little bit of soul is a good thing.
2) Russian pessimism
This is something of a generalisation. But most Russians will tend to view the current situation and the future with a certain pessimism.
This no doubt stems from Russia’s long and turbulent history, both in the 20th century and before.
Strangely, this has also seemed to breed a certain national pride in the Russian ability to survive and even succeed in situations where other people might not.
3) Russian directness
A noticeable Russian habit in business communication is directness. Being to the point – even if this may provoke confrontation – is a common way to proceed.
4) Russian public versus private life
In formal settings, it can be tempting to think that Russians can be cold and distantly polite – even distrustful of foreigners.
However, in private you will tend to find that nothing is further from the truth! Russian private hospitality is usually exceedingly generous, warm and welcoming.
When it comes to hospitality in bars though – especially in informal business situations – do be wary of a certain tendency amongst some Russian businesspeople to “test” visiting foreigners to see how much alcohol they can drink.
This is usually done with something of a nudge and a wink to the idea that most Russians believe they can drink other nationalities under the table.
5) Russian family values
Russian families tend to be fairly small, with often a single child per generation. They also tend to live closely together and be tightly knit, with two or three generations in the same apartment.
The “Western” phenomenon of institutional care for elderly relatives would rarely be condoned in Russia except in exceptional circumstances.
Another tendency in Russian families is for stricter conservative roles for men and women:
In most families, men will work. Women, while they may also work, are almost always responsible for household chores and parental duties too.
6) Russian collective interest and spirit
Whether it’s a leftover from communist times or an older part of the cultural make-up, most Russians – especially from older generations – are likely to think of the collective and the group.
This can be seen on the smallest scale:
Most will prefer to eat with people they don’t know rather than sit alone. Most also wouldn’t be chary of stopping to tell someone they don’t know that they are doing something wrong. Languages spoken in Russia.Around 81% of Russians speak Russian as their first and only language.
However, Russia has a population of around 150 million. That’s quite a few people leftover who speak another language as their first language (usually the speak it in addition to Russian).
Of the more than one hundred minority languages spoken in Russia, the most popular are:
- Tartar (spoken by over 3% of the population)
This makes it important not to simply assume that Russian will be the preferred language of your potential business partners or target audience in Russia when you are booking translation or interpreting services.
It’s generally best to get some professional language advice and to consider the region you are targeting in detail. Things to know about Russian business culture.When it comes to Russian business culture, there are other basic tenets and points of etiquette to bear in mind.
Some have obvious links to the general observations on Russian culture listed above:
1) The importance of rapport and networking
Unlike some Asian business cultures, building a personal relationship with someone you want to work with first is not precisely a requirement of doing business in Russia.
However, having a strong rapport or basis for trust with your Russian partners will almost certainly pay dividends.
The Russian word svyasi translates as “connections” – it’s not entirely dissimilar to the Chinese concept of guanxi, but perhaps less formalised.
The UK or US equivalent might be “having friends in high places”. Certainly, one of the goals of establishing a network in Russia is to bypass some of the bureaucracy.
But the main purpose is to establish a network of partners who can be trusted and who may do favours for you in the future.
2) Favours and building trust
In fact, one of the easiest ways to tell whether your Russian counterpart has come to trust you is that they will ask you for a favour of some kind.
Some of the ways you can act which may encourage the formation of that trust include:
- Being sincere: if you are seen as a sincere and authentic person this will certainly be a point in your favour.
- Not being “all business”: many Russians will want to get to know a little bit about you outside of your professional goals and career. What do you want from your life? It’s best to have a little soul about these things…
- Socialising over drinks: having a few drinks outside of a business setting and talking about other things is a good way to get to know your partners better – and for them to get to know you. Be aware of that tendency to “test” your alcohol limits, however!
- Granting a favour: granting favours early in the relationship can encourage faster development. That said, if there is a perception that you are granting the favour out of a desire to curry favour or because you are in a weaker position, this may backfire.
- Succeed: while strong relationships are a cornerstone of Russian business culture, don’t necessarily expect even your healthiest relationship to survive a failed endeavour.
But, while all of these may encourage a relationship to mature, there is really no substitute for time and patience.
3) The hierarchy is strict
Russian business culture involves a strict reliance on hierarchy at all levels. Do not try to go around or outside of the hierarchy – this will rarely be appreciated.
Respect things like seating arrangements and speaking order and try not to single anyone out from a group.
4) Procedures and policies… less so
The Russian government harshly regulates some business practices. But many policies and procedural requirements may be less enforced at a business level.
5) Think individual, not institution
While you might think that the relationship you are building is with a company, make no mistake:
The relationship you are building is with an individual. When that individual moves onto a different company, your relationship with them will remain. Your relationship with your partner company probably won’t.
Likewise, internal relationships within Russian companies will be built between individuals rather than to the company.
Thus, it’s common to see a promoted person promote their former colleagues in turn. This isn’t viewed as some kind of cronyism.
Instead, it is the natural reward for the loyalty these people have shown and the strong relationships they’ve developed.
In recent years, this tendency towards the individual seems to be increasing in the younger generations…
This means that it might be beneficial to show the individual you are dealing with how a certain proposal might be beneficial for not only their organisation but also themselves as the one who brought it home.
6) Contracts may be more circumstantial
If a contract isn’t beneficial any more, should it really still be treated as existing?
This is an attitude which many Russian businesspeople see as a perfectly normal one. You need to put the work in to keep demonstrating why a contract is valid and beneficial to them.
Don’t believe that any contract is set in stone.
7) Faster business cycle
Contract negotiations in Russia may take as little as a single day.
Individual meetings may be quite drawn out though – and will often last longer than you bargained for.
8) Slower, subtle change
Because many Russians will tend to be less flexible than their counterparts elsewhere, it’s wise to suggest new ideas very slowly and with little force.
In fact, even if they are an absolute requirement on your end, portraying them as suggestions or recommendations can make it easier for your Russian counterpart to accept them.
It’s a fine line to walk between this and a need for Russian directness. Russian business culture – dress code.Russian dress code for business is classic European and strongly conservative:
- For men: business suit.
- For women: business suit with a knee-length skirt.
Highly polished shows and suits of conservative colours are the standard for both men and women. Russian business greetings.At the first meeting, you should aim for formality.
The standard greeting is slightly different depending on the genders of those involved:
Men meeting men: an overly-firm handshake is the norm. Maintain eye contact. Male friends may pat each other on the arm or back or hug.
Men meeting women: as for men meeting men, but perhaps with a slightly less crushing grip.
Women meeting women: female friends may kiss on the left cheek, right cheek and then the left cheek again. In a professional setting, a handshake may be more normal. Business cards.The exchange of business cards in Russia is not ritualised. But you should:
- Have your business cards translated into Russian (in Cyrillic script) on one side.
- Make sure your card is Russian side-up when handing it over
- Feature any university degrees on your card
If someone does not have a card, it will be worth noting down who they are and what they do. Russian business etiquette – meetings.When it comes to Russian business etiquette in meetings, there are a few things to bear in mind if you want to succeed:
Make your appointment with plenty of time in advance. You will then want to re-confirm that everything is on track when you arrive in the country and probably the day before the meeting too.
It’s best to do this with the person in question and any secretary or assistant directly by phone.
As a broad rule of thumb, avoid booking appointments in the first week of May because of the number of public holidays.
You should also consider getting a list of who will be attending the meeting if possible. This will enable you to choose an equivalent team.
Due to the generally busy nature of most Russian businesspeople’s schedules, cancellations are quite possible – sometimes on very short notice.
Aim to arrive perfectly on time. But don’t be surprised if you are kept waiting though. Russian business meetings do tend to overrun.
In the case of meeting state bureaucrats, it’s not impossible that they may keep you waiting deliberately as a form of power-play too.
Of course, this isn’t exactly uncommon amongst bureaucrats in many parts of the world!
3) Duration and subject of meetings
Almost everything in Russia takes longer than you expect it might. Again, this tends to be true in many places. But in Russia, in particular, do allow for additional time for meetings.
There is likely to be some form of social discussion before you get down to business – and some of these conversations may continue, or side-business starts to be discussed, at the same time as the main topic is on the table.
In Russian business dealings, any senior figure may decide to go unilaterally off-script and start discussing something other than what’s on the agenda without expecting any form of censure.
Presentations are an expected part of most business meetings. You should be sure to include plenty of details relating to:
- The history of the subject
- Existing examples and precedents which support your case
- What differentiates your company from the competition
Make sure that you have your presentation materials translated into both English and Russian.
5) The follow-up
Immediately following the meeting, signing a record of the minutes (called a protokol) is common practice.
It is also sensible to follow-up with your contact, customer or new business partners by email or by phone to confirm the outcome. The art of Russian negotiation.Russian negotiations may be concluded in a single day. But don’t think this means there is any need to hurry.
When negotiating in Russia, don’t forget:
1) The importance of the hierarchy
It’s worth reiterating the importance of the hierarchy in Russian business culture.
The most senior person will be the decision-maker. Planning ahead and ensuring that you have team members of equivalent ranks will make negotiations easier.
You should also avoid suddenly introducing ideas or issues which may be “above the pay grade” of your counterpart in the discussion to make the final call on.
If they need to go away and get approval from someone higher up, you will make them lose face. It’s another Chinese concept, perhaps – but one that’s equally valid here.
2) Compromise is a sign of weakness
Russians will almost always see negotiations as having a “winner” and a “loser”. They don’t like to be the losers.
This means that they will go to great lengths to avoid showing weakness by making compromises on their end:
They may even be likely to include several small extra requirements in their initial proposal that they will then be willing to “concede” later on.
This means you should be prepared to consider overstating your own initial position to give yourself room to fall back into.
Built-in concessions or not, almost any Russian negotiator will be understating their initial position with the intention of striving to get more.
3) Negotiation “tactics” are common
It’s not exactly an “everything goes” fight…
But don’t be shocked if your Russian counterparts act as if they are upset, furious or threaten to walk out or call of the whole thing off altogether if it means they get a concession out of you.
4) Time factors can play a major role
Russians are normally prepared to wait and allow negotiations to go nowhere rather than to make concessions. They will simply wait patiently – especially if they know that time is any sort of factor on your side.
This makes it important that you give the impression of being in no hurry to conclude matters. If not, in the event of any kind of stalemate, they may gain confidence that their position of waiting will lead to results.
Try to be patient. Knee-jerk reactions of giving concessions to break the deadlock may simply advertise the fact that you are in a hurry or may be willing to give more.
Don’t try to hurry things along with pressure tactics either. You will not succeed against a Russian negotiator. They will have turned patience into an art form!
5) Playing the game
Russian business etiquette when it comes to negotiation has a certain amount of game playing to it:
- The first move is yours: your Russian counterparts may prefer that you speak first so that you reveal your position. They can then consider and respond to it. Essentially, they like you to make the first move.
- Waiting for their turn: even if your opposite numbers are politely listening to what you have to say, don’t expect that this necessarily means they agree with you or are on board with your proposal. They may simply being polite and attentive.
- A strong team sport: when your opposite numbers consist of several people, you had better believe they will have discussed their position in fine detail before the meeting. They will always be singing from the same hymn sheet.
6) The significance of status
Lording your superior position over your counterparts is never good business practice. In Russia, in particular, it will be very poorly received.
Never treat your opposite numbers as if they are anything other than equals.
That said, it’s possible they may use some sort of tactic like this to convince you that it’s in your interests to make a concession.
7) Be wary of generalisations
“Hammering out the details later” could be a Russian motto when it comes to contract negotiation.
It’s common practice to agree on the broad strokes or overall concept, confirm the agreement and then work out how to implement everything later.
You might not be able to avoid working in this way, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind. Russian business etiquette (do’s and don’ts).Finally, and tied to many of the above underlying principles, there are several general do’s and don’ts when it comes to Russian business etiquette:
Do a favour when asked. The asking of a favour is an indication that you have reached a level of trust and respect in your Russian business acquaintance’s eyes. Help them out if you can. There is a very high chance that they will consider themselves as owing you one in the future.
Do talk about family. Family closeness is a common Russian trait. Talking about how close you are to yours (if you can naturally fit it into the conversation) can be a good hint that you think like a Russian in this way.
Do critique with solutions. Pointing out a problem in advance – quietly and directly – is likely to be appreciated. However, doing so with a solution already in hand is always going to be the best policy.
Do be respectful. Condescending remarks are as unwelcome in Russia as they are worldwide. For example, a Russian person may make a small joke about their ability to out-drink other nations. If you make the same joke, it implies that the country is full of alcoholics and is unlikely to be welcomed.
Don’t talk about politics. Even if you have a deep knowledge of the subject, it’s best to avoid critiquing Russia, Russian politics or the Russian president. Your counterpart may agree with you. But having an outsider make the opposition from an assumed position of moral authority can come across as patronising or condescending.
Don’t talk about what you don’t understand. There is a general understanding in Russia – reinforced by a long history – that life can be difficult. There’s also the feeling that when things go wrong, the government is unlikely to give you all the support you need. This means that many Russians are very understanding towards people who have fallen afoul of rules, laws or the social order through no fault of their own. It’s not a universal opinion, but its best not to start getting judgemental about the situations of others.
Don’t critique Russian history. While many of the actions of the Soviet Union might be worthy of a bit of critique, many of its achievements are still seen as worthy of respect and patriotism by many Russians. This means it’s safest to simply avoid the subject – even if you know quite a bit about it. Talking about it or other periods of Russian history in general may be okay. Critiquing it is risky.
Don’t forget that your perception of events may differ. Remember that a Russian understanding and knowledge of history – why a war was fought, for example – may differ from yours. They may also have intimate involvement in any conflict – either personally or through a friend or family member. Another topic that’s best avoided. Russian business culture and etiquette.As you can see from the length of this article, Russian business etiquette is a large and fascinating topic. It’s also something you don’t have to handle alone…
Getting a little professional advice from a local partner can often go a long way towards making your next Russian business trip a successful one.
But if you are going alone, the hints and tips listed here should give you a good place to start.
Do you need to prepare for an upcoming business trip to Russia? Do you need a reliable interpreter or accurate translation services?
Or do you just need a little more information about Russian business culture?
Comment below to find out more – or contact us directly with any questions you might have.