Business Etiquette Around the World: Russia

Home of the 2014 Winter Olympics and ranked as World Bank’s top BRIC in their ‘Ease of Doing Business Index,’ Russia is a popular destination for business travelers and expats alike. However, it’s important to remember that this Eastern country’s business culture is quite different from ours in the Western world. Have no fear — we’ve compiled this list of best practices for navigating your business dealings in Russia — without committing any embarrassing faux pas. Read on!

Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

There is an old Russian proverb: “They meet you depending on how you’re dressed and they say good-bye depending on how wise you seem.” Russian people generally pay a lot of attention to their clothing and will dress as nicely as their salaries will allow. What this means for you:

      • Look polished and well-dressed at all times to enhance credibility. Remember: Winters can be extreme in Russia, so plan suitable attire to meet the conditions.

      • Business dress is formal and conservative — men should wear business suits and ties; women, subdued-colored business suits with skirts that cover the knees, instead of pantsuits.

      • Shoes should be polished and clean; avoid showing the soles of your shoes.

Russians will greet strangers with a firm, almost bone-crushing handshake (when men shake hands with women, the handshake is less firm) while maintaining direct eye contact. Until invited to do so, don’t use first names, as it is important to respect authority and formality. Also, Russians are comfortable with much less personal space than we’re used to in the U.S— if you encounter a “close talker,” try to gracefully back away without looking too obvious.

Extra credit greeting tip: Include Russian translation on your business cards. Even though most Russians speak English, this indicates your eagerness for doing business with them.

Russians are transactional by nature and you should err on the side of formality when you first make contact. Establishing long-standing personal relationships with Russians prior to doing business isn’t necessary. That said, Russians tend to be wary of an all business approach—just like American culture, if you have “friends in high places” you can often cut through bureaucracy and red tape.

      • Politics: Russians are enthusiastic about discussing politics and the challenges of living in their country. Participating in this kind of discussion is more welcome than being an active listener, but a word of caution: keep the conversation light and avoid touchy subjects such as communism

      • History: Bringing up Russian history can be an appreciated gesture, but let your Russian colleagues take the lead with controversial historical topics. Russians are extremely educated, so be prepared to talk about U.S. history as well.

      • Don’t ask personal questions, but be prepared to have personal questions asked of you.

      • Approach compliments with caution as they could cause a sense of misplaced obligation. For example, compliment a Russian’s vase sitting on their kitchen table and they may feel obligated to send you home with it.

Contrary to customs in the U.S., it is not uncommon to invite colleagues over for dinner. This is considered a great honor and declining the invitation would be deemed impolite.

      • Dress in clothes you would wear to the office.

      • Arrive on time and remove your hat and outdoor shoes. You may be given slippers to wear.

      • Don’t show up empty-handed (see appreciated gifts below) — for extra bonus points, bring flowers for the women of the house and candy or toys for the children.

      • Sample all foods served — refusing food does not make a good impression.

      • Leaving a small amount of food on your plate indicates that your hosts have provided ample hospitality.

      • When given a drink, be sure to toast with your host. If you don’t drink, be prepared for questioning — Russians often consider drinking to be a way to start or cement a relationship.

When dining out:
Depending on how well-developed your relationship is with your Russian associates,  the business lunch or dinner is generally the time to seal a deal — not  to make decisions, negotiate, or get to know each other.

      • Usually the one who does the inviting pays the bill, although the invitee is expected to make an effort to pay. If you are paying the bill, make sure you tip your wait staff 10-15%.

Generally speaking, Russians take great pleasure in giving and receiving gifts in business settings. Don’t be alarmed if the recipient protests several times before taking it — in Russian culture, it is not polite to readily accept gifts. Some appreciated gifts include wine, high-quality whiskey, cakes, chocolates, candy, exotic fruits, office accessories and high-quality coffee or tea. Note: Giving vodka can be misinterpreted as an insult.

Be on time to all meetings. While it’s acceptable for your Russian colleagues to be late, as a foreigner, you are expected to arrive on time. This is considered to be a test of your patience. And speaking of patience — Russians appreciate time to debate and negotiate. That said, negotiations are slow in Russia, so be cautious about letting your associates know they are under pressure or they could delay decisions even more. Avoid high-pressure sales tactics as they are considered rude and unprofessional. Want to compromise? Forget it. Russians see negotiations as win-lose and view compromise as a weakness. Also, Russians can show great emotions during negotiations, to the point of walking out of a meeting and/or threatening to end the relationship, in an effort to coerce you toward a different decision.

Do you have any other business etiquette tips you’d like to share about Russia? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you!

Safe Travels!