Beyond the Travel Guides: Russian Quirks


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First of all, happy May holidays for those in countries who celebrate it! This is the first day of my holiday so I’m freeeeee as a bird for a hot minute!

Now, on to the topic at hand:

There are some things that we take for granted, having grown up in our native societies. As a small-town American, I don’t find it strange that people obey traffic laws or greet everyone with a smile and hello. Living in Moscow for three years has given me some (some) insight into the Russia mind and their particular habits (привычки privychki). So if you’re thinking of popping over to Russia for a stay or just plain nosey, here’s some cultural habits you can prepare yourself for that go beyond what you might find in travel guides:

001. Carrying plastic bags. Universally Russians carry both a purse (or murse) and a plastic bag filled with things. This is always confounding to me, as I’d rather just carry a slightly larger handbag or fewer possessions. Here, though, the plastic bag is ubiquitous. Walk through any market and you’ll see tons of shops offering all manner of plastic bags. There are even “status” plastic bags. Take a stroll through the metro and see the classiest ladies carrying a Chanel bag (which they probably bought at said market).

002. Spitting and snot rocketing in public. 1000% culturally unacceptable in America, but the norm here. Learn to suppress your gag reflex. (And read this vile brilliant post by an expat in Latvia if you really want to be grossed out.)

003. Telling someone near your in line to save your spot and then disappear for a long time to get some extra products. Maybe this is just not done where I’m from, but I hold to the opinion that you can only get in line when you’ve gotten everything you need. OK, maybe you forgot something. Fine. But you can’t tell me these grandmothers who hustle off through the store just happened to forget milk, vegetables, and bread.

004. Shaking hands, but only among men. Seeing tiny five-year-olds walking into my class and shaking each others hands is adorable. Walking into an English class and everyone shaking each others’ hands while ignoring me and every other woman… Infuriating.

005. Walking culture. The stereotype of lazy, fat Americans is kind of true in this case. No matter the time or weather, people will be walking in the park. -50? Grandma’s going for a stroll! 4AM? Perfect time for a romantic walk through the park! This is particularly apparent with children. Parents or grandparents will wheel around babies in strollers for HOURS, even in the dead of winter. I’m not sure if it’s an attempt to give the child some fresh air, or just a sanity saver for Russians who are cramped into tiny apartments with their whole families.

So. There are my five. I’ve got some more rattling around in my head, but can you think of any for Russia? Or any other countries where you’ve been an expat? Or, hell, any from your native land (Americans are weird, so I can definitely think of some)?

Anyway, enjoy your week, even if you’re not in a former soviet state that recognizes socialist-based holidays!

24 thoughts on “Beyond the Travel Guides: Russian Quirks

  1. Oh man, you hit the nail on the head with #4. I work at a fairly progressive and very international establishment but my department is all Russians, and the men greet all the ladies but only shake hands among each other. So, now I am starting to demand my own handshake from the boys. Which makes them look at me like I am a crazy feminist American (even tho I am Russian by birth) but they find it mostly amusing. Hey, one step at a time…

  2. Thanks for the plug! I also started forcing men to shake my hand. I found it really annoying that men would come into a bar and shake my drinking partner’s hand but ignore me so I just held my hand out waiting – most of the time they leave me hanging but I have had my knuckles crushed a few times! Like Anna says, one baby step at a time!!

  3. Hmm. As a male, İ dont experience the same issue with handshakes, but we also greet with kisses. Pretty prevalent, but no gender distinction.

    One of my American friends told me today that Americans don’t give up seats for elderly people that get on public transportation… İ was shocked, but then realized in the US İ didnt usually see older people on buses anyway. Maybe they just all have cars at home?

    • I am on a 2-week trip to NYC and this is actually what stuck me right away – nobody giving up the seats to the elderly on the subway. Though I must say, sadly in Moscow things have deteriorated in that regard too. When I was growing up there (before moving to the US for 15 yrs), a guy would never be sitting down if there was a woman or an elderly person standing up.

      • The only examples i can think of in the US are with the disabled. İn my city and nearby cities we give up seats for them in the front of the bus, but otherwise İ never used to see many elderly people in the US on public transit.

      • I think that, on the whole, Americans use public transport so infrequently that we never had such rules ingrained in our minds, even if you grew up in a big city.

  4. A dude tried to give me his seat on the Metro last month and it made me decide to keep coloring my hair!

  5. 2 and 4 apply in Mongolia as well. I’ve been told by some people here that spitting in public is considered disrespectful, but everyone does it anyway. And while the shaking hands thing is similar here, I think it might be slightly more equitable. At least, my Russian friend always shakes my hand when I run into him.
    Mongolians are not walkers, though. They will take taxis absolutely everywhere, even if they’re only traveling a few blocks. I, by contrast, try to break with the American stereotype by walking everywhere I can.
    One thing I think might be unique to Mongolia: if you step on someone’s foot, or trip over them, or accidentally kick them under the table, you shake their hand. So it’s highly amusing to bump feet with someone at a crowded table. You sort of stick your hand out and then wait to see who responds.

  6. I haven’t been to Russia enough to know how true these are, but I wonder about the walking bit, since every time I’m on the subway it’s packed! ;o)

  7. Singaporeans do something slightly related to number 003. It’s called ‘chopeing’ or ‘choping’ (not sure how to spell it). Hawker centres get very busy here and it’s sometimes very hard to get a table so, if you see a free one, you can ‘chope’ it by leaving a packet of tissues on it then you can run off and get your food and come back to the table. No one else will take it. When I first got here, I found a packet of tissues on a free table and thought ‘score, free table and free tissues!’ (my apologies to whoever I took the table and tissues from). People chope tables in Australia but you don’t leave tissues, you leave a friend!

  8. I love this! Thank God I’ve read Linda’s exposé on Eastern European snot rockets already. Unfortunately that was over breakfast. There should have been a ***gross out*** alert.
    I wonder if the plastic bag habit stems from Soviet times, when things had to be bought on the spot, wherever a line happened to be forming, because whatever it was they were selling might not hit the shops/markets again for weeks, or, possibly ever!

  9. Regarding the spitting – it is acceptable only in ‘low society’ groups.
    Unfortunately, when you see 100 people on the street and 10 of them are spitting you think ‘Oh, My ..!, They are spitting in public’
    As for hand-shaking discrimination – the procedure is considered as ‘manly’ and handshaking with a women is certainly not a tabu but might injure a beautiful creature.

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