Business Travel Tips for Russia

Moscow, Russia

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Even with global political unrest, more and more organizations and companies are doing business with Russia. And even though Russia has become more "westernized," business leaders should recognize that there are significant cultural differences that they should be aware of before taking a business trip to Russia.

In order to help business travelers avoid potential cultural problems when traveling to Russia, we interviewed cultural expert Gayle Cotton, author of the bestselling book, Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication. She is also a distinguished keynote speaker and is President of Circles Of Excellence Inc.

Ms. Cotton was happy to share a variety of tips to help business travelers avoid potential cultural problems when traveling to Russia.

What Tips Do You Have for Business Travelers Heading to Russia?

  • Handshaking is common and is typically a firm grip with several quick pumps between two men. Between men and women, or two women, the handshake is usually softer.
  • Relatives and good friends may engage in an animated embrace and kiss each other on the cheeks when greeting.
  • Generally speaking, Russians are more comfortable with third-party introductions, so it’s best to wait a moment before introducing yourself to a new group. If, after a few minutes, no introduction is made you may then take the initiative.
  • When a Russian touches another person during a greeting or conversation, it is usually a sign of confidence and rapport.
  • Visitors should speak in a calm moderate tone of voice since speaking or laughing loudly in public is frowned upon.
  • Personal questions are best avoided, although you may be subject to these inquiries. Answer these questions as best as you are willing to since your Russian companions may press you for details.
  • There is tremendous affection for children in Russia. If you are a parent, showing photographs of your children can be an effective way of building rapport.
  • In conversation, it is helpful to discuss your aspirations and hopes for the future. Sometimes, Russians are far more interested in the personal side of your character than your business agenda.
  • Allow plenty of time for each appointment. Not only may appointments start late, they may last longer than originally planned.
  • It’s helpful to keep in mind that addresses in Russia are written in the following order: (1) country (2) city (3) street address and (4) the last name of the individual.
  • The first meeting is usually more of a formality, a time for the Russians to assess the credibility of you and your company. The best strategy is to appear very firm and dignified, while maintaining an air of warmth and approachability.
  • While strong empirical evidence and other factual data are important in any presentation, making a trustworthy impression is an important priority with Russians.
  • Extend compliments with caution, since they may cause Russians to feel a sense of misplaced obligation. Praising and rewarding anyone in public may be viewed with suspicion.
  • The Russian word "nyekulturny" is a popular term used to refer to anything considered uncultured, bad mannered, or otherwise socially unacceptable. The taboos below are a few examples of some behaviors regarded as "nyekulturny."

What Is Important to Know About the Decision Making Process?

  • It's essential that you deal with the key decision-makers, rather than the go-betweens who are often sent to meet with new visitors. It’s wise to plan ahead and make the right contacts well in advance of your trip.
  • When decision-makers are present, meetings can be a time for all participants to exchange information and ideas.
  • It's essential that your business team display a "united front" when negotiating with the Russians. A good way to start is by ensuring that all members of your team understand and agree on precisely what they want to achieve from the deal.
  • Your Russian counterparts may insist that they understand something while this may not actually be the case. They also sometimes have a tendency to say things they think you want to hear.
  • The Russian business culture has a deeply entrenched hierarchy. Superiors have authority over their subordinates, and are ultimately responsible for the final decision.
  • Ensure that you have a contact outside of the negotiations who is an expert in Russian law, which is constantly subject to change in both interpretation and application.

Any Tips for Women?

  • It’s appropriate for men to wait until a woman extends her hand before reaching for it.
  • Between women, the older woman extends her hand first.

Any Tips on Gestures?

  • Eye contact during the introduction is very important and should be maintained as long as the individual is addressing you.
  • Putting your thumb through your index and middle fingers, or making the "OK" sign are both considered very rude gestures in Russia.
  • Beckoning someone with the forefinger. Instead, turn your hand so that the palm faces down and make a scratching motion.
  • Don’t sit with the legs apart, or with one ankle resting upon the knee
  • Don’t stand with your hands in your pockets

What Are Some Good Suggestions for Topics of Conversation?

  • The rapid, progressive changes taking place in Russia
  • Russians are very proud of their culture, and enjoy opportunities to talk about the theatre, movies, music, and Russian literature
  • They also enjoy discussing travel, history, architecture, sports, and the 2014 Olympics
  • There is always an interest in current events, as long as you remain open to various perspectives and stay away from direct discussions about politics
  • The food and drink that is unmistakably a part of Russian entertainment

What Are Some Topics of Conversation to Avoid?

  • Political differences, and especially the recent disagreements between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine and Crimea
  • Comparing Russia to other developing countries, or comparing Moscow and Saint Petersburg
  • Never refer to a Russian as "Comrade”
  • Many Russians still enjoy smoking, so avoid talking about the non-smoking business environment in the U.S.
  • The suppression caused by the Czarist and Communist states