If you're traveling to Russia, it’s good to keep in mind how the country is similar to and different from Western countries. How do Russians interact with each other on the streets and in everyday life? Do you need to tip when you’re in a Russian restaurant? How do line-ups work? Check out this guide to help you fit in more while you're visiting there and show that you respect their customs.
As a rule, Russians do not smile at strangers on the streets, in the Metro, in the store, or anywhere else. The reason Russians don’t smile at each other on the streets is that smiling is generally considered to be something to be shared with a friend. Smiling at a stranger is considered to be an “Americanism” and is assumed to be insincere. Even Russian waiters and store clerks usually do not smile at you. Don’t let this be offputting, but don’t walk around grinning at everybody, either.
You now know not to smile at strangers on the Metro. But that's not all you shouldn't do. Russian people tend to avoid eye contact with other people on the Metro in general, and you should follow their lead. Reading a book or listening to music is perfectly appropriate. Do not give money to beggars, and there are a lot of them. Watch your bag very closely because pickpockets abound, as in many cities in Europe, and your phone and wallet are prime targets. In general, observe what everyone else is doing and follow suit.
You also should follow accepted Metro seat hierarchy: Offer your seat to older women, pregnant women, and women in general, if you are a man. Children are expected to be able to stand.
Russians are not typically very respectful of line-ups, what Americans call lines or queues, for public transit, at market stalls, and the like. Be prepared for older women to push you out of the way. This isn’t just a stereotype; in Russia, respect for the older people in society still very much exists, and older people expect to be treated accordingly. So if the proverbial old lady with a wheely cart pushes her way in front of you in line, just relax. This is normal, expected, and nobody will take your part if you complain.
If you know any Russian at all, try to open with it if you’re approaching someone to ask them a question. At least try to memorize the words “Do you speak English?”
Although you might think it would be helpful to approach store clerks and other customer service agents if you have a question, unless they’re at a tourist information desk, these people are actually quite unlikely to speak English. Instead, look for young adults, aged about 20 to 35, who are more likely to speak at least a little bit of English.
Treatment Toward Women
Russian men are extremely chivalrous. If you are a woman traveling to Russia, expect men to offer you their seat on the Metro, open doors, offer you a hand to help you step down from the bus, and carry anything that is not your handbag for you. If you are out with Russian men, they will almost always pay for you, even if you are not in any way romantically involved. If you are a man traveling to Russia, note that this kind of chivalry is expected of you as well, regardless of your usual behavior back home in America.
Tipping is a new concept in Russia, but it is slowly becoming expected. It’s not at all as is in many Western countries, though. Unless you’re at an extremely expensive restaurant, a 10 percent tip is appropriate, and anything higher is nice but not expected. It is usually not necessary to tip during a "business lunch."