Top 10 Russian Customs to Remember

A mysterious country clouded by its Communist past; to this day, Russia has remained relatively undiscovered by the masses, with horror stories about the police and gypsies putting plenty of people off. However,  Russia is growing in popularity amongst the TEFL community with reputable English teaching jobs offering good wages, help with obtaining a visa and sometimes even free accommodation. Nevertheless, in order to enjoy your time in the world’s largest country, it’s helpful to be aware of important traditions and beliefs – not only will it enhance your knowledge of the culture, but you’ll be sure to make a whole heap of new-found Russian friends who really appreciate the fact that you’ve taken the time to get to know about their country. Here’s a round-up of our top 10 important Russian customs to remember…

1. Spitting and touching wood

Many superstitious Russians believe in the evil eye (an evil look bringing bad luck) – particularly bringing the evil eye on any compliments or good events. So don’t be alarmed if, after complimenting a child, their parent spits three times over their left shoulder, or touch a wooden surface three times (or their head, if there isn’t any wood in sight) – provided the parent is in earshot, of course!  This custom is also done if someone tells you about some success of theirs (for instance, getting a new job), or if they’re going on holiday.

2. Don’t hand people money

It’s widely believed in Russia that money transmits energy from its owner (including negative energy); which can be transmitted if the money is placed directly from the hands of its previous owner to the new owner. Instead, if in a shop, you will be required to place your money into a tray, and likewise, your change will be placed there too for you to pick up, as the link of energy will be broken.  I didn’t really think about how I was handing over my money at the time, but after reading into this, I realised that that was how I always paid – from everything to a hot chocolate in Starbucks, to a pair of shoes!

3. Never give clocks, scarves or knives as presents

Clocks are seen as an omen of parting, scarves of tears and knives of enemies; and so none of these are seen as a good present to give someone.  If, however you don’t realise this fact and you do present one as a gift, expect to receive a coin from the recipient – take the coin, as it’s as if the recipient bought the gift, thus ending the bad omen.

4. Always give an odd number of flowers

Flowers are an extremely popular gift in Russia, and as a teacher, expect to be showered with bouquets of flowers from your students on the last day of school.  However, if you plan on giving someone else a bouquet of flowers, make sure you know the rules.  Firstly, you MUST make sure that you hand over an odd number of flowers, as an even number signifies funerals.  Some people also see yellow flowers representing funerals, so if you’re unsure, opt for another colour.

5. Remove your shoes

Something that a lot of cultures consider polite, you should ALWAYS take off your shoes when entering a Russian house – the streets are dirty in large cities; and you’ll probably find that your host will provide you with slippers anyway.

6. Keep your glass half full

As would be expected, Russians are impressive vodka drinkers, and can often assume that you’re as hard-core as them.  An empty glass in Russia will always be refilled, so if you feel like you’ve reached your limit, make sure your glass has some drink in it.  If you don’t feel like drinking, just say that your doctor told you not to drink – no one will question it.

7. Don’t place empty bottles on the table

Continuing nicely from heavy vodka-drinking, when a bottle is empty, be sure to place it on the floor.  An empty bottle left on the table is seen as bad luck.

8. Respect Babushka

The ‘babushka’ (or grandma) has a lot of respect and power in Russia – there is no point in arguing with them, because they will win regardless.  Also (as is polite in the UK), give them your seat on the metro, tram or bus because if you don’t, they may start yelling at you, especially if you’re a guy.  Again, saying that, when I gave up my seat to an old lady on the metro, she moved along so I could sit back down – Russians may have a reputation for being cold, but the majority are actually quite nice!

9. Don’t step on the grass

A common downfall of tourists, make sure you don’t step on any grassy areas in public places – especially in major tourist attractions such as the Summer Gardens in St Petersburg – as the police are known to closely monitor this, and fine you on the spot.  You will however, find signs reminding you of this fact, but it’s just worth remembering!  Another tourist trap to avoid is to refrain from taking pictures inside the metro and shopping centres as it’s illegal – you may get away with it, but then again, you may find a policeman behind you, ready to hand you a fine.

10. Avoid overly-smiling in the streets

The stereotypical cold, unfriendly Russian is partly down to their stern expressions; and one way foreigners are instantly spotted is by smiling.  In Russia, there is a saying that “to smile with no reason, is a sign of a fool” – and a person smiling in the street can often be thought of as drunk or mentally ill.  So before heading off on your Slavic adventure, be sure to practise your best ‘serious Russian face’ (that’s what I did!) – it comes especially in handy when riding the metro – a pout and furrow of the brows, and people won’t look at you twice!

Russia is an amazing country, and a great place to teach English – made even more enjoyable if you keep in mind these 10 Russian customs to remember.  To start your Russian adventure today, take a look on our jobs board!

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