Cultural faux pas – how to avoid embarrassing yourself in Russia

When meeting people for the first time, Russians usually shake hands, make eye contact and use the appropriate greeting for the time of day. Handshakes tend to be very firm, especially between men. Close male friends often greet each other with a pat on the back and a hug, while close female friends kiss each other on the check three times, starting on the left.

Russians have three names – a personal one, a patronymic (a version of their father’s name), and a surname or family name. All three names are used in formal situations, two names might be used in less formal situations, and the personal name is used between family and close friends.

When eating out it is normal for people on their own to join a table of strangers, so if you’re eating on your own, don’t be surprised if other people join you.

If you’re invited to a meal in a Russian home, don’t forget to take a small gift. Men usually take flowers, though not yellow ones. It’s polite to protest when offered a gift in Russia. The person giving the gift will then say that it’s only a small thing and offer it again, and the recipient will accept it. Try to arrive on time or not more than 15 minutes late and make sure you take off your shoes when entering the house. It’s a good idea to dress smartly, which shows respect for your hosts and to offer to help with the preparation of the meal, or the cleaning up afterwards. As with gifts, your hosts may turn down your offers of help at first.

Normally the oldest person or guest of honour is served first and you don’t start eating until invited to do so. It’s fine to mop up sauce with bread, and men usually pour drinks for women sitting next to them. If you leave a bit of food on your place you’re showing that you have been amply catered for.

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