Below are some cultural differences that weren’t fully addressed in my article posts about travel advice or breaking down stereotypes.
Nizhny Novgorod is not Moscow or St. Petersburg; other than the immigrants from the former Soviet satellite countries, the residents of Nizhni Novgorod are mostly ethnically Russian. Don’t be afraid to speak in English when walking the streets, but just be aware that you may receive looks as you do so.
Seriousness of People
One of the most salient cultural differences is that Russians are generally much more serious than Americans. Do not be put off by this seriousness, but be aware that you may stick out as a foreigner if you smile excessively or laugh too loudly.
Begging (Including Gypsies)
Oftentimes people will beg on the streets, and they can be more aggressive than beggars in America. It is advised not to give them money, as you may then be approached by others also expecting money. This includes Gypsies, who may approach you and ask for money while promising you happiness and good health. Do not give them money under any circumstances. If they ask to see your wallet, refuse.
You may or may not experience culture shock the first week. If you do, do not fret; your initial impressions won’t necessarily last. Give your new surroundings a chance and open your mind to the new culture and all the new experiences that come along with it. Even if you continue to feel foreign after spending a while there, that’s okay too.
Staring is not really considered rude as it is in America, so do not be offended if you see someone staring at you. As a foreigner, however, it is generally best not to stare back.
In general, don’t point with your index finger, which can be considered rude, but rather use your whole hand to “point” to something.
It is a Russian tradition not to shake hands over a doorway threshold. Either step outside or stay inside to shake hands. Also, do not shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand first. In general, men will shake hands to greet each other and to say goodbye.
Russians have a different perception of friendship than do Americans. For example, if you make friends during your time in Russia, they may drop by where you’re staying unannounced. They may also take the “Mi casa es su casa” approach that goes both ways: you will be showered with hospitality if you visit a Russian friend, but he or she may expect a similar level of hospitality when he or she visits you. Also, a Russian friend may offer for you to spend the night at his or her place. Unless you know the person very well, it is generally advised to politely turn down the offer. The Russian may not take no for an answer, and may appear to an American to be even aggressively hospitable. Also be careful when accepting rides from people whom you have only recently met. None of the above is to say that you should keep a Russian friend at arm’s length and not trust him or her. Rather, exercise common sense when accepting hospitality from people whom you don’t know very well.
Note: While I experienced most of the above cultural aspects in Russia, some of them were brought to my attention by the following book:
Richmond, Yale. From Nyet to Da: Understanding the Russians. 3
Print. 3rd ed. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 2003.
– David Pruden