While living in Moscow for two years, my wife and I were fortunate to spend many evenings in the apartments and homes of dear friends. Here are some things we learned (sometimes the hard way) that really helped us look less like strangers in a strange land.
1. DO bring a snack.
Even if it’s not requested or discussed about during the invitation, it’s always nice to bring a drink or snack to any get-together. It can be anything -- drinks like juice or soda, or sweets to have with tea. A bottle of wine. A small gift from your home country. Flowers from the neighborhood florist.
2. DO take off your shoes.
Count Russia among the international cultures that take off their shoes at the entrance of their flat. It serves many purposes -- it not only keeps the rest of the home clean, but adds another level of comfort and welcome to those visiting.
3. DON’T be afraid of the conversation.
As Americans, I think we’re really used to playing it safe when it comes to conversations with friends -- unless we are close, we usually tend to shy away from tougher topics out of fear of offending or arguing. But once a friendship begins with a Russian, there are not many topics that are too taboo. Be ready to go to some tough places, but know that most won’t end in fisticuffs.
4. DON’T have any plans for later in the evening.
When visiting friends or acquaintances, plan on it being a long night. It’s not just a meal, it’s an event.
5. DO try everything.
This may one of the more universal tips, culturally speaking, but I cannot overemphasize how polite it is to graciously try every dish placed before you (barring any food allergies you may have). Usually the hosts spends a great deal of time preparing the meals, cooking items they probably rarely make for themselves (or have been saving for a special occasion). And who knows, maybe you’ll love congealed pig fat!
6. DON’T refuse alcohol when offered.
This might be a controversial one. But drinking and toasting are very important and common when guests are over. I’m not saying you should go crazy, but please accept the first drink. And if you do have serious concerns regarding alcohol (whether it be personal or health reasons), let your host know in advance.
7. DO offer to help the preparation of the meal or clean-up.
Some great conversations take place during the cooking and clearing of the meal. Because meals prepared at home are typically less formal, prepare to be treated like family.
8. DON’T announce your restroom breaks.
When getting up to go to the bathroom, just say “Excuse me.” Or “I’ll be right back.” Or just don’t say anything at all. On that note, keep any sort of bodily noises to a minimum -- no burping, passing gas, and so on. Your Russian friends won’t be as amused as some of your (less mature) American friends.
9. DON’T take an even number of flowers.
Taking flowers when visiting friends and acquaintances is always a great idea. Just be careful when it comes to the number of flowers -- no matter how many you take, make sure it's an odd number. Even numbers are used to signify grieving, and are given at a funeral or placed on a grave. (Another warning -- yellow flowers mean that you intend to break up with that person.)
10. DO be aware of a few cultural superstitions.
According to superstition, if you sit at the corner of the table you will not get married for seven years. Don’t shake hands in a doorway, it’s bad luck. Don’t whistle inside buildings. Women, don’t sit on the ground without anything underneath you. It’s superstitions that nobody really believes anymore, but are still followed out of habit (just try not saying anything after someone sneezes. You can’t help yourself.)
If you could make a list for those visiting the United States, what would like them to
know about our culture?
Tim Rhodes is an International Media Producer living in Atlanta, GA. He called Moscow, Russia his home from 2009 to 2011 - and yes, he will bring it up at any opportunity he can.