Cultural Differences – Russia

When establishing business relations in Russia for the first time, contacting potential business partners can be the first major hurdle. In Russia, personal contact is preferred. Just writing is perceived as too impersonal and dispassionate. Russians expect to best assess their interlocutors by meeting face to face. For this reason alone, faxes and e-mails often are not responded to. If Westeners assume that things are the same as in their own culture, they will be operating according to their initial preconception: How can you do business with Russians if they don’t even react to proposals for collaboration? On the other hand, Russians feel that their Western contacts have no real interest in the matter if they just send an impersonal letter.

First meeting

Once this hurdle has been cleared and a first meeting is on the table, you should pay attention to the proper greeting form in Russia. Shaking hands is common in Russia. However, you don’t usually shake hands with Russian women; you should restrict yourself to a verbal greeting and/or a nod of the head. In business circles, this rule is already somewhat on the wane though. To be on the safe side, just wait and see if the woman takes the initiative herself. If she doesn’t offer her hand, just let it go. Most Russian women find it unpleasant to shake hands.

Negotiate informally

In order to achieve success in negotiations with Russians, you must first understand Russian logic. Let me give you a brief example: If a German or US businessman is picked up from the airport in a Russian city, he will most likely assume that negotiations will take place straight away. He will be surprised when the car suddenly turns into a small forest on the outskirts of the city. The Russian business partners have prepared a sumptuous picnic. Before things get down to business, toasts will be made to the new friendship.

Special features of the Russian mentality

Russia is defined by communication experts as a country with a high-context culture. Close business connections are established only after the entire context of the business is known. The most important task in this context is to assess the partner’s social status, their potential, relationships, motivations and the seriousness of their project. And there is all the time in the world for that.

Even the obligatory vodka can play an important role – it is used as a way for the foreign business partner to relax in an informal atmosphere. As the Russian saying goes: “What the sober man thinks, the drunk man says”. Although such rituals are more likely to occur in the Russian provinces than in large metropolises, the basic principle remains the same: Personal relationships must be established before you get down to business.

“What are lectures and presentations for? He should have gotten to know me as a human being.” Russian business people are very quickly disappointed with the sober objectivity of their Western business partners…

Flowing communication

While many foreign business people can’t understand what a banquet table in the middle of an important negotiation is about, their Russian counterparts are struggling with how the other side can present their proposals so openly without and preamble to them. They suspect that only a treacherous negotiation strategy can be behind this type of behavior and withdraw for safety’s sake.

In ongoing negotiations and projects, Western managers should also be aware that in Russia information is often provided verbally – informally, unsystematically and often simply by the way. Managers from business cultures who prefer a clearer, more direct and explicit communication style must therefore always be attentive and independently combine what has been said to form an overall picture.

You should therefore always take your time when negotiating and working with Russians. Priority is always given to good interpersonal relations to ensure that information can flow freely. To this end, there are numerous invitations and informal meetings at which business moves forward step by step.

Watch and learn

Managers from abroad who assume that their cultural standards, values and practices are in line with current standards in Russia are not necessarily doomed to failure. However, they and their Russian business partners will be in for quite a few misunderstandings and disappointments. Those who are always prepared to be open and sensitive to the Russian mentality and culture will certainly achieve success. What is one of the golden rules of cross-cultural communication? “Never stop watching and learning!”

Dr. Daria Boll-Palievskaya

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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