How to understand Russian business talk

The Russian communication style is relationship-oriented. Personal feelings always take precedence over factual information. This is why many Russians tend to communicate in a more diplomatic manner. Not everything is stated clearly and unambiguously. Don’t expect plain speaking. Any direct, rational and fact-oriented communication seems confrontational and even hurtful or arrogant to Russians..

Is it just a question of interpretation?

In Russia, you have to read between the lines and know what the context is as well as get any additional information yourself. Further information is often exchanged on an informal basis. Such indirect and subtle communication offers much room for interpretation.

By the same token, Russians tend to read hidden meanings into what their counterparts say. This is a source of frequent misunderstandings. “Have I understood everything correctly and have I been understood correctly?” is an important question for newcomers to Russia to ask themselves. If something is not clear or requires further explanation, you should ask explicitly for clarification. Russians will not ask questions of their own accord, so it will be useful to do the asking.
Only younger business people with international experience and a good command of English have become accustomed to a more factual, direct style of communication.

Different ways of communicating are based on different ways of thinking

Different ways of communication are based on different ways of thinking and organizing. German-speaking business people, for example, prefer to calculate everything precisely and in detail. They think and communicate more in facts and figures. Russian managers plan more conceptually and express themselves in general terms: “The market opportunities are huge. You can sell large quantities.” The Russian accounting system also works in the same way. Overhead costs are high and only a few concrete cost centers are split up.

Using small talk as a roundabout approach to get a large order

Russians are generally very communicative and will confide their life history and philosophy to total strangers. Opportunities to do so are plenty, e.g. on long flights and train journeys. This is where many business contacts are made. Where did Anna Karenina meet her later lover Wronskij? On the train.

Small talk is hugely important in Russia. This casual yet content-rich and entertaining conversation seems to be a waste of time for many newcomers. However, it is essential that you adapt to the customs of a relationship culture: small talk is an important building block for sustainable business partnerships. People want to get to know their associates on a personal level as well so that they can assess the basis of the relationship. How else could you trust each other in business?

“Talk” away practical problems

In everyday Russian life, personal conversations open hearts and inspire a willingness to help. Many practical problems can be solved in this way. “Talking will get you as far as Kiev” is a well-known Russian proverb – that is, to the center of the first East Slavic empire, the Kiev Rus (from the 9th century). During my last trip to Russia, chatting with a Russian passenger while waiting at the check-in counter served to solve my excess baggage problem. Circumventing unpopular bureaucratic rules with evasive tactics is seen as a charitable deed in Russia. In this case we simply formed a “baggage community”, checked in our three suitcases together and therefore dropped below the upper kilo limit per passenger.

Suitable topics for small talk in business are general political topics, the history of your company, travel, family and children (!), sports and culture. What’s new in the theatre, in the cinema, on the book market? Most Russians are very interested in culture.

You should avoid addressing Russia’s concrete political problems. Russians criticize their country among themselves, but not in front of or with foreigners. Sex, religion and health are not talked about either. And if you think that talking about the weather is small talk, you will be seen as having nothing to say.

Sniffing out agreement and opposition

“Da” in Russian translates to “yes” in English. However, it may only mean that your counterpart has taken note of the facts. If you hear: “Vsjo v parjádke” – “Everything is fine”, “Vsjo búdet” – “Everything will be fine” or “Pasmótrim” – “Let’s see”, it could well be an indication of agreement. However, these answers sometimes only serve to reassure the questioner and express dispassionate conviction that all problems will somehow be solved – which in fact is usually turns out to be the case.

As far as possible, Russians will avoid saying “no” directly. Keeping a good business relationship is more important than objective but confrontational argumentation. In Russia, the factual and relational levels are always closely linked. It is therefore more effective to use the “yes, but strategy” and put forward arguments as to why a matter might prove difficult: “Pasmótrim, no…” – “We will see, but…”. It is better to avoid a definite “njet” (“no”).

There is no such thing as purely factual criticism in Russia

Constructive criticism, which focuses only on the thing and not on the person, has not yet established itself in Russian business culture. For fear of jeopardizing the personal relationship with a colleague or business partner, people tend to refrain from criticizing. If anything is said at all, it is only expressed in private so that person who is criticized will not lose face.

Russians take criticism not in an objective but in a personal way. They feel personally targeted, even if they won’t show it. Saying ”This isn’t directed against you personally” may be a mitigating remark elsewhere, in Russia, however, it will more likely reinforce the negative effect of the criticism. The human side of things always takes precedence over the business side. There is therefore no real constructive criticism. Voicing criticism is therefore never the way to solve problems or make improvements.

My Russian training participants seldom comment on anything on the feedback forms I distribute. And under the heading “Suggestions and requests” they usually switch from the factual to the relational level and wish me luck, health and success for the future.

Dr. Heidrun Igra

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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