Saturday, October 18, 2008

In search of taboos

My beginner students requested conversation etiquette, so I decided to teach a class on appropriate/inappropriate conversation topics. We had done this in Russian class, but I don’t know where my textbook is that had that lesson, so I had to make my own.

Of course I was speaking from an American point of view, but if they have to speak with British partners, they will certainly need to be mindful of conversation topics. I’m not sure about Italians, who visit the company often.

There are certain topics I listed that are considered too personal in American culture, but that aren’t as rude in Russian culture:

-asking a woman’s age
-commenting on someone’s weight (I’ve been told that I’ve lost weight as well as gained weight. Thanks for telling me, I hadn’t noticed)
-asking someone how much he/she earns or how much he/she pays for rent
-complaining about something/offering your opinion or advice if you haven’t been asked

Unfortunately I only had one student, so the discussion wasn’t quite as lively as I had envisioned! She said that the above topics wouldn’t be appropriate in a business relationship, but were okay between friends. She also said that you can talk about anything in the kitchen.:)

We also mentioned religion and politics as topics to be careful with. As for taboos, the only one she could think of was talking about death.

It is only now that I’m realizing that apart from conversation topics, there are a lot of non-verbal customs in Russia. Perhaps that should be my next lesson, although I can’t think of many for the U.S... Shaking hands? Personal space? Putting your napkin on your lap?

Russian taboos are strongly tied to superstition. The explanation behind most of these traditions is: “It’s bad luck.”

-not whistling indoors (Russian reason: you’ll lose money. U.S. reason: it’s annoying)
-taking your shoes off indoors (Russian reason: something about icons. U.S. reason: you’ll get your host’s floor dirty)
-not sitting on cold surfaces if you’re a woman (Russian reason: something about health and fertility. U.S. reason: ?? we don’t care??)
-not giving baby presents before the baby is born (Russian reason: it’s bad luck. U.S.: taboo doesn’t exist, we love baby showers!)
-not congratulating someone before his birthday (Russian reason: it’s bad luck. U.S.: celebrate whenever you see the person, on the day closest to his birthday)
-number of flowers you give to someone (Russian: must be odd. U.S.: ?? how does this relate to anything? 1 dozen roses will cheer anyone up!)
-response when someone sneezes (Russian: Be healthy! How does that help anything? As if the person can control his/her health. If he’s sneezing, it’s probably too late. U.S.: God Bless You. Is it superstitious or sincere? At least it will help if the person is already sick!)
-knocking on wood whenever you say something that you hope will either continue to be true or come true in the future (Russian: deafen the gods so they don’t hear and ruin everything for you. U.S.: “Knock on wood” said in passing, but not strictly enforced)

I try to adhere to the customs in public so as not to draw attention to myself, but with friends I am less cooperative. Why should I encourage superstition? It’s silly. Why should I avoid cold surfaces if my feet hurt and I need to sit down (here the Russians offer a newspaper or plastic bag to provide insulation, no thank you!)? I need logic!

Just as in the U.S., times are changing and Russians are superstitious in varying amounts. But, it is still a major part of the culture.


  1. This is absolutely well put! I love it...I might put it on my blog as well some time! I had no idea about the shoes...the Russians we are with do it because of the dirt.

  2. Very interesting and enlightening. Thanks for putting it on your blog.

  3. Liza,

    Please, stop bashing Russia. Look, I have been in the US for over 11 years now. You seem to be like a person who have lived a very sheltered life here in the US. If you'd go to the hillbilly country of West Virginia or a lrge city of any US state or interact with people of non-religious background anywhere in the US, you'd see that they have the same hang-ups as anyone else in any given country. There's absolutely no difference.

    I am sorry for saying that you should stop bashing Russia, but I am asking you not to do that. It only shows your lack of understanding of the global world.

    I worked with the US Christians in Russia and have been interacting with them in the US long enough to know that they need to mature rather quickly if they want to work on a mission field.

    When you live on a farm land 10 mi. away from anything that may may make you feel uncomfortable and your next neightbor lives 3 mi. away from you, how do you expect to come to a secular, densely populated country and not to be shocked at virtually everything. But you see, it is not their problem. It is yours.

    And please, do not say, I am reading too much into your post. You say these controversial things and when I give you an acutal reply - oops! it becomes bad.

  4. That's our controversial Elizabeth!

    Actually, I hadn't really seen these things as bad....maybe because I think everything Russian is wonderful??? Or perhaps because I have the "American" view of supersitition, that it is not "real" but just a sort of game (i.e. tooth fairy, Santa, etc.) You pretend you believe.

    Taking ones shoes off before the icons is lovely, but I was told it was so as to keep the floor clean in a culture where few have vacuums.

    Someone told me about the baby gifts - I'd forgotten that!

    Do people really count the flowers? Surely not! In the US we do have "talk" of certain flowers meaning certain things. Or, certain gifts being "right" for certain anniversaries... Again, I just figure that's all for "fun".

    I had a Spanish man come up to me and say "You've gained weight, haven't you?" And then expect an answer! I used a reply I borrowed from Miss Manners, "Why do you ask?" Unfortunately this response did not work to quell his personal comments. He said, "Because you look fatter, that's why!"

  5. This topic has been analyzed to death, so I can't claim originality, but I do think it is interesting.

    Vitali, you're right, I may have been too negative. I'm sorry for offending you. I try to keep a positive attitude, but I also try to be honest about my reactions to various cultural contrasts. I think it's healthy to discuss them once in a while. Once in a while I have mentioned cultural things on my blog and Russians have explained something graciously or corrected me, and it's very helpful.

    As for missionaries, they're not perfect and a lot of the maturity only comes through experience. There is only so much you can learn sitting in the "shelter" of home or in some kind of "training."

    Annie, thanks for the positive comments. I didn't really mean that the traditions are bad, they just seem illogical sometimes. But there are many wonderful things in life that are illogical.


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