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.
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