Sunday, October 4, 2009

It's official...

One element of cultural shock lies in the difference in what is regarded as professional, or official.

There are times when I notice something like a typo and think...we would never allow that to be publicized in the States. And at other times, if I am performing or presenting something for review, I realize that to the Russian eye I look ill-prepared, because I haven't used a format that is up to their standards.

The mark of the ink stamp is very highly valued in the Russian Federation. Visitors have their first encounter with this at passport control. When you hear the big STAMP! you know that everything is okay and you have passed inspection (a lot of countries stamp you at passport control, but in Russia especially this is a sign of things to come). +/-

In fact, it seems that anything that has a stamp on it is regarded as official. I have been amused upon noticing seemingly mundane announcements with an ink stamp. It seems a bit excessive.

Another reason it seems strange to me, I suppose, is that I am used to everything in my country being computerized. Handwritten signs are a thing of the past. When I see something written sloppily in a Russian hand, it seems unworthy of the accompanying stamp. In the past this may have been a question of technology, but computers are fairly widespread nowadays. It must be by habit that a Russian form may be printed out, only to have all the remaining information filled out by hand.

When I went to my first classes at the university, I met with the advisor and she took down all my information by hand in a little notebook with lines. Then she filled out my form by hand, which I then took to the general office so that they could complete my contract by hand, which will then be signed by several parties and stamped (I assume). And then I'll be official!

It is still a bit disconcerting to see grocery store prices written by hand. Not because I think I am being cheated, but because I wonder how they can keep track of everything if it isn't computerized.

This is not to say that Russians have bad hand-writing. It is, in fact, very beautiful, and whenever I have received letters, the handwriting has been evenly spaced with the help of pencil lines which are then erased. There is nothing wrong with the way it looks other than the association. Handwritten text is for primary school homework and personal notes. Everything else, if it is meant to look professional, should be typewritten. It's the mindset that is ingrained in me.

I suppose, the equivalent of the ink stamp in the U.S. is that everything look as far from hand-made as possible. If any text is to be displayed, it is typewritten about 90% of the time, with the rest being special artsy publications like a menu that changes daily.

There are some cases where it is the opposite. For example, homemade pastries are considered celebratory in the U.S., whereas in Russia it is the custom to buy an elaborate cake in a bakery for a special occasion. I used to make greeting cards, until I discovered that Russians often buy them...however, a perfunctory message (store-bought or not ) is not sufficient, and they write out long, flowery birthday wishes.

My roommate received an invitation to study in the U.S., and found it strange that the organization had used a form letter. She said that Russian officials prefer that a letter be more personalized, with more specific information. In both cases, attention to detail and precision are present. But they are evaluated by contrasting criteria.

I could probably think of a lot more examples, but hopefully that will suffice for now!


  1. V...................October 5, 2009 at 7:22 AM

    Russia hasn't changed much in the last 12 years. Wow. Pechat' has always been such a trademark of that wild country... Still is, I guess.

    I hope America will never become as bureaucratic as my motherland.

  2. V...................October 5, 2009 at 9:26 AM

    BTW, Liz, stop acting like a Russian person. Smile on your pics sometimes. Russians do not smile while taking pictures not because they can't. It's just not common. But if you are curious enough you will see that Russian DO smile on their pics. I am surprised you still have not picked on that after how many years there now??

    Do you watch the Russian music videos? Do you participate in the Russian night life style? They are not different from anything you can find here in the US. Or anywhere.

  3. V - it seems to me that you are wrong about Russian night life. I think Russians are

    much less inhibited (men in particular) and have much more fun. In the US most men do not like to dance, but I saw so many men having fun dancing there - and singing too! Here men seem to be embarrassed to sing.

    Also....I sure get the impression that Russians don't smile much in photos - official ones in particular. Our lawyer, who has been to the US a few times, would tell the orphanage personnel to smile because "in the US you smile in pictures". Actually, I think it is assenine to smile in pictures if there isn't any reason to. I wonder when Americans started doing that.

    Liz - such interesting observations! When a homemade thing is valued above a handmade thing is an interesting study.

    I almost wondered if the way things are done there is partly to keep a lot of people in work.

  4. Annie, I have definitely noticed that machines in the U.S. have replaced a lot of jobs that are held by people in Russia and elsewhere.

    I'm not smiling in my current passport photo, so I don't smile in subsequent photos, just to make it easier on the people checking me. I mean, I don't generally smile through the glass at passport it might be kind of inconsistent if I'm smiling in my photo. But honestly, I don't think it matters too much.

  5. V..................October 5, 2009 at 6:27 PM

    Annie, my good Catholic friend, how can I be wrong? I grew up there.

    Americans are notorious for their FAKE picture smiles. That's why Russians do not like taking pics with Americans. You fake your smiles. You are insensitized to that, the Russians are not. That's why they pretend smiling on the pics when they are with Americans.

    I had an American friend who actually loved mission work and Russia. Unfortunately, he died from a heart attack not too long ago. He earned the respect of the people in Russia because he was so genuine. People just loved him. He smiled on the pics and laughed till he cried - and it was all real. I knew it and everyone else knew it. Faking stuff is easy, but it will always be just that - a fake. What is real counts.

  6. There's nothing morally wrong with "fake" smiling for a photo. All you are trying to do is look nice or make a good memory, not make friends with the photographer!

  7. V...................October 9, 2009 at 9:54 AM

    Annie, honestly, I have no clue what you were trying to say. I think I get it, but maybe not. Keep in mind, you are looking at Russia as an American. You have biases that are pertained to your culture. Do not be quick to judge. I have lived in the US for 12 years now, still I think I can't get this country quite well (none of you can, by the way), how can you judge a country with a thousand year culture and such rich historical background? Doing that would be foolish. Most foreigners do not understand Russia and the Russians. Never will. Read Pushkin first to get it and to get what I am saying.


Just added word verification to reduce spam. Nothing personal!

You’re welcome to leave a link to your own blog here if it's relevant to this blog.

Please make sure that your comments are 1) relevant and 2) respectful (i.e. no cuss words, attacks on individuals).

5 years later

 After my latest  weird dream sequence , I found my mind wandering to an alternate scenario where our church never split up . I did the math...