FLOWER ETIQUETTE, SUPERSTITIONS, AND 11 OTHER THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT RUSSIA
You don't really understand your homeland and culture until you have lived abroad. It is not so much about comparing two or more places but rather about learning to talk to others about what home is like. Getting an outsider's perspective oftentimes gives you a different taste of what you consider the everyday. And you don't even get to truly embrace it until you come back one day and have another fresh look around. So has been my experience since I left Russia: a series of epiphanies, self-discoveries, and certainly a better sense of self-irony. Whether you are thinking of taking the Trans-Siberian, browsing through www.RussianBrides.com or just feeding the curious mind, there are some things you might want to know about that vast mass of land and people who happen to inhabit it. Because, you know, there is more to Russia than matryoshkas, balalaikas, and pet bears.
1. FLOWERS ARE GIVEN IN ODD NUMBERS
If you ever happen to give flowers to a Russian person, make sure it is an odd number. Flowers in even numbers are reserved ONLY for grieving, funerals, and cemeteries. Also, some say that yellow flowers signify a breakup, so the florist might advise against choosing a yellow bouquet (but a mix-coloured bouquet is fine). Flower-giving is welcome all year round and not confined to special occasions.
2. "YES, NO, MAYBE" IS A LEGITIMATE ANSWER
"Yes no" (da net) and "yes no, maybe" (da net, navernoe) are legitimate answers to a question and basically mean "no". They are both soft negations though, with the latter leaving at least some room for the possibility (something along the lines of, "I am not too sure yet, but likely it’s going to be a no”). But it is not all that weird: da can also be used as a filler word so sometimes it comes up at the beginning of a phrase for no reason whatsoever.
3. TWO WAYS TO BE RUSSIAN
Speaking of language, it is important to notice that the word "Russian" can be translated as Russkiy (Russian by ethnicity) and Rossiyskiy (Russian by citizenship). The two are not exactly synonymous: in a country with more than 150 ethnic groups, you can never assume one's background so it is okay to ask about it. Additionally, while Russian is the only official language at the national level, there are another 36 languages that are co-official in various regions.
4. ")", ")))", "))))))" ARE JUST EMOTICONS
For some strange reason, Russians usually shorten a regular ":)" smiley to a single or multiple parentheses. Perhaps it is just plain laziness, although the number of parentheses also plays a role. According to a few people I asked and these Quora users, the more ))), the smilier/happier/cheekier the poster feels.
5. A DARKER SENSE OF HUMOUR
If you have read my blog post on the gloomy nature of our nation, you probably will not be surprised that people there tend to have a rather dark and sarcastic sense of humour. Joking about misfortune, making fun of themselves, their country, and the rest of the world as well as picking on one another is just what helps us get through the day. When everything crumbles, what else is there to do?
6. HOSPITALITY ETIQUETTE
Russians have quite a few rules when it comes to hospitality and this is something people take pretty seriously. Friends and family often drop by for a cup of tea/coffee without a special invitation and on a short notice, although where there is one cup there are another 10 following. If you are lucky enough to be invited over to someone's place, do not expect to stay just for a short bit either. Chances are, the host and their entire house will go on a feast mode which involves but not limited to eating - and often drinking - till you drop. Do not turn the offer down unless you can come up with a strong reason or the host will take it personally. Just remember that:
- Guests never come empty handed. Some cookies, chocolate or a bottle of wine will do for a casual visit
- Removing your shoes is customary
- Toasting with others is an integral part of the process
7. IT IS "ZA ZDOROVJE"
Thanks to the Hollywood movies (or wherever else this mistake came from), many people insist on saying "you are welcome" (na zdorovje) instead of "to [good] health" (za zdorovje) when cheering in Russian. Please stop. In fact, you only drink to good health once, following by love (za lubov'), success (za uspekh, family (za semju), and so on in no particular order. The list is endless. Elaborate, meaningful toasting is a big and respected tradition, so expect your Russian hosts to tell an anecdote before clinking glasses with others numerous times throughout the evening. If your head is a little too heavy the next morning from all the cheering, just ask for some brine, Russia's go-to hangover remedy.
8. WE LOVE TEA... BUT NOT THE WAY YOU DO
Russia is one of the five most tea-appreciating nations in the world: we drink about 1,4 kg of tea per person per year. That's a lot of tea parties! And indeed, drinking tea is a social activity where people sit down to catch up on news and gossip or talk about things (the more abstract the better). Another interesting fact is, that back in the day we did not use pots but samovars: traditional metal kettles that keep water hot. Black tea is still the most popular type, but there is a twist: you drink it with lemon, homemade jam, condensed milk or honey. And all the while tea is always served with snacks like pies, pancakes, pastries, and sweets. So even though tea does not make up a meal of its own, it might kind of look like one.
9. TIME IS FLUID
You might be getting this idea by now, but the Russian understanding of time is somewhat lax. Unlike Western Europeans' precision when it comes to plans and timing, Russians prefer to be more flexible and go with the flow. So it is completely accepted to call someone for a last-minute meeting, but scheduling an appointment a month in advance sounds like a strange idea. I find this a bit ironic considering that our ancestors sure must have prepared themselves for winter and then planned sowing and harvesting... Anyway, even the anthropologist Edward Hall described Russia as a polychronic society: that is, human interaction is valued over time and material things. There is less concern for time management, but relationships are highly important. Example: if someone cancels on you, they won't just say "I can't make to our meeting" because that feels rude. Instead, they will try to explain why exactly they can't make it anymore, so you know that they aren't just being flaky (even if they actually are).
This approach stems from the general fatalism that is so characteristic of Russian mentality. There is always this idea that you just can never be absolutely confident that a certain event will take place because many external factors might come into play. On the other hand, it could be a lack of value of your own time - and of others' time too. In Russia, time doesn't quite equal money.
10. TWO NEW YEAR'S AND A DELAYED CHRISTMAS
New Year's has been our biggest holiday/party/feast of the year since the USSR times, when the state promoted the elimination of religion. Even though Christmas is back on our official holiday calendar, it is mainly a religious event and if people celebrate it, it is low-key. What you probably do not know is our Christmas falls on January 7th as the Russian Orthodox Church follows the old Julian calendar. Finally, there is Old New Year's on January 13th- another reference to the Julian calendar. Russia did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1918 so now we enjoy two New Year's (the second being unofficial) because why the hell not!
11. PACKS ON THE CHEEK
Giving 3 kisses on the cheeks is practised in several European countries, Russia being one of them. However, we normally do not kiss strangers and acquaintances - it is reserved for close friends and family.
12. A SPECIAL LOVE FOR THE BIRCH
The birch is often referred to as one of Russia's poetic symbols and has a very dear place in its culture. This tree is so prominent in art, literature, and music that some artists claim it embodies the very Russian soul and protects it from bad spirits. Apart from sublime characteristics, birches were also useful in the household: for instance, they make a great material for writing paper, roofs, sauna brooms, and even shoes among other things. Birch sap was a popular beverage and an ingredient in food/drinks as well. One tree can produce between 5-15 litres a day, but it must be collected in late winter or early spring when it is sweet-ish. No wonder folks worshipped it so much!
When meeting someone at the front door, never shake hands in the doorframe - wait until inside. If returning home for forgotten things, one should look in the mirror before leaving the house again as it is considered a bad omen. Leaving purses and bags on the floor is also a bad omen. So is seeing a black cat cross your way. But tripping on your left foot is good luck. And that's not even 1/20th of it! Russians are very superstitious and there are so many rituals people still follow that it is surprising we manage to send spaceships to the orbit all the while, really.