One of my personal professional highlights of 2018 was working in Chelyabinsk, Russia in September. After dealing with the initial scepticism of people at home banging on about nerve agents and spies, I boarded my Aeroflot flight and left the fearmongering media coverage of the Kremlin and Novichok behind me. And the only bear I met in Russia was the cocoa design pattern on my cappuccino at Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport.
According to Dictionary.com “misinformation” has been named word of the year 2018. Remember that, people.
When you disembark a plane and are greeted at 4am by your host, who has got out of bed on a Sunday morning to meet you, you know that you are no longer in London! The warm all-encompassing glow of Russian collectivism, hospitality and Dusha (the Russian soul) embraced me on arrival and left deep imprints in my memory. It is a country that really gets under your skin. Hospitality and heartiness. Coming from the UK, our idea of offering a mug of tea and a digestive biscuit to guests, does not suffice in Russia where visitors are required to leave the country 3 kilos heavier than on arrival.
On return my case was bursting at the seams, full of boots designed and made in Chelyabinsk, beautiful contemporary jewellery, fine goat hair scarves, natural cosmetics from the Siberian Steppe and Latvian perfume – beats a boring fridge magnet any day!
Xplore Russia, a program set up by the University of Applied Sciences in Vorarlberg, Austria is a cross-cultural program with a difference. Even though the university attracts a high number of part-time students who are not able to spend a semester or year abroad, they are still expected to gain international experience as part of their International Business and Engineering programs. Currently students can choose between India and Russia, two of the BRICS countries, both of which are undergoing change at a fast pace.
The South Urals State University in Chelyabinsk, Russia’s eleventh largest city, hosted us between 3- 14 September 2018. Many of the students embarked the train from Moscow to Chelyabinsk, a Trans-Siberian delight, for many a highlight of the trip. In Chelyabinsk ten days were spent focusing on intercultural learning , developing intercultural competences and researching projects on intercultural themes in groups of mixed nationalities.
Project topics included a comparison of student life in the two countries, the impact of music on culture, and business career opportunities for foreigners in Russia. By working in mixed cultural project groups, the students gained much specialist knowledge but moreover, discovered many differences and similarities in both working and communication styles. This is learning that takes place beyond the textbook and outside of the classroom, which is unbeatable in terms of learning outcomes.
Shocks and surprises
Of course there are shocks and surprises on these trips. The Austrians were partially shocked by the state of the roads (myself less so with the UK’s pot-holed crazy paving). Another confirmation that our comparisons of culture are always different depending on where we come from. The Russian vodka stereotype was broken and generations are changing which needs to be considered more than ever in cross-cultural exploration. The Austrians and Russians formed great friendships and discovered that there are definitely similarities between the two countries, particularly in their humour and love of tradition.
Working in Russia – what you should know
So if Russia’s streets aren’t full of bears, vodka-swigging students and temperatures that never go above zero, what do you need to know about working with the Russians? Here are five things to consider:
- Collectivism – Although this is changing with the younger generation, if you are from a more individualist culture like the UK or Germany, remember that in Russia it’s the collective that counts. Your host will spend a lot of time with you, escorting you everywhere and it is seen as a bit strange if you want to go at it alone. To build trust it’s a good idea to embrace the collective.
- Respect your elders – Most Russians have a high take on power structures and emphasize recognition of power and status of different individuals. It’s always good to sharpen your observational skills here and pay attention to seating arrangements or speaking turns. You might also find that staff do not take initiative at work as they consider the boss to know best and will wait for instructions from them. The use of patronymic (father’s name) is expected when you address an older person or a person, higher than in you in hierarchy. This can be quite a challenge at first when you are trying to grasp different sounding names.
- Druzhba (friendship) – Friendship plays an important role in the life of any Russian. There are many reasons why this is so – maybe people are forced to rely on informal relationships to achieve their goals. Some people think has a connection to the Stalinist past, which made friendship a lovingly earned deed, rather than a form of giving: in a society where relatives informed on each other, an ultimate and real friend was a person who did not betray you. Closest friends are made at school or university – having shared memories is seen as being priceless and an inherent part of friendship.
- High-context communication– Many Russians are masters of high-context communication style (it’s not just what is being said) and they pay specific attention to metaphors, non-verbal cues, and clever language. That’s why sometimes you’ll find your contacts speak for 15 minutes where you’d think five minutes would have been enough and that’s why you’ll need to watch out for misunderstandings of symbolic clues.
- Women– In Russia, distinct gender roles still exist. Men are expected to act gallantly – offering a hand to woman getting off of a bus, opening car doors, assisting with heavy lifting. This can be disconcerting as in Russia it has nothing to do with a lack of feminism in the country. Their women are strong, contributing a lot to the professional world but most Russian men just believe that lending a hand is a simple act of politeness.
The Russian mindset is quite complex to understand if you come from a culture that has a smiley public persona. Russians devote smiling to their friends and family members. In fact Russians have a saying, “To smile with no reason, is a sign of a fool.” Smiling in a serious context for example at work or at school is not typical but should not be interpreted as being unfriendly. As in all cultures there is a time and place for everything – and figuring this out is the baseline of any intercultural learning.
What the students say
“I think the most important thing I have learned during our trip was that you will meet great and warm hearty people everywhere in the world, if you dare to open up yourself and be curious to experience new things.”
Peter Gantner, student, Vorarlberg
“I am so lucky to work with my team. I was interested to study about our topic, including the position of the two countries. This opportunity gave me more information to explore. For me, this project has become an invaluable experience of communication with people from another country and culture. This is very useful not only for my future profession, but also for my life. I got good language practice and new communication skills. Besides, I met very good people and had great time. So, I can tell that if I had a chance to join this project again in the future I would be more than glad to take part again.”
Anna Selivanova, student, Chelyabinsk
About the author: Vanessa is an experienced intercultural trainer and coach. After living in Austria for many years, she’s now back in the UK and is passionate about accompanying professionals and their families through the relocation and repatriation process.
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