Heading to the World Cup?

Millions of people are descending on Russia for the FIFA World Cup, whether to watch the action or work at the tournament – and cultural behavior experts say it is vital to take time to understand how Russian culture works.

More than 2.5m tickets have been sold for the month-long tournament, which runs from June 14 to July 15, with 15,000 people involved in hosting it and 20,000 volunteers called in as support.

Some of the world’s biggest multi-national companies, many of them partners or sponsors of the tournament, will also send staff on assignment to the region to look after clients and host events during the tournament.

All will have a first-hand opportunity to experience the joys of visiting another culture – but also face some significant challenges.

Alyssa Bantle, cultural expert at Crown World Mobility, says it is vital to have an open mind.“ There’s no need to become fluent in Russian or to read War and Peace before you travel but you do need to bring your curiosity and a willingness to shift out of your cultural comfort zone,” she said. “Small shifts can make a huge difference in your experience in Russia and help prevent the kind of social and cultural faux pas that we see so often.

She adds, “It’s important to understand that cultural background has a big influence on behavior. Not just that of the people whose country you are visiting but also on your own behavior too. We see this a lot in big business when people work abroad or attend meetings overseas. They make too many assumptions and don’t take the time and care to listen and understand other people – and often end up either causing offence or failing to communicate effectively.”

Here are some ideas around small shifts you can make both as a fan or when travelling on business to understand Russian culture and enjoy a successful trip to the World Cup.

Communicating and connecting: holiday tips

Remember to approach each interaction with curiosity. Dos and Don’ts are great but they can only get you so far. There are cultural norms but each person and every interaction is unique.

  1.  Do not expect to strike up a conversation easily. Small talk is not the norm in Russia. Russians usually need time to build trust.
  2.  If you do want to interact with locals, you might consider staying at an Airbnb, or guesthouse. Hotels tend to be more formal. Another option is to hire a local guide.
  3. When you are having a conversation with Russians, be prepared for some personal and direct questions, such as asking how much you earn or why you do not have children. These types of questions allow Russians to get to know who you are and build trust. You can certainly answer or you can use a more indirect reply like, “I earn enough to take care of myself and my family.” Another approach is to openly share that you prefer not to answer since the question is considered quite personal in your culture – but that you would love to have a conversation with them about other things.
  4. Do not be offended if your friendly smile is not reciprocated. Russians tend to reserve smiling for people they know and trust or when it is a sincere reflection of how they are feeling.
  5. Make sure you learn some basic phrases and greetings – both familiar/casual ones like “Poka” (bye/so long) and the more formal ones like “Do svidaniya” (goodbye/’til we meet again). You can download an app, buy a book or take a few lessons in person or online.
  6. Use more formality than you usually would. In Russia, formality is a form of respect that is appreciated especially when interacting with strangers, officials and hotel staff. When in doubt, err on the side of formality. In other words, keep that funny comment to yourself when you are speaking with the Customs and Immigrations officer.

Communicating and connecting: working tips

Being on a work assignment or even a business trip allows more opportunities to establish a relationship through everyday contact and out-of-the-office entertainment.

  1. Never underestimate the power or role of relationships when working with Russians.
  2. Before judging the way something is done in Russia in a negative light, stop and ask yourself what you might be missing. And then use your curiosity to learn about how or why something is done in a certain way. Ksenia Gross, Regional Coordinator at Crown, works closely with assignees from around the world. As a Russian national living in Hong Kong, she advises: “In any intercultural interaction take a moment and try to see the whole picture. Embrace the things you don’t completely understand and be curious to ask questions. Respect the old ways of Russia. There is a lot to discover whether you are there for a matter of days, weeks or years.”
  3. Make an extra effort to get to know your Russian colleagues. Russians not only appreciate knowing their colleagues on a personal level, but need this more interpersonal focus in order build trust.
  4. Do not assume that your usual approach of brief chit-chat and then getting right down to business will be perceived positively. In Russia, employees spend more time chatting and connecting with each other.
  5. Do not ask a direct question assuming you will get a direct answer. In the Russian workplace, communication can often be quite indirect for many reasons, including factors such as hierarchy and seniority. Use your curiosity to ask more open-ended questions and get more information.


Finally, a few general suggestions help you make those small shifts, whatever your reason for visiting Russia:

  • Stay curious: observe and ask questions.
  • Know yourself:  the more you know about your own cultural comfort zone the better you can stretch beyond it.
  • Expect some mistakes and misunderstandings: it is part of the “journey”.
  • Assume positive intent.

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