As we can’t deny Russian hospitality, we can say that it’s very common to be invited by Russians in their home! As a foreigner, it’s not always easy to know what you should do and what might offend your host. Of course because you are a foreigner they will be much more understandable towards your inappropriate behaviour when the case! But if you get to respect the local traditions and habits, it’s way better. In order to do that, I did my best to list a maximum of rules and traditions it’s good to apply when you are invited as well as when you invite Russians.
I’ll try to list everything in a logical order, from your arrival to your departure! First of all and like in many countries, it’s better to bring a gift (flowers, wine, chocolate …). Once you arrived at the door, you knock of course, but then you must be careful to not shake hands in the doorway, you must first enter and only then you can kiss or shake hands with your host. When you invite Russians it’s the same, invite them to enter before saying hello. And in most cases, you will have to take off your shoes, don’t make them ask you!
Once inside, you will be offered to sit in the dining room (or often in the living room or the kitchen since most of the flats/houses are not big enough to have a dining room) if you come for lunch or dinner, otherwise in most cases you will be offered a cup of tea. It’s not very polite to refuse the drink, but you can ask for something else. Especially in Moscow, you can ask for a coffee as it’s becoming very popular, if you really don’t like coffee and tea you still can ask for a juice. But keep in mind that drinking tea in Russia is a “must do” (unfortunately for me)! And you never drink tea alone, there are always small cakes or candies to go with it, if you have guests, buy some (and don’t forget like me!).
If you come for a meal, you’ll realize that all the “закуски” are already set on the table. It’s all kind of appetizers and cold dishes such as ham, sausage, salads, caviar (red) … . If you have Russian guests home it’s good to do the same, bring every cold dishes at once. Warm dishes will come one after another (soup, fish or meat). Concerning cheese (I’m French!), it will always come as an appetizer, never like in France between the main dish and the desert. If you need bread to go with your cheese, you should cut it facing you, if you cut it the other way, you will make wealth go away! (I’m not sure it’s like that everywhere in Russia but it does exist).
During the meal, you’ll realize soon enough that drinking alcohol can be a big part of it, even if habits already tend to change, drinking vodka during the whole dinner is still very common. And for foreigners very hard!! Wine is becoming popular but it’s more expensive and not always of quality so vodka is still N°1. The first rule to fulfil when you are with Russians is that someone has to give a toast each time the group drinks. And when we say drink, for vodka, it means to clean your glass!! The toast must be for something (French-Russian friendship for example) or someone and the third one is always for all the women that are around the table. The tradition also wants that when someone’s late, he has to drink a “penalty drink”, usually a full shot of vodka, to keep up with the others! Each time there is a toast, you “need” to drink your glass, it can’t be one time you drink and the next time not anymore. If you don’t want to drink alcohol it’s possible, but it should be from the beginning to the end. If you drink only for part of the toasts, there is a great risk that you will hurt the persons who did a toast where you didn’t drink.
Some other rules to respect are that when a bottle is empty you should take it off the table and of course replace it with a new one! As well, you should never pour alcohol in your own glass, someone has to do it for you. Finally, when you pour a drink you should always do it your hand turned inward, to do it with your hand turned outward is like a gesture of denial discordant with the symbolical gesture of pouring a glass.
Regarding other Russian traditions, we can mention the fact that you shouldn’t whistle inside a house, otherwise there won’t be any money ; you shouldn’t open your umbrella inside the house and you should never wish in advance someone’s birthday or any other celebration, it brings bad luck. So for example, if it’s your friend’s birthday tomorrow and that you have to leave somewhere today for several days, don’t call him to wish him a happy birthday one day before. Finally I identified two more traditions, less applied but interesting to know. When some guests or family members leave for a long trip, everyone seats two-three minutes in front of the door, inside, chat and say goodbye in order to bring luck for the trip. At last, when you go out and you come back immediately inside the house because you forgot something, you have to look in the mirror.
I almost forgot one of the most important traditions in Russia, gallantry. It’s very common to see a man open the door for a woman, offer his seat in the metro and hold the door, or to greet a woman by kissing her hand. And without speaking about offering flowers!! (Always an impair number).
I guess there are many other traditions in Russia, I shared the one I know regarding the house and the meal. If you know any other habits and traditions do not hesitate to share them in the comments!! And if you like my papers, do not hesitate to click on the Google+1 button and to share them, thanks!
French version: http://regards-sur-la-russie.blogspot.com/2011/06/ce-quil-faut-faire-ou-ne-pas-faire.html