How do Russians interact with each other on the streets and in everyday life? Do you need to tip when you’re in a Russian restaurant? How do line-ups work? When traveling to Russia, it’s good to keep in mind how the country is similar to -- and different from -- Western countries. Check out this guide to help you stick out less as a tourist!
The first time I visited Russia after 8 years in Canada, I thought that Russians in Russia must be very depressed. The reason I thought this is because they do not smile at strangers – on the streets, in the metro, in the store or anywhere else. However, this does not mean they are unhappy.
The reason Russians don’t smile at each other on the streets is because smiling is generally considered to be something to be shared with a friend. Smiling at a stranger is considered to be an “Americanism” and is assumed to be insincere. Even Russian waiters and store clerks will usually not smile at you. Don’t be afraid – and don’t walk around grinning at everybody, either.
Don’t smile at strangers on the metro. In fact, Russian people tend to avoid eye contact with other people on the Metro in general. Reading a book or listening to music is perfectly appropriate. Do not give money to every beggar that you see (there are a lot of them). Watch your bag very closely – there are many pickpockets and your phone and wallet are prime targets. In general, observe what everyone else is doing and follow suit (and read my survival guide to the Moscow metro).
The Metro Seat Hierarchy
Your seat is offered to: elderly women, pregnant women, women in general (if you are male). Children are expected to be able to stand.
Russians are not typically very respectful of line-ups (queues) for public transit, market stalls and the like. Be prepared for old ladies to push you out of the way. This isn’t just a stereotype – in Russia, respect for the older people in society still very much exists and older people expect to be treated accordingly. So if the proverbial old lady with a wheely cart pushes her way in front of you in line – relax! This is normal, expected, and nobody will stand up for you if you complain.
If you know any Russian at all, try to open with it if you’re approaching someone to ask them a question. At least try to memorize the words “Do you speak English?” - see other useful vocabulary here.
Although common sense would tell you to approach store clerks and other customer service agents, unless they’re at a tourist information desk, these people are actually quite unlikely to speak English. Instead, look for young adults, aged about 20-35, and you should find someone who speaks English at least a little bit.
Russian men are very chivalrous. If you are a woman traveling to Russia, expect men to offer you their seat on the metro, open doors, offer you a hand to help you step down from the bus, and carry anything that is not your handbag for you. If you are out with Russian men, they will almost always pay for you, even if you are not in any way romantically involved. If you are a male traveling to Russia, note that this kind of chivalry is expected of you as well!
Tipping is a very new concept in Russia, but it is slowly becoming (kind of) expected. It’s not at all like in many other Western countries, though. Unless you’re at an extremely expensive restaurant, a 10% tip is appropriate and anything higher is nice but not expected. It is usually not necessary to tip during a "business lunch".