Whether you’re traveling to Russia for business, or just staying at a Russian person’s house, it’s always important to communicate well with the Russian people around you (otherwise they may be rude to you forever). Body language plays a huge role in Russian communication, and there are some Western body language habits that Russians consider quite rude. Here is a guide to effective body language in Russia:
A handshake is appropriate. Although you may see Russian women kissing each others’ cheeks and Russian men embracing each other, and a combination of both, with people you don’t know, it’s always best and most appropriate to stick with a handshake. Make confident eye contact along with a firm handshake, both as a greeting and as a farewell. Do not, however, shake hands over a threshold; this is considered to bring bad luck in Russia.
Don’t make the OK sign. You’ve probably heard this one before: in some countries, making a circle with the tip of your thumb and index finger is considered rude. Russia is one of these countries. It’s not a terrible offense, but nobody will understand what you are trying to say, so if you’re looking for a sign of approval or reassurance, a thumbs-up is probably a better way to go (if you need to use any hand gestures at all, although I would suggest staying away).
Don’t make a “fig”. A “fig” (or “figa” or “shish” as it’s called in Russian) is another hand gesture. This one is made by putting your thumb between your middle and index fingers with the rest of your hand in a fist. Again, this is not a cardinal sin – its meaning is akin to that of a mild swear word and it’s often used by children in an argument. However, it is at its origin a quite rude phallic symbol, and anyway, ‘swear words’ and ‘childish’ are probably not concepts you are trying to get across to your Russian conversation partner. So if you’re tempted to show this sign for whatever reason, e.g. playing “got your nose!” with a child, I would suggest not to if you want to be taken seriously.
Don’t stand too far away. Russian people tend to stand closer to each other during conversation than people in Western countries. This does not mean you should be an inch away from their face, but it means that the polite distance is a bit shorter in Russia than what you’re probably used to (i.e. as far away as possible). Stand a bit closer than you normally would if you’re talking to a Russian person and want to appear personable; otherwise you may come across as cold or uninterested.
Don’t keep your hands in your pockets. The following four statements are things your mother and grandmother probably told you growing up, but they are taken seriously in Russia. Walking around with your hands in your pockets is considered sloppy, so if you are in a business setting, keep your hands where we can see them.
Don’t slouch. Likewise, slouching is seen as a sign of rudeness and incompetency in a social Russian setting, so straighten your shoulders if you want to be taken seriously. Of course this makes sense in countries other than Russia, but it’s especially true here.
Put on your best face. By this I mean that if you’re in Russia for business or any important meeting, you mustn’t just focus on not looking like a slob. You need to try your best to look perfect. You may think I’m joking, but you will soon see that in every office, practically every single person is dressed in perfectly clean and neat clothes, with their hair (and makeup, if applicable), perfectly done. Women especially need to worry about always looking their best. Appearance is extremely important to Russians, more so even than in the West, so if you look at all disheveled, you will lose respect points quickly!
Don’t put your shoes on the seats. Another thing your mother probably told you, but in Russia it’s considered rude and could even get you in trouble, or at least shouted at by someone. Keep your feet off seats everywhere in Russia.