02 February 2009

Mysterious Russian Behavior

After nearly nine years in St Petersburg, and lots of cross cultural experience, I am still lost about a significant Russian behavior.

I grew up in a Scottish American family where I heard more talk about George VI than Truman. Born in New Jersey, I studied during the early sixties in the South, travelled in Europe and Mexico, and lived with many ethnic and economic types while a sailor.

Why are Russians you meet on a casual basis often cold, unresponsive, and, yes, rude? Usually, people walk with a blank expression or frown... a slightly unpleasant look. If you smile at other pedestrians they think you are crazy.

In America I enjoyed greeting a woman walking her dog... "Madam, that`s a wonderful dog you have!" and, regardless of how ugly and mangy the dog, the woman usually responded with a happy conversation about her puppy! In Russia when I say something similar people often make NO response.

The other day I was at our Seasons supermarket. As a durok (idiot) I forgot to get a tomato weighed before getting in line. The cashier ignored my question as to what to do, and after getting it weighed... stupid move on my part... she chose to yell at me even though I had apologized for slowing the checkout.

I fell recently, and after struggling to get my cap back on, told a lady to be careful of the ice under the snow. She kept walking, didn`t inquire as to whether I was all right, and didn`t acknowledge I had kindly thought about her safety.

In America I enjoyed learning the names of people at the supermarket, post office, and restaurant. They remembered my name when I returned, which made me feel good. People in Russia don`t believe they need this social interaction and think of it as insincere.

It`s true that Americans can overdo positive public behavior, such as the inappropriate smile of Condoleezza Rice at the Kremlin. Still, I miss the public cheerfulness and kindness found in much of the West, but also realize that it sometimes lacks sincerity. Russians are more likely to ignore or be brutally direct when dealing with people in public.

This aloof behavior in Russian can add to individual loneliness and depression. Next lets look at some of the historical reasons for this cold unpleasant public response, which I will call The Missing Samaritan.


  1. I love your posts . Very interesting to see an American's perspective while living in Russia!!

  2. Greetings Buffygrrl214,

    I was pleased to read your comment, but somehow I now realized I never responded. My apologies!

    Please stop by again and next time I will answer your comment with alacrity!

    1. Hello, enjoyed the interview with you and reading around on your site. I am thinking about spending several months in St. Petersburg, either late this year or early 2013. I was there last in the 1980's and liked it. Like you, I'm a middle-aged guy. I speak no Russian, but got along fairly well last time I was there, though then (I guess,) it was the 'bad old days.' I remember going to a store and asking for a couple of oranges and the clerk yelled to somebody in back and sure enough, a few oranges came rolling down a little wooden ramp. (Back then, you didn't see what you wanted and somebody else made your selection.) I am from Georgia, have a college degree and attended grad school, but no MA. I am 'friendly' as you mention many westerners are, but can adopt that 'distant' outlook and demeanor you say many Russians have, though when I was there before I found it easy to make friends, though I couldn't drink with them--they have such a capacity for alcohol and I have to quit after a few rounds! Am now seeking a room or small apartment in St. Petersburg, but am not yet sure of when I can travel (exactly.) Possibly when I get there, we can meet for a brew-ski. Tim

    2. Hello Tim,

      I wish I had seen Russia back in the 80s... that's a neat story about the rolling oranges! You are smart to never try to stay even with a Russian when drinking.

      Why not join an internet and face to face group... InterNations. That and the forum at Moscow Expat, subgroup St Petersburg, should be helpful in finding a room or apartment. Also, there are some great coach surfing sites.

      Please email, using the wibiya strip at the bottom of this page, when you have definite plans to come to St Petersburg.

  3. if you go to the South of Russia - you can be surprised - people are very different there, friendly


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