19 November 2009

St Peterburg Spots the Americans

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In this first of a 3-part series, we present a list to help you Spot the Americans! by looking at behavior and appearance.  This is a good natured list full of stereotypes that have some weight, as many items on the list reflect my American conduct.  So, please, don't be offended!

Also, those world citizens that travel are usually more refined and intelligent than stereotypes of various nationalities would suggest... so again, please take all of this with a pinch of salt!

Soon, in the second part of this series, we will interview a fairly typical American  to try to understand what is unique about American thinking and attitudes.

Then, the third part will be a summing up of observations, with some conclusions, and will give Some suggestions for travelling Americans.
Recently, we listed How to Identify a Russian Spy.  Well, it's also easy to identify American tourists!
  Some Canadians object to using 'Americans' to identify only people from the United States, as they too live in 

North America.  But they and the Mexicans have brief appellations of Canadian and Mexican, so we refer to people from the United States as Americans (or Yanks).  If you are from the United States, Russians say you are from cha, an acronym that means the USA.

We are Predictable...

All of us are to some degree predictable, as individuals, and in a group... as Russians, as Americans, as women and men, as children at various ages.  No matter how much we want to blend in when we travel, for most of us our behavior and appearance will give us away. 

Americans are considered by many Russians to be loud, sloppy, and aggressive.  Yanks believe its good to act what they call 'naturally' and not be stilted or reserved.  People here think it is unwise and uncouth to call attention to yourself when on the metro or street by talking loudly.

Americans like to think of themselves as individuals, spontaneous, natural, impromptu... what you see is what you get!  Often men think the rough and ready look is endearing... but believe me, it isn't considered attractive by Russian women.  They admire men that are skromny and acuratna, behaving carefully and accurately, not presenting a mess of cowboy attributes and sloppy dress.

We Americans often believe it is good to step right up and say what you want, or what you want to change.  Many Europeans, particularly the Russians, view this behavior as aggressive.  They are more likely to hide their candle under a bushel basket.  (Matthew 5:15)

An American tourist is likely to...

Talk loudly, and unselfconsciously in public. 
'Hey, we're a free people and should be able to express ourselves wherever and whenever we want!  Problem is, it's irritating to more reserved Europeans.

Smile a lot, even when inappropriate. 
How can the last two American Secretaries of State both smile so much when meeting government officials in Moscow?  Russians are likely to take more than a little smiling as insincere and not fitting to the occasion  (expecially when done in a fire engine red dress, as Condi Rice wore).  Now Hillary Clinton is being a smiling ninny also.

Show poor posture.
We slouch at the table, at meetings, at home. 
Europeans are more formal.

Look like his clothes were thrown on, not carefully arrayed.
The average American man thinks the rough and ready Robert Redford look reflects his honest frontier mentality.  In Russia someone unshaven with disheveled clothes is looked on as probably drunk.

Wave when saying hi or goodbye... 
Russians don't wave and rarely beckon.  The last time they saw such gestures was when the Germans were occupying some of their territory.

Say hi many times a day to the same person.
Russians married to an American say this drives them crazy.

Be on time or early. 
The Russian view of time has been compared to that of rural American blacks.  If you are there around 30 minutes past the indicated time, you are on time in Russian eyes. 

I found this out when we married in America.   The minister and my sister were panicked, but Larissa arrived calmly 30 minutes after the scheduled start.  So, being on time in St Petersburg means you are probably 30 minutes early socially.

Look at the Militsa with interest. 
Our police, Militsa, stand around in groups, occasionally stirring themselves to collar someone to check for identification.  If you make eye contact, you may well be their next candidate, which can ruin your evening, and even your stay here.

Worry about safety. 
Americans are trained to look at situations to see if their could be a danger developing, and believe it is very important to report unsafe places and to expect fast action to fix the problem.

Russians have a superstition that it is bad luck to anticipate the future, and will close their active minds to potentially dangerous conditions, while making sure to step over the unguarded excavation.  Russia has a long tradition of open ditches and manholes, unsafe roads, ice everywhere in the winter, and accept this as the way it is.  Why try to change things?

Point at something.  I call this tourist The American Pointer, or a group...the Pointer Sisters.
You point and you will be quickly scorned as lacking class.  Again, you are calling attention to yourself and others with you.  Just describe where you want people to look, and don't stare.

Have a larger personal space.
Americans tend to move away when talking with Russians. People in St Petersburg are not fazed by crowds that I as an American find a little dangerous, as in the Metro at rush hour.

Go to great effort not to bump or touch a stranger.
Russian city people think nothing of  glancing off strangers that are slightly in their way.  They just don't consider it rude, so get out of the way, Citizen!  

An English expatriate and I were in a used book store last week paying for books, and we commented to each other later about how many people walking behind us in the crowded shop banged into us unnecessarily

Kiss just about anybody. 
After nine years here I still kiss women too often for their comfort.

Say 'I Love You' frequently to spouses, children, politicians, dogs, strangers.
This is considered by Russians a private matter not to be announced to the world.

Be quick to offer help, lifelong friendship, and sympathy.
The intention and sincerity is there, and commendable, but naturally not everyone can follow through all the time with their good emotions.  People are disappointed and label some Americans as superficial... not prone to serious commitment.

Be time urgent.
Time urgency is one of the defining traits of Americans.  'It's crazy around here!  I just don't have any time for anything!'  They view their world through mach speed glasses.  No time is often their excuse for not honoring  promises.

Value comfort.
Worries about hot/cold water, flush toilets, double spring beds, area heating and cooling, appliances, elevators, walking distances, class of transport.  Too much comfort makes life expensive and dull.

Be fearful.
It's almost impossible to frighten a Russian.  Americans just need a seed of an idea about flu, crime, or road hazards to scare them.

Put hands, sometimes feet, on the table. 
Americans like a lot of space, and like to spread out over a table.  I have never seen an American put his feet on the table in Russia, but many Russians believe this is part of what Americans do at home.  

My son-in-law told me that Russians feel comfortable placing their bread partly on the table surface because unlike Americans they keep their feet on the floor!

Not worry about his feet... where they are placed, what they have on, how clean they are.  An American in Russia needs to know that crossing his feet with his knees apart may show the soles of his shoes, which is viewed as very offensive.  To understand this caveat it's useful to know that Russians have an Arab-like obsession with feet.

We have shoes for dresswear, street , track , sandals, boots, and (most importantly) slippers,   called tapichky.  You must wear tapichky in your apartment.  You wear your street shoes and you are dead meat!

Every night Russians wash there legs and feet, even if they don't take a shower or bath.  Bathrooms usually include a towel for the feet, one for the body, and another for the hands.

Sometimes stretch after a meal. 
To me this is no big deal, but my wife finds it rude, so a word to the wise!

Belch with little embarrassment.
If you do belch, don't acknowledge it by apologizing... just pretend it never happened.

Russians think it is unlucky to whistle inside an apartment, office, or ship...  your money is at risk!

Not understand toasting. 
Here we toast throughout a dinner, first for the birthday or whatever ocassion it is,  then for the parents present, and finally for anybody or anything!  You are expected to down a jigger of vodka with each toast. 

You will never drink a Russian under the table, so don't even try!   Just sip your drink and watch everyone else.  A smart visitor joins in the toasting, even if he has to say it in English.

Buys presents that are way too expensive for the occasion.
Don't buy lavish gifts... it's considered bragging, and is unnecessary.  I brought home a dozen roses and got two negatives... only the dead get an even number of flowers, and three roses is the usual gift.

Wraps gifts and displays them after opening.
Russians don't wrap presents with paper and ribbons, they just give them unobtrusively and expect no comment.  The receiver puts the gift away, and telephones later with thanks.  When I first came to St Petersburg I made a big fuss about each birthday gift and displayed them on a side table.  This was wrong because Russians do not like to expose people to invidious comparisons, and they are typically quiet about giving and receiving presents.

Have a magnetic attraction for junk food.
Yes, there are Pizza Huts and McDonald's in St Petersburg, but why waste your time and travel dollars on franchise food?  My weakness is Italian food, whether at a pizzeria or home.

Be found eating lunch at 12 o'clock.
Russians eat on a different schedule and eat different things. After nine years I still sometimes get hungry at noon.  We have zavstrak (breakfast) early... then abed (the midday meal) around 2 PM, which often includes soup, salad, vegetables, entree, and tea, but often no dessert... and oo-jen (supper), a lighter meal around 6 PM. 

The  story goes that a Russian general said... Feed yourself a good zavtrak (breakfast), share your abed (mid-day dinner) with your comrade (each eating half) and give your oo-jen (supper) to your enemy.   The point of the story is that a late big meal will slow you down making you unfit for battle, and also hurt your health.

Know a lot about junk news but little about American jazz.  

Americans are flooded with tacky news for which other nationalities don't have the same fascination.  I remember how surprised I was that often Russians knew more about American jazz than I did.  Why is it that the Europeans know so much more about the USA than many Americans do?

Hold the door for strangers. 
This is one of several positive American characteristics.  As I mentioned in the Russian Spy post, people here don't hold the door for anyone, don't say 'thank you' if you do, and will let the door slam in the next person's face.

Says please and thank you, and expects Russians to be as verbally courteous.
Russians believe a lot of Western courtesy is hogwash and insincere.  Don't hold your breath that this reaction to your courtesy will change.  Russians at home rarely use please or thank you with their families. 

Is wide eyed about what he sees.
Our enthusiasm and eager sight seeing is hard for stoic Russians to understand.

 -Which of these items about Americans do you find admirable or endearing?
 -Which items reflect annoying behavior that you wish Americans would change?
 -Do you have some items to add or change on our list?

Comments are very much Appreciated!  Just click the date below, which will open a window.


  1. Hello American In St. Peterburg,

    This was a particularly enjoyable post to read. Although I'm Canadian I was able to identify with a few of these characteristics!

    Thanks to this post I'm now able to properly present gifts, stop holding doors open for strangers (admittedly only the pretty women) and start cleaning my shoes!

    Keep up the blog; it is enjoyable and informative reading!

  2. "Why is it that the Europeans know so much more about the USA than many Americans do?"

    That is a good question...

    Love the post and you are 100% correct on your assertions.


  3. The former president Sadat of Egypt once explained
    why he found Americans so much more sympathetic
    than Europeans. Europeans , he said,were ever so correct,stiff and formal,..whereas Americans will lean back, kick off their shoes and put their feet up...
    'really enjoying your blog bout everything in St.Petersburg and Russia..
    'am from Dublin, Irl.

  4. Hello Dubliner,

    Yes, Americans are an informal lot. My Russian wife is upset if I stretch my arms over my head and say... Ah, that was a nice meal!

    Ireland gave a lot of friendliness, intelligence, and spirit to New Jersey and the rest of the world

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.


  5. Hello Rob,

    I've got to tell you after reading your post here, I feel a lot more comfortable about my experiences here in Russia. I moved here over a year ago and have run into some of these circumstances, The bumping into each other used to really get to me, now I just see it as commonplace. I have a blog on wordpress at hague6185.wordpress.com. I hope you don't mind me doing a pingback to your blog. I think some of my readers would enjoy reading some of your posts. If you get a chance take a look. What I blog about is much different at this point. I think after being here a couple of years I'll have a better insight, but for now still learning. Thanks Steve


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