16 April 2011

Enjoying Russian Meals... Without Blunders, Part 1


Are there Russians in your community?  They are convivial people who love to share meals.  Whether you are the host, or you have asked them to dinner, it’s good to know what they expect.


Good manners simply means making each other socially comfortable.  Etiquette is mainly common sense, but some is surprising.   Remember, my advice reflects  my experience with mainly older post-Soviet Russians.

Bread and Feet on the Table!

Back in 2000, I noticed my family ate dinner with a piece of bread in the left hand, or leaned the bread against plate and tabletop.  My new son-in-law said,

“That’s OK, Robert.  We don’t put our feet on the table like Americans, just bread!”

On-time isn’t taken very seriously.

(Caution... This time advice is contrary to what I’ve read elsewhere.)

I think that a RST, Russian Standard Time, would be a good way to remember that Russians arrive later than Americans may expect.  This quip is similar to what I heard in the 60s about NST, Negro Standard Time. 

Never be on time for dinner... better 20 minutes later.   If you want to start dinner at 3 PM, you have to invite for 2 PM.

Unconsidered gifts can hurt the mood.

Even if your hosts say don’t... Bring something!  ... some simple flowers* or chocolates, with a bottle of wine or vodka.

* Remember, give an odd number.  An even number is for funerals.  Yellow flowers, except with other colors, are a negative.  They symbolize the end of a relationship.   People carry purchased flowers upside down.

You must wash hands and cover feet!

Make it obvious that you have washed hands before sitting down to eat. 

Never walk in shoes, socks, or bare feet in an apartment.  Your host will offer slippers (or bring your own). 

If your feet are visible when seated, keep them flat on the floor.  This will prevent two gaffes... open crossed legs, and showing the soles of your slippers.

Be your natural low-key self.

Russians expect you to behave like the Americans they have seen in the movies and on TV...loud to boisterous, a little sloppy, and with a smile a mile wide with many teeth showing. 

Practice conversing quietly, spiff up when you arrive, and don’t overwhelm Russians with your teeth.  Russians are self-effacing.  Don’t toot your horn about accomplishments.

Cellphones are a big part of rudeness worldwide.

It’s best to turn off your mobile when you arrive.  Reading and texting as a guest is rude.  You can put your phone on vibrate, and excuse yourself to another room to quietly take a call.  Even so, you are indicating that the call is more important to you than uninterrupted dinner with friends.

A missing prayer, a missing hand...

In my time in Russia, I have never heard grace, except when I’ve said it.  I’m not religious, but I often feel something is missing, and then realize that moment is when grace is offered in many American homes.

What’s missing in a photo of Americans at dinner? 

Left hands!  Russians keep their left hand, when not holding a fork, close to the plate (not encircling it!). 

The continental and the zig-zag...

I  have a mixed Scottish and American heritage.  I hold my fork in, and eat with, my left hand but switch the fork to my right when I don’t need a knife to cut the food.  I place my left hand if idle on my leg. To Russians this seems strange. Someone may ask...

“Who are you grabbing down there?”

Adapting to the needs of our guests...

Many guests leave their cloth napkins untouched throughout the meal.  I use mine as I need it to catch fallen food, sauce, tea!  Since so many people don’t unfold their napkins, we now place a holder of paper ones for those reluctant to soil good linen.

Always be alert in Russia!

Russia cooks have a laissez-faire attitude about pepper and bones.  They expect you, from life-long experience, to spot the pepper bombs and pieces of bone, and lay them aside on a dish.

It’s expected that you take larger bones with your fingers from your soup and gnaw off remaining meat.

Next post... Unusual drinking customs, and what else makes a Russian dinner truly special!

Let’s hear what you think about table manners!  Just click the small comment below.

Are they changing?  Are they different than Russia in your community?   Are they important?


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  1. What a great post! You covered a lot of things and made many wonderful observations of things I've picked up in Russia but never really thought about.

  2. I'm happy you found some interesting items about Russians and food!

  3. It seems like you are way more polite then most Russian I've ever seen :). Especially regarding the cellphone use now days.

  4. Thank you, Vesily. Now people are texting more, so we don't have to listen to so much cellphone talk in transport. People just have to think of those around them when using the cellphone.


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