A few weeks ago, I spent nine wonderful days in Moscow on holiday. Through my various interactions with ordinary Russians on my trip, it occurred to me that there are some lessons PR and media professionals could draw from Russian etiquette and culture. What follows isn’t exactly “scientific” but it is drawn from experience, and I believe these lessons can be easily and broadly applied to PR practices.
- Russians place great value on hospitality and being helpful.
Despite the pervasive stereotypes of Russians as gruff and sullen, I have always found that Russians go out of their way to be not only hospitable, but also helpful. On this trip, I had a Russian woman offer me drinks following a flight cancelation, I encountered a museum attendant who personally escorted me to another wing of a museum when I was lost, and I was chased by a waitress who ran outside to find me after I forgot a personal item in a restaurant. While it’s absolutely true that these situations can and do occur elsewhere around the world with regularity, there’s something very genuine about the desire of Russians to be solicitous.
- Russians love humor and don’t miss an opportunity to laugh.
Moscow is a city of immense pleasures with elegant cafés, broad shopping boulevards, and fine restaurants. One feels the liveliness of Muscovites wherever they are. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I went to Gorky Park for lunch and a stroll, and I couldn’t believe how much laughter I heard. While it is true that Russians don’t aimlessly smile like Americans, they’re certainly not adverse to displays of outward emotionality, particularly when it concerns that which is humorous. It seemed wherever I found myself in Moscow, I encountered people that joked with me or told funny stories. Even guards and security personnel, who are typically offstandish and remote in Russia, related funny and amusing tales about their lives and travels. This lightened the mood considerably, and it made me feel less anxious as I wandered around the giant city.
“Humor is the merit of our nation. Caustic and bitter, simple-hearted and intricate, Russian humor has lived through the most ferocious, most desperate years. And I wish to believe, as long as we are able to joke, that we remain a great nation!”
– Sergei Dovlatov
- Russians value respect and kept promises; mutual respect lends itself well in social and business interactions.
Much has been made of President Reagan’s use of the old Russian proverb “Trust, but verify” (Russian: Доверяй, но проверяй; Doveryai, no proveryai) in his dealings with counterparts in the USSR. Nearly 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the weight and validity of the proverb still holds true. Upon visiting the recently reopened GULAG Museum, I sent their communications team a note, and I invited them to an interview with a Central Asian publication. (This museum is moving, brilliantly organized, and utilizes the latest technologies to narrate one of history’s darkest periods.) I demonstrated courtesy and keen interest in my emails, but the communications team remained outwardly cautious in their replies. They asked several questions, sent several emails to verify that I would keep my promises, and only then did they agree to the interview. It was the respect I showed them and my ability to keep my promises that won me the interview to work with their world-class institution. The demonstration of respect and an appreciation of Russia’s uniqueness is, indubitably, the key to communication with Russians. Furthermore, promises mean a great deal to Russians, and Russians only make promises once mutual trust has taken root.
Since my first visit to Moscow at the age of 15, the city has remained of my favorite places in the world. The Russian capital pulsates with energy and activity just like Tokyo or New York City, and its cultural offerings make it an extraordinary city to visit. One cannot help but feel dazzled by the beauty and magnificence of the Kremlin or the sheer grandeur of the city’s many parks, streets, and churches. On this trip, however, I took away something more important — a deeper understanding of the Russian spirit, and of how it can be translated into successful PR practices and strategies. Regardless of whether I’m working with Russians or non-Russians, I am going to put a dash of “Russian soul” into my business.
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