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Meetings and behaviour in business context in Russia

by: Pia Kähärä, Associate partner of Hofstede Insights
The goal of this document is to give some specific details on how to behave in business context and in meetings in Russia, what to do and what not to do.

Why should I read this document? 

Business etiquette differs in different cultures. Russian culture is a mix of Eastern and Western, and the cultural dimensions like power distance, collectivism, high uncertainty avoidance and even long term orientation to some extent can be seen in it.

Important!  

5 most important things to know about doing business in Russia (if you only read one thing this is what you should read).
 
1. Remember the hierarchies in the society. Status and titles are important. Bosses discuss with bosses.
2. If you can be introduced by someone, it is easier to build trust.
3. Be flexible in organising your schedule.
4. Be formal in first meetings, then proceed to a more informal level. Informal level communication at later stages means that you are accepted and liked both as a person and a business partner.
5. Do not turn down Russian hospitality in business. It is a sign of respect for you to take you to see some sights instead of just negotiating by the table.  
 
"First of all, it is worth noting that Russia is a collectivistic culture in which personal relationships are the key to success. You can even say that Russians do not do business between companies, but between people who trust and like each other. That is why it is extremely important to build relationships and a personal contact network. Sending e-mails is not the best way to do this - investing time to personal meetings pays off. In different cultures, things that create a feeling of trust are also different. Power distance is very high in Russia, so higher ranked people are respected and they are expected to behave as such, too."

Who to meet - status and its implications

As Russia is a hierarchical culture (one of the most power distant countries in the world), decisions are usually made and negotiations conducted at the top management/director level. When Russians themselves need to get something done, they usually ask, “who is the boss?” They want to understand who they should talk to in order to get things to proceed. Russian managers need to get approvals from their bosses sometimes even for small things. To save time, aim as high as possible.
 
Russians expect that negotiators must come from an equal (high) organizational level, and sometimes they do not understand that in Western European countries people have more power to negotiate at lower organizational levels.  
 
So, titles count and they create credibility. Make sure that they perceive you as a negotiation partner who is at a sufficient level to make decisions.

In Russia, manager-level employees do not necessarily have the power to make decisions; those at director level do. It is safer to print a business card which, on the Russian-language side, says in Russian: Sales, Business, Country Director or similar. Age also gives you credibility as a negotiation partner. Of course, there are young directors in managerial positions in Russian business as well, but mostly in newer business sectors like IT.  You can often compensate for age with a title.
 
If you are a woman in business, especially if you are young, you are sometimes not considered an equal negotiation partner. You certainly need the title on the business card. You may need to stress in your behaviour that you are the decision maker. You must act confidently and calmly, and if the situation requires, even dominantly. However, there are also pluses in being a woman in negotiations -  men do not usually act very aggressively and can communicate more openly as they do not consider you a ‘dangerous opponent’’. Be prepared for personal compliments about your looks that are not practiced so much in business in Western Europe; they are not meant to be sexual harassment, but they are meant to make you feel good.

Organising and preparation for a meeting

Russians usually do not plan their schedules weeks ahead. It is hard to agree on a meeting time months or even weeks ahead. For weeks ahead you can usually set a date, not the exact time. They ask you to contact them and agree nearer to the date and then you can clarify the time and other details.  
 
It is important to double-check and remind them of the agreed meeting a couple of times after setting the meeting. There is a risk that if you don’t, your counterpart may not be there. Many Europeans have travelled to meetings in Russia only to hear that, unfortunately, the boss is out of town. To avoid this, Russians check the previous day if everything will go ahead as agreed.
 
If you meet for the first time someone at management level, it is advisable to send the agenda beforehand with quite detailed questions/comments. It gives your Russian manager time to contact whoever deals with the practical issues to get answers and blessings to different things from the upper management.

Punctuality and making the right first impression

Punctuality is not such a virtue in long-term oriented Russia, but you must call if you are late. Being 15-30 minutes late is almost like coming on time. In big hectic cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, time is considered more ‘money’ than in the regional cities, but everybody understands that traffic jams can cause surprises. However, don’t get offended if the Russian counterpart is late. The bigger the boss you are the easier you can be late. In hierarchical cultures, higher ranking people have more rights than others.
 
Time is relative in long-term oriented countries, and there is a certain pragmatism in Russia. If you meet for the first time and were given one hour, be prepared that your meeting ends in half an hour if your offer is not interesting. But also be prepared to postpone your next meetings if your subject is very interesting. Then your one-hour meeting can last for three hours when you are taken around the factory and introduced to all management and specialists. For these reasons you should also be prepared for many kinds of situations and different level discussions outside of the agenda.  
 
How to dress for meetings depends on the business sector, but it is better to be a bit overdressed than underdressed. Business-like suits for men and dresses or trouser suits for women are a safe choice. In Russia, people look at your shoes, they must always be clean and polished. Russian women take care of their looks in business: hair, makeup and dress are usually well thought out. If you want to emphasize your status as a symbol of power, jewellery, branded watches, bags, etc. are used.

The right tone and speech acts

It is advisable to address your counterpart politely as, ‘You, Mister Petrov/Mrs. Petrova’ or use their first name and a patronymic (‘Youri Alexandrovich’, ‘Mariya Alexandrovna’) in the beginning. When you get to know each other better, you can agree to address each other more informally. Russians have certain diminutive forms of first names that they commonly use between friends and colleagues: Alexander/Alexandra is ‘Sasha’, Alexey ‘Lyosha’, Yuri ‘Yura’, Sergey ‘Seryozha’, etc.
 
Russians take negotiations seriously, so you should keep things quite official in the beginning.
 
Do not smile all the time, as a ‘keep smiling’ expression looks to Russians like you are not taking it seriously, have something to hide or even are a bit simple. In Russia, smiling is not an act of politeness as in many other cultures, it is more related to laughing, and it certainly is not something you should constantly do in official business life. When in Russia, you can meet people very diverse in behaviour. It is safe to see first how formally or informally your meeting partner is behaving and act accordingly.
 
Sometimes negotiations can get emotional; raising of the voice happens sometimes. Do not get scared by it. When emotions about a subject get heated or the subject feels difficult for them, Russians can jump to another subject in the middle to let the emotions cool down and then get back to it later. You can do the same.
 
When you get to know your partners better, meetings become more informal and friendly.
 
Many Russians love talking a lot and they do not keep to the agenda, but jump from one thing to another and back to things you already considered agreed. So, stay alert in the meetings and summarize from time to time what was agreed so that everybody will have a common understanding at the end of the meeting.
 
Polite interruption is advisable sometimes, Russians do not get offended.  
Also, in the Russian language, a decreasing intonation at the end of the sentence means that you are finishing the sentence. Russians can sometimes interpret this in your speech in another language as well and start talking even though you have not finished.
 
The Russian speaking style is not always very direct, as is common in many collectivistic and hierarchical cultures. In Russia, if you are too direct and specific, you can get into trouble. For Russians, the collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, and hierarchy combined make people want to avoid mistakes, as mistakes will be punished by superiors. It is considered safer to leave space for interpretation, which can later be either right or wrong, but the listener has the responsibility of interpretation and thus saves your face.
 
Also, if there are many people in the meeting from the Russian side, the boss asks for comments/expertize from his subordinates, they do not often speak freely without permission (depending on their rank). 

Unwritten rules

When greeting, women should give their hand first if they want to shake hands in business. It is not an insult towards foreign women that Russian men do not first offer shaking hands. In Russia, women do not usually shake hands with each other or men. Many Russians who do business with foreigners are already used to shaking hands with women, but not all.  When you know your partners better, you are greeted with hugs and kisses on the cheeks.
 
The deeper into Russia, i.e. the further from the traditional business centres of Moscow and St. Petersburg you travel, the more interesting things you can expect to experience on business trips. People usually greet you warmly and offer generous hospitality. It is not wise to turn down the offers to see the city and think of saving time by talking only about business.

Short case study

Usually, there are a lot of people in the meetings from the Russian side. Once I assisted in a meeting where the Finnish boss, coming from a very egalitarian culture, asked the Russian partner company’s marketing assistant her opinion about how things should be done in a joint campaign. Without understanding the hierarchies in Russia, the Finnish guy put the assistant in an inconvenient position in front of her boss, as the boss should be asked and he should tell the assistant what to do. Also, the Russian boss felt a bit insulted, as he, the decision maker, was not asked but circumvented. The marketing assistant probably would have had a lot of opinions, but she referred the questions to the boss to maintain the right power positions.