Russians focus on relationships when communicating. A personal rapport with their counterpart will always take precedence over whatever factual information is to be provided. Therefore, they adopt a diplomatic, cautious tone. Criticism in particular will only be expressed in a roundabout way. Take care to avoid an overly direct mode of expression, which Russians are liable to consider highly confrontational.
Consequently, in Russia, you will have to read between the lines and interpret the discussion in that particular context. You will be obliged to collect information wherever and whenever you can, bit by bit, piecing it together to form an overall picture. By the same token, you should bear in mind that Russians will also read a great deal into your comments. Accordingly, choose your words carefully and wisely.
Agreement or disagreement?
Very often, a Russian “yes” means nothing more and nothing less than that your partner is listening. Sometimes, answers in the affirmative are only to preserve harmony. From the Russian point of view, there is a solution to every problem. There is no need, therefore, to offend others with negative comments.
Russians will avoid saying a direct no wherever possible. Maintaining a good personal relationship comes before making a potentially confrontational statement.
Constructive criticism that only refers to the matter at hand is unheard of in Russian communication. Nor is it considered conducive to making improvements. Even if they do not show it, Russians are quick to take offence, taking criticism personally. If at all, criticism should only be voiced in private, accompanied by numerous positive remarks to ensure that the person being criticised does not lose face.
Despite their strong focus on relations, however, you may well find Russian tempers flaring during difficult negotiations. Occasionally, the debate may become so heated that they bang their fists on the table or slam the door. Having said this, Russian business partners mainly use this abrasive “bazaar technique” when the business relationship is still in its early stages. Quite frankly, its purpose is simply to unnerve you or to test your mettle. As soon as the conference room door closes, your irate negotiation partners suddenly become as meek as lambs, cordially inviting you out for a beer.
When it comes to facial expressions in Russia, you must first differentiate between an official and unofficial context. In an official setting, such as a first meeting with a Russian business associate, you may find yourself sitting opposite a “stone colossus”, staring at the table in front of him. Where is the much-lauded Russian soul, you might well ask. And you will find it behind the extremely serious, tight-lipped, perhaps even forbidding expression of your Russian business partner.
Many Russians appear to be extremely reserved at first. A latent fear that stems from Stalinism is assumed to be behind this reticence: only time will tell whether others be friend or foe. The Russian’s stony face will gradually fall away to reveal his welcoming nature.
Then certain words will be met with a pat on the back or other expansive gesture. Direct eye contact is now also possible. But beware: holding somebody’s gaze for too long is quickly perceived as a provocation in Russia.
Although they repeatedly make eye contact while talking, this is only for short periods of time. If you are accustomed to making eye contact for longer, do not interpret your Russian interlocutor’s looking away after a short while as dishonesty or an attempt to conceal something from you. It is simply a different aspect of their non-verbal communication.
You should also be aware that the focus for both women and men in Russia is on traditional gender roles, rather than that of entrepreneurs. Therefore, a businesswoman is also expected to accentuate her femininity. Figure-hugging outfits, high heels and full make-up are thus the rule rather than the exception in Russian offices. However, despite her feminine appearance, your Russian business partner will also be a tough negotiator and should thus not be underestimated. As a man, even in the corporate world, feel free to act like a perfect gentleman by acknowledging this femininity. Compliments are particularly welcome, but only if they are subtle and courteous. All the same, never mistake the highly feminine style of your Russian business associate as an invitation to flirt or anything of that nature.