If you’re like me, you tried to prepare for life in a foreign country by researching important ways the new culture differs from your home culture. While research can shed light on some of the more obvious differences, many nuances are skipped over, and can only be considered when in a real-life situation. Each culture has different behaviors, gestures, and norms for social interaction and for conducting oneself in public, and learning and accepting that these may be in total contrast to what you’re used to is an important part of getting along in a new country.
For instance, in some places around the world, the thumbs up you give your friend to indicate that everything is A-OK might be taken as something different entirely, and can be offensive. In others, including Russia, simply giving a friendly smile to the person sitting next to you at the bus stop – just acknowledging that they are there – can be seen as unusual and even suspect. It may be hard for students – especially from those in the United States, who are accustomed to greeting and smiling at total strangers just for the sake of politeness – to accept that an unreturned smile is not necessarily cold or disdainful. It’s just normal. For example, once, on a particularly good day, I just couldn’t keep myself from smiling at a stranger on the bus. The unwilling recipient of this gesture returned a quizzical face, with eyebrows so raised it was almost comical!
Similarly, if you’ve ever worked in customer service, say, as a cashier at a coffee shop or at a retail store, you may know the rules of a polite transaction, or at least how Americans perceive it. I’ll never forget a time I was at a shoe store with my dad when an obviously new cashier failed to give a customer his change back by putting it in his hand. Though she had all the right components of a good cashier – friendly, polite, big smile – this one transgression sent the customer into a shouting fit. The cashier was brought to tears as the customer gave her a lecture on respect, and how leaving the change on the counter for him to pick up himself was seen as an incredibly rude gesture. Years later, working as a cashier myself, I couldn’t help but feel a bit undermined when a customer tossed their credit card on the counter instead of handing it to me, or when a customer ordered while on their cell phone. Didn’t they know this was rude? If I acted similarly, there’s a big chance they’d ask to see my manager. Not wanting to be seen as a flippant or disrespectful American in Russia, I took with me these preconceived ideas of what’s rude and what’s polite, and hoped they would be met with appreciation by Russians.
I was in for a surprise when I learned these notions just didn’t carry over. Still uninitiated to Russian cash handling norms, my first time at a grocery store checkout line was a bit confusing. Suddenly, instead of just a countertop and a belt, there was a little plastic plate and a larger plastic tray-like thing. So foreign to me, I can’t even think of what it would be called in English. The little plate, I would learn, is where customers are to place their payment – be it cash, coins, or their credit card. The cashier then picks it up from the plate, and any change or a returned credit card gets placed on the tray.
In Russian folklore, it was considered bad luck to touch the hand of the person handing you money. The Soviets carried on the tradition of the “cashier’s plate” with the argument that it more hygienic to not touch the hand of another person when it could be avoided. Today, some places are beginning to break with this ancient tradition, but the plate is never-the-less still a standard part of any checkout line.
It took a few visits to break the mental habit of automatically handing the cashier my payment – which was always met with quizzical looks – but I eventually got the hang of it. OK, that’s a lie. Sometimes I get the hang of it, though it’s not without an internal cringe, feeling as though I’ve just done something incredibly rude. Likewise, as the cashier slaps down my change on the plastic tray and goes immediately to ringing up the next customer instead of handing it to me and saying, “Thanks for shopping with us today,” or “Have a nice day,” as I’m used to, it’s sometimes hard to remember that this is not to be taken personally. The regular cashiers at my local Gastronom, I think, have caught on, and now hold their hand out to me when I go to pay, aware of my strange habit. One of them has even begun handing me back the change directly, with a knowing smile.
Some Russian friends were able to give me a bit of perspective on the matter, and I think back to it often. They noted my affinity for small talk with people I’ve just met – “How are you? Are you also a student? I like your boots,” et cetera. While they had come to find my friendliness both cute and curious, they criticized this largely American practice. Using yet another grocery store example, my friend Vladimir asked me, “In the US, when you ask a cashier how she’s doing today, do you really care?” I had to think about it for a minute. “Honestly,” I answered slowly, “Not really.” And that’s the thing. While many American norms and behaviors may create the feeling of a warmer, more welcoming environment, many of these customs are sometimes very empty. Another friend, Evgeny, asked, “When you smile at someone on the street, are you actually happy to see them?” I responded, “Well, of course not. I don’t even know them!” knowing full well how silly this must have sounded. They both had the same question: “Then why do it?”
Coming to another country and getting immersed in new norms and behaviors comes not only with the responsibility of accepting new ways of doing things, but it also – and perhaps most importantly – requires one to examine their own norms. Does giving a feigned half-smile to a stranger really mean anything? When asking someone how they’re doing today, would you really do anything if they said they weren’t doing well? When giving these norms a deeper look, it’s no wonder some of these behaviors seem empty, unnecessary, and even strange to many Russians.
Just like all the other components of adjusting to a foreign country, from learning the language to buying power adapters, careful observation and understanding of new ways of conducting oneself will help to make a home out of your new location, however temporary your stay.