Somebody once said that you can buy in any language, but you can sell only in the language of the buyer.
So, what do you do when you are entering a new market, such as Russia, and you don’t have the time, or the means, to learn the buyer’s language? It’s certainly not enough to prepare a flashy slide deck in the hopes of doing business in Russia; you need to take carefully planned, concrete steps to prepare yourself.
To begin with, you should hire an interpreter to overcome the language barrier. However, if you first trip and fall over the cultural barrier, then your flashy slide deck for your amazing business will play to a hostile audience before your interpreter has even opened their mouth on your behalf.
To avoid the cultural stumbles, you can get professional help to give you a good overview of modern Russian business etiquette, cultural traditions and sound, practical tips for doing business in Russia in as little as one day. Just make sure that your information is up to date.
As I hear from my students of Russian language and culture, the country has changed a lot in the past couple of decades: for example, the old stereotype of vodka served for breakfast has lost its grounding in reality. You can even refuse alcohol later in the day without causing the slightest offence to your host. But the well-known modern business hubs of Moscow and St. Petersburg are not all of Russia.
Did you know that there are 15 cities in Russia with over one million residents? Or, that 75% of the landmass lies to the east of the Urals, while 75% of the population lives to the west? Or, that when you hear the word seychas it can mean ‘at this moment’ or ‘at some undefined later time’, depending on the part of the country?
Ventures outside of the metropolises will require extensive background research and will still lead to surprises that you had not prepared for: Are you entering predominantly Orthodox or Muslim territory? Is your prospective business partner an old-style government-owned factory or a new, Western-style company? When you attend a meeting with your counterparts, are the decision-makers present in the room? And finally – and perhaps a little oddly – did you check today’s horoscope?
HOLIDAYS, TRADITIONS AND BELIEFS
Entering the open market has been a challenge for the whole of Russia and, as with any country, its history and traditions have had a strong influence on how it has responded to that challenge. Covering 11% of the surface area of the world (it was one-sixth in the Soviet Union era) and with approximately 100 different nationalities living in the country, Russia still celebrates pagan, Orthodox, Soviet and Russian holidays. In addition to that, the state and the church use two different calendars: the Gregorian and the Julian. So, there are two Christmases and two New Years, but only one Easter.
The biggest and most important holiday is the New Year holiday; Victory Day is the second, and your birthday is one that your friends, family and – per Russian business etiquette – your colleagues expect to celebrate with you at home and at work. Women’s Day is also very important and widely celebrated, both at work and at home.
What other things should you know about Russian beliefs when doing business in Russia? How about black cats, ladders, and broken mirrors? Nothing too unusual there.
How about horoscopes, which are published daily in almost every newspaper and are an integral part of morning TV? You can find your personal horoscope for any life situation, starting from the best day to get your hair cut to the best and worst days to do business. So, if you hear from your business partner that today is a bad day for business, it might very much be the truth in the stars!
When trying to find a good day for doing business, do not try to make an appointment two months in advance; do not try even one month. Going further, it is wise to remember that in Russian business culture, sometimes the guests that you expect will not be the same as the ones that arrive, due to missing visas or expired passports. Prepare, too, for the fact that your client might postpone your meeting by weeks, or even months, and then simply call and ask for a factory tour or a meeting, saying that they are nearby, even when “nearby” is 800 kilometers away!
And, when you do meet “nearby,” don’t be surprised to get three kisses on the cheeks for hello, or goodbye.
CHECKLIST FOR YOUR FIRST BUSINESS TRIP
- Spend some time learning basic facts about the country.
- Know which part of Russia you are visiting.
- Get a “letter of introduction” (a reference) from locals, if possible.
- Have a good interpreter with you.
- Be prepared for “surprises.”