Generally, Russians are pretty superstitious and as a rule the older they are the more this tends to be true. Along with many, many superstitions they also have what are referred to as плохие приметы (bad signs) which normally deal with things Russians commonly perceive as bringing bad luck that a foreigner might not know about.
This is a list of the most common rules and superstitions that I see in action on a weekly basis. It’s always good to have an idea of these things to avoid offending anyone, unless offending Russians is a hobby of yours of course.
5 – Toasting and glasses
So if you have ever been at a party or celebration with Russians that fact the toasting is a common practice before drinking will be nothing new, but you should remember that you should drink and only then put your glass down. If you’re not a drinker and you end up at some party or event it will look bad if you don’t raise your glass to a toast so instead you should pour yourself a glass of juice or something. The men will no doubt secretly be thinking that you are somewhat of a bitch, but at least you’ll be a bitch with manners.
One more thing, when you toast say за здоровье (to your health), not на здоровье! People make this mistake all the time but на здоровье is something used as a type of ‘you’re welcome’ when dealing with food (like if somebody gives you a plate of Soviet broth, you say thanks and they say на здоровье!)
4 – Touching wood
I know what you’re thinking and no, it’s not a sexual innuendo (although it should be). Now I don’t know what an American would say here, but in England we say ‘touch wood’, you know, when you say something like: “I’ve never caught the clap from a Russian harlot, touch wood”. So in Russian they say: тьфу тьфу тьфу, чтобы не сглазить. Same rules apply, just longer and harder to say.
3 – Whistling
Or more specifically, whistling indoors. Russians really kick ass on this one and most of them really don’t like it when somebody whistles indoors. The superstition goes that if you whistle indoors you will lose all your money so in theory it should be a problem for someone else if you are whistling, but it is. So no whistling indoors, unless of course you are a freelance translator in Russia, in which case you probably won’t have any money to lose…
2 – Shaking hands
Russians, for what reason I don’t know, don’t like shaking hands in doorways. Now Russians shake hands a lot, just as a greeting, but many don’t like to shake hands in doorways so keep this in mind. Russians normally shake hands before leaving too so if you want to make a good impression, make sure you shake everybody’s hand. Also, it’s usually common to take off whatever gloves you wearing first to shake hands. If you think it’s a bit over the top shaking hands so much, I suggest you get used to it, least you look a cold expat with social interaction issues.
1 – Congratulations
I think I have only managed to offend two Russians with this one in my time as a semi-illegal immigrant in Russia but they take this one really seriously. So the thing is, you’re never supposed to congratulate somebody on somthing or celebrate any event before it has happened. So if you, for example, are leaving and know you will miss somebody’s birthday, don’t congratulate them or give them a gift beforehand. This is at number one because Russians really don’t like it and some can get quite offended.
So there you have it, some rules to keep you from pissing off Russians. As I mentioned, there are a shed load of superstitions, but in my opinion, these are the more common ones.