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This summer, I spent 12 days traveling through Russia for Business Insider.
I ate at a Russian McDonald’s, went inside the Kremlin in Moscow, visited a diamond mine in Siberia, and spent two days riding the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway.
I even got to spend a night in the $18,000-a-night presidential suite at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton. One of my most memorable experiences was visiting a 200-year-old Russian bathhouse, where I paid $85 to be whacked with branches and doused in ice-cold water.
While my travels were mostly smooth sailing, I did experience some cultural clashes. Here are six cultural differences that tripped me up in Russia.
Unfortunately, I don’t speak any Russian.
While I’d expected communication to be tricky in rural Siberia, I thought more people might speak English in Moscow, the capital city. But even at restaurants and shops in the capital, I found that many locals spoke little to no English.
Fortunately, thanks to a combination of hand gestures, my trusty Google Translate app, and mercifully patient Russians, I was able to make it work.
At first, I was intimidated by many of the Russians I saw, thinking they looked stern and unfriendly. But I soon realized they simply don’t smile at strangers the way Americans do.
In the US, we expect smiles from people we do business with, from the person who serves us our coffee, and even from people we accidentally make eye contact with. This was not the case in Russia.
As Olga Khazan wrote for the Atlantic, some cultures — including Russia — perceive smiling for no apparent reason to be a sign of stupidity.
But despite their stony facial expressions, everyone I met or asked for help in Russia was perfectly friendly and helpful.
Several comments Russians made to me during my trip made me think that the views on gender in the country aren’t quite the same as in the US — or at least in liberal New York City, where I live.
Francesca Ebel wrote for the Associated Press earlier this year that while women in Russia may hold prominent government positions, “traditional gender roles still hold sway, and efforts to address problems like the gender pay gap, domestic violence and sexual harassment have hardly scratched the surface.”
Throughout my trip, locals seemed shocked that I was traveling alone in Russia as a woman.
During my two-day journey riding the Trans-Siberian Railway— the longest train line in the world — one of the Russian women sharing my compartment asked me, “You’re not afraid to travel in Russia alone?”
I shrugged. “Not really.”
“Because we are,” she said. “Russia is a dangerous place.”
While I was visiting a diamond mine in Siberia, a publicist for Alrosa, the country’s largest diamond miner, told me that doctors recommend women don’t work in the mines because it could harm their reproductive health.
And later in Moscow, a professional contact I spent a day with opened a car door for me and then immediately seemed concerned. He turned to me and asked in all seriousness, “In America, is it considered harassment now to open a door for a woman?”
As Yekaterina Sinelschikova wrote for Russia Beyond, “a Russian woman never appears in public without making herself up first (which often means foundation, powder, rouge, mascara, and something else to her taste) — even if she’s just taking out the trash.”
With my jeans, sneakers, and unstyled hair (I like to think of it as effortlessly tousled), I often felt underdressed on the streets of Moscow.
“For women, demonstrating femininity … is the name of the game when choosing what to wear,” Sinelschikova wrote.
Whenever I went to throw something away during my trip, I couldn’t find a recycling bin — just a garbage can.
Recycling is apparently not yet common in Russia. Only seven percent of Russia’s waste is recycled, according to France 24. Some overflowing landfills have been known to spontaneously catch on fire.
Exchanging business cards is a common practice in the US, but in Russia, it seemed absolutely essential.
Almost every time I met a professional contact in Russia, they handed me their business card within 30 seconds of introducing themselves, prompting me to scramble to dig around in my bag for my own.
Most of the business cards I was given were printed in Russian on one side and English on the other.