Russia: Cultural Sensitivity vs. Cultural Knowledge

The foundation of a culture is directly correlated with the way a society interacts interpersonally, interprets information, and pursues justice. Within the Russian culture, there are distinctive communication styles that can be linked to a much deeper level of rich history; these influences of the past still impact the work practices, personal communication, and family relationships of modern-day Russian life. According to Mira Bergelson’s article on Russian communication patterns, these styles of life – both with traditional Russian culture and Soviet co-cultures – can be traced back to distinctive qualities that resonate within most Russian communication models.

The six notions presented by Bergelson aid in understanding the need for Russian-specific knowledge and understanding before embarking upon a business venture. Generally, Russian culture supports a mistrust of government; this is directly linked to a “deep-rooted practice of deceiving higher authorities, coloring the truth, and using round-about ways” (Bergelson, 2012). An additional cultural pattern is the common skepticism associated with commercial activities, an overarching sense of cultural pessimism, little respect for set regulations or rules, and – as will be expanded upon further – a “lack of critical thinking and negotiation skills” (Bergelson, 2012).

Cultural sensitivity and cultural knowledge are two separate entities; however, culturally mindful communication involves the integration of the two ideas. Cultural knowledge is the idea of becoming familiar with a culture’s values and belief system, historical context, cultural characteristics, and interaction with members of varying ethnic groups (Adams, 1995).  To take cultural knowledge a step further, cultural sensitivity is an understanding of these unique and varying elements of culture and acknowledging their differences without assuming the values are wrong because they are unlike one’s own interpretations.

An individual obtains first the cultural knowledge – becoming a foundation for their perception of that culture – but learns through a lens of cultural sensitivity. If an interaction was based solely on cultural knowledge, the other member (the Russian) may see these interactions as “rude or imposing, or insecure and indirect, leading to a perception of the person as an unreliable partner or pushy employee” (Thomas, 1984). With the incorporation of cultural sensitivity, the interactions will encourage a mutual respect – both parties understand the relevance of being sensitive to the other’s values.

Cultural-specific knowledge, such as with Russian culture, is crucial to understand before taking an overseas assignment. Interactions with members of another culture, particularly within the workplace, are so firmly based in cultural foundations and traditions that ignorance to the importance of these elements will surely result in negative sentiment and mistrust, if not a loss of business completely. Specifically within Russian and Soviet co-cultures, members value relationships with people and feelings above gain in business. The goal of Russian interactions is always this idea of mutual support and understanding – not only with personal and family relationships, but also in business.

If an American businessman was to approach a Russian with the idea to exclude an employee because the task is better suited elsewhere, the Russian could see this as an attack on the personal relationships that have been built within the company. This could lead to the Russian creating a perception of that American as being untrustworthy or deceptive – in addition to Bergelson’s mention of the Russian’s “mistrust of commercial activities” in general. If these cultural nuances are understood prior to taking an overseas assignment, the Westerner could understand how to approach the situation differently, ensuring a good relationship with his Russian counterpart.

Two very prominent Russian values are emotionality and judgment. According to the text, Russians encourage the expression of emotion and value attention to the feelings of others. Directly linked to the idea of emotionality is the concept that “relationships are more important than contextual reality” (Bergelson, 2012). Because so much weight is given to appreciating the feelings of others, work relationships thrive when employees feel emotionally valued and connected. Russian culture, for this reason, is full of “active emotional verbs”  (Bergelson, 2012) and culturally loaded words. When a Westerner is interacting with a Russian in this capacity, it is important that the person or employee is put before the gain of the task – a concept that is strange to business in America.

The second value, judgment, is one that is seen to Americans as a negative quality – one that American society associates with being close-minded. To Russians, however, judgmental statements are spoken out of a desire to create a closer, more loyal connection in relationships. Members of Russian culture expect these moral evaluations, and consider it “appropriate to treat others in the same way” (Bergelson, 2012). Americans, on the other hand, tend to look at moral judgments as personal attacks, and condition themselves against passing judgments towards others. For this reason, it is crucial for an American interacting with a Russian to not take judgments as offensive; rather, a Russian judgment demonstrates a desire for mutual respect and deeper connection.

Russian and traditional Soviet co-cultures also support the notions of fatalism and irrationality – qualities that can be traced back culturally to authoritarian structures of government and the sentiment that the Russian people lack control. Fatalism is an attitude carried by most Russians, and is the idea that the future is fixed and unchangeable; in this mindset, Russian people lack control over the world and its events. This is starkly different from the classic American dream mindset; Western people tend to believe that the world is full of opportunity and hope. Addressing this point of view, American-Russian interactions should be pursued without overwhelming the Russian counterpart with potentials and undeterminable factors.

The model of irrationality is also engrained in Russian culture, which is a stark contrast to the general American view of positivism. Rather than “[relying] on objective methods of analysis and logic” (Bergelson, 2012), Russians lack critical thinking capacities and tend to believe that “things can go wrong… at any moment” (Bergelson, 2012).  Coming back to the idea of emotionality, Russians approach business rather with emotion, believing that “relationships are more important than results” (Bergelson, 2012). When interacting with Russians, Westerners would need to understand that using an analytical approach might not be relatable or the best option for their foreign coworkers.

According to the text, “spending time and effort to analyze what the behavior may denote and how it relates to other facets of Russian culture, can often provide insight into problems of cross-cultural organizational communication and group dynamics” (Bergelson, 2012). These varying Russian values all affect the perceptions that the people would have towards Westerners, and directly impact how business is done. In understanding how Russian culture views the world around them, Westerners can express cultural sensitivity within workplace interactions.

Adams, D. (Ed.). (1995). Health issues for women of color: A cultural diversity perspective. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications. Retrieved 6 Oct. 2014.

Bergelson, M. (2012). Russian cultural values and workplace communication patterns.

Intercultural Communication: A Reader. (Larry A. Samovar, Richard E. Porter, Edwin R. McDaniel, eds.) 13th edition, USA, 2012, 189-197. Retrieved 6 Oct. 2014.

Thomas, J. (1984). Cross-cultural discourse as ‘unequal encounter’: Towards a pragmatic analysis. Applied Linguistics 5(3): 227-235.

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