Gift giving & business—Russia
In Russia, gift giving is an important part of everyday life. There are countless occasions and holidays when gifts are exchanged, all of which have different meanings and rituals. In order to choose appropriately, you should familiarize yourself with the proper gift-giving etiquette.
In general, there are several official and unofficial holidays when gifts are exchanged. The first is the New Year holiday and Christmas. This is a recognized public holiday of ten calendar days, from January 1 until January 10. During this time, all government offices and many stores are closed. Contrary to the situation in many Western countries, New Year’s Eve is considered a bigger and more extravagant holiday than Christmas. This is because during the Soviet period, religious celebrations were not allowed and all effort was put into New Year ceremonies. Although Christmas has been officially observed since 1992, New Year’s Eve still remains the favorite Russian holiday and receives the most media and commercial attention. In the weeks leading up to December 31, it is typical to give a token of appreciation to all colleagues, neighbors, friends, and family members. Family and friends exchange gifts on New Year’s Day, the same way Christmas gifts are exchanged in other Western countries.
Unlike in many other countries, Christmas in Russia is celebrated on January 7 of every year. The Russian Federation is dominantly Eastern Orthodox in faith and follows a different calendar than do other Christian churches. There is a roughly two-week difference in dates, and thus many religious holidays in Russia are observed later than in other Christian countries. If scheduling business trips or meetings, it is important to recognize that most organizations are closed during this time. Gifts are generally not exchanged on Christmas, as it comes after the New Year celebration.
February 23 is an official public holiday called the “Defender of the Motherland Day.” Known as “Red Army Day” during the Soviet period, it has become heavily recognized and commercialized. It is a day that aims to celebrate all those presently serving in the armed forces as well as all veterans. However, the day is not limited to these individuals. Russians consider all men to be defenders of the motherland and all males of all ages receive recognition on this day. Traditionally, men receive cards, greetings, and gifts from women at home, in the workplace, and even on the street. As a foreigner, you may give a small gift to your male colleagues; however, it is not expected.
March 8 is International Women’s Day. This day aims to recognize women and their contributions to society. Although it is acknowledged internationally by the United Nations, it is not observed internationally as much as it is in Russia. This day is very heavily commercialized and can be compared to Valentine’s Day in Western countries. Virtually all women of all ages receive recognition on this day. At home and in the workplace, women receive flowers, chocolates, and cards from their male relatives and colleagues. If doing business in Russia during this time, it is expected that you will present something in acknowledgement of this day.
The types of gifts you can give will largely depend on the nature of your relationship with the recipient. Generally, business colleagues will exchange chocolates, candy, fruits, office accessories, high-quality coffee and tea, or cards and flowers. Flowers are almost always reserved for women and are usually given on Women’s Day. Personal items and clothes are reserved for close friends. Only relatively expensive gifts should be wrapped; they should also be accompanied with an appropriate card.
Most often, gifts are given when you are invited into a Russian home. It is general practice to invite colleagues over for dinner when doing business. If invited, it is considered impolite to arrive empty-handed. Wines, high-quality whiskey, chocolates, exotic fruits, and cakes are good gift ideas. Giving vodka can be misinterpreted as an insult. Typically all women in the house receive flowers from their guests. Avoid yellow flowers, as they signify the end of a relationship. Flowers in even numbers are reserved for the deceased, and also should not be given. Children are extremely important in Russian culture, and bringing something for the kids can impress your host. Appropriate gifts are candy, chocolates, and small, inexpensive toys. When giving gifts or shaking hands, be sure to remove your gloves, as it is rude to keep them on.
Upon entering a private residence, be prepared to remove your shoes. You will usually be supplied with slippers to wear while inside the home. It is inappropriate to keep your hat on indoors. Very often, you will be expected to sample all foods served. Not tasting everything can signal to your host that you did not enjoy the meal. Russians tend to offer food and drink to all guests numerous times, and if you kindly refuse, you will be asked until you accept. In Russian culture, it is not polite to readily accept food, drink, or gifts. When you are giving a present, the recipient will most likely protest several times before receiving it.
Typically, you will be given a drink with your meal. Russians often consider drinking to be a way to start or cement a friendship. When given a drink, be sure to toast with your host. This is an excellent opportunity to make a good impression. The toast employed can really help strengthen your relationship. Standard toasts include health, family, love, and friends; however, drinking for business success and new connections is also common.
Religious reasons for not drinking are generally accepted, but refusing food when invited to dinner is considered very rude.