Life as part of a collective or when work is about more than working

What does a German, an American, or a Frenchman do when they get to work? This might seem like an odd question - they start working, obviously. But a Russian person lives at work. For Russian people, work is about a lot more than working.

When a Russian gets to work, they usually don’t start working right away. They spend some time talking to colleagues, even if it’s just for a few minutes. People ask them how they’re doing and they ask their colleagues about their lives. Yes, Russians talk about their personal lives at work. “Russians often mix different things together,” writes philologist Alla Sergeeva, Ph.D., in her book Russians: stereotypes, traditions, mentality, “professional, social, individual, as opposed to a French person, for example, who won’t talk about their personal life at work.”

What does this mean?

It means that a French person tries to forget about their personal life when they are at work. Their personal life - family, children, friends - is left at home. It remains a mystery to their colleagues and isn’t up for discussion.

Russians behave differently. According to Alla Sergeeva, Russians lead “social and personal lives at work. Work is more than just a means to make a living, but a way to increase your social significance.” In Russia, people who work together know almost everything about each other - where their coworkers live, where their relatives work or go to school, and so on. If you’re not ready for that level of openness, your colleagues will think it’s strange, and might even call you a foreign spy (as a joke, of course).

A natural extension of this type of environment is celebrating birthdays at work. This means that you’re expected to get snacks and drinks for your colleagues on your birthday. There is even a word for this in Russian - prostavitjsa. By the way, every new employee is expected to do this as well. It’s a personal presentation of sorts, which allows the new employee to get to know their colleagues. If a new colleague fails to follow this unwritten rule, their coworkers might think they’re greedy, secretive, or too proud. And that’s the best case scenario. In some cases, they will sabotage the new employee’s efforts, forcing the newbie to look for work elsewhere.

This ritual is a lot more important than it might appear. In any case, it has a worthwhile goal - to bring people who work together closer so they can work better. Of course, you won’t find any mention of it in the labor legislation of the Russian Federation. It’s an unwritten rule that’s more of a product of Russian mentality. Russians are open people who like to socialize. Incidentally, working relationships often turn into true friendships in Russia. It’s not always a good thing, of course - mixing friendship with work can be risky business.

It’s no wonder that places of employment in Russia are referred to as collectives. The term refers to any group of people working together. It can refer to editorial staff at a newspaper or magazine, employees at some company, and even Bolshoi Theatre performers. Collectivism is historically important in Russia (Orthodox sbornost, peasant communities, labor collectives). Collectivism is a traditional value of the Russian people. “Russians people have always liked to live in the warm atmosphere of a collective,” Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev once noted. Expressions of individualism are interpreted by Russians as unrighteous, and therefore intolerable. Russians don’t like to stress the “I,” preferring to focus on the “we.” Russians like to say that it’s never good to stray from the collective!

It’s important to understand that, due to the above-mentioned reasons, a Russian person is connected to every individual in their collective not only through professional ties, but also through fairly strong emotional ties that aren’t easy to hide. Obviously, these positive or negative feelings often influence the work of the entire collective. This is why building good personal relationships is so important when working with Russians. It’s much easier to do business once contact has been established at a personal level.

In any case, foreigners who want to do business in Russia have to keep these cultural differences in mind. Differences between Western and Russian business culture can lead to misunderstandings and even serious conflicts. They will continue until both sides warm up to each other and find a reasonable compromise. But once a compromise is found, it will definitely yield good results at work.


Pictures by Anastasia Saifulina


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