I’ve recently been to Saint Petersburg, Russia, to help my parents to renovate the apartment they had moved into. Just for your information, Russians recognise Saint Petersburg as the “cultural capital of Russia” due to its rich cultural traditions, heritage and, arguably, population.
But I’d like to touch on another subject now. For the sake of the renovation I had to do a lot of shopping in a big builder’s store. Just because it was big, I preferred to ask staff for directions rather than waste my time looking for the thing I needed.
After so many years of living in Holland I’d usually open a conversation, smiling, with: “Hello! Could you please help me with …?”
Some (un)cultural patterns began to emerge after lots of repetitions of the above procedure.
As soon as you approach a Dutch medewerker (salesperson), they stop doing whatever they were busy with, turn to you and answer the greeting loudly. Their Russian counterparts return a greeting one time out of two, on average, while employing somewhat cautious body language: half-turned towards you, speaking softly and mostly avoiding eye contact.
A Dutch salesman would always check if you understood the directions by asking again, explain it differently if needed, and wait until you acknowledge the matter has been cleared. Russians would usually mumble something like “over there, next row” and flee immediately after. I wonder whether they feel awkward or are simply in a hurry all the time.
One can also often notice the condescending tone of Russian staff: “Cable box? (condescendingly) You mean cable tray? Over there, at the end of the row.” This becomes much too evident if you’re stupid enough not to understand at your first try and keep asking.
Another annoying thing was frequent section closure, when everyone gets evicted at once and the aisle is closed off. Nobody cares that you’re there, looking for something, you must leave straight away! What’s funny, that row may stay idle for quite a while after that, but it had to be closed off, because THAT’S THE RULE. While navigating the store, you bump into these closed rows all the time, and I wonder why I’ve never experienced that kind of emergency eviction here in Holland, even in large ones like Hornbach or Ikea.
But the greatest
shock surprise was the behaviour of the customers. It seems to be normal in a Russian store to interrupt a salesman while he’s talking to another customer, no matter how busy those two are. This is something hardly imaginable in Holland. Disregarding the subject of the conversation, be it, say, weather or anecdotes, no one would even try to chip in. Nonetheless, the Russian staff seem to be okay with that, they sometimes even give answers to such plug-in questions!
On the positive side, well, there are still some well-mannered salespersons, who would greet you, talk distinctly, not get agitated at an additional question and not try to escape as soon as possible. Once the next guy in line offered to scan his loyalty card because I didn’t have one. People in the public transport seemed to me quite polite at times, despite their sullen appearance. That said, it feels more like an exception to the rule. ■