Friendship and hospitality norms with Russian/Jewish/Israeli couple?
February 2, 2013 2:28 PM   Subscribe

My North American husband and I are at the beginning of a friendship with a couple who have kids at the same daycare as we do. We live in Canada. They moved to Canada 1.5 years ago and were born in the Ukraine/Soviet Union, moved to Israel at early ages where they lived for about 18 years and subsequently moved here. I am having trouble understanding how to build this friendship, partly, I think, because of cultural differences.

We have spent some time at one another's homes, eaten meals together, exchanged small gifts, shared tips and lent things back and forth. I'm not good at friendships, but I think this is how things are supposed to progress. I guess it's going pretty well and I'd like to keep it going well especially since we don't get out much or maintain consistent friendships with other couples with young kids.

I've had Russian friends before and in my experience, Eastern European woman are uniquely demanding in their friendship expectations and extremely frank in offering advice and criticisms - at least it seems that way to my Canadian, non-confrontational sensibilities. I've always failed in this dynamic, not responding correctly to advice and criticisms, not being as emotionally close and reaching the level of intimacy they expect, not calling enough, not giving presents enough, etc. If you know what I'm talking about, could you try to explain what this woman's expectations of me as a friend might be? I've read that other immigrating cultures often find Canadians to be friendly and polite, but that their friendships they make with them are not satisfying - they're not 'real' friendships. I don't want to be THOSE people. I want to have a real friendship.

One particular problem I can describe is the way they invite us to come over after work (they are just a quick walk from the daycare), sometimes when they are very obviously tired. I can't figure out if I'm supposed to agree, or insist that we come over another time. I can often sense they want us to go away, but then they insist on feeding us supper. From what I know about Eastern European culture (and most cultures, really), when you are offered food, it's rude to refuse. Again, I can tell they want us to go away so that they can clean their home, put their kids to bed and have some time to themselves, but still they offer more food, more drinks, more toys to lend...and being likely too passive, we end up agreeing and staying too late and it's clearly uncomfortable for everyone. Can someone explain this to me?

Basically, I really would like to develop a good friendship with this couple and with the woman in particular. If someone could give me a little explanation of North American/Canadian and Russian/Israeli cultural differences, I think it might help.
posted by kitcat to Human Relations (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: *sorry, despite the complexity of their backgrounds, I'm basically thinking of them as Russian since that is how they seem to self-identify, and that is the language they speak and the food they cook
posted by kitcat at 2:30 PM on February 2, 2013

To me, it seems like you're suffering from preconceived notions and over-thinking.

If you feel like they don't want you to come over or stay then don't.

Please, no offense, but try to think of them as people not Eastern European People.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:46 PM on February 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Sorry kitcat, you're kinda asking people to engage in broad stereotypes which seems to me to be completely unhelpful to you and to us.

But bigot that I am, generally speaking, North Americans are way more friendly and warm and outgoing and welcoming than just about everyone else on the planet. It is not this way in most places. People treat each other with suspicion and caution. Foreigners don't believe it's genuine and even if they do, some of them don't know how to deal with it. Be yourself, be patient, and you'll win anyone over.
posted by three blind mice at 2:48 PM on February 2, 2013

Also, take the control back. Invite them to your house, then you know that you want them to be there, that you want them to eat, stay etc and you'll know when it's a comfortable time to wrap things up (ie when you're tired or when you think they look tired). There's a cliched saying that 'sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing'....I don't know anything about eastern european cultures as a whole despite having a few russian friends, so I would just take their offers etc at face value- ie don't try to second guess everything or see them through a 'cultural filter'. You have to go home when you are ready to go home. You're tired, you have kids, no one is going to be offended! Also, friendships need to be organic. Hopefully it will develop more over time, but I don't think you can 'make sure' that happens.
posted by bquarters at 2:52 PM on February 2, 2013

I've dated an Israeli (from an Eastern European background, but born and raised in Israel) and have had some Russian friends.

Agreed that you're hugely over-thinking and have a lot of preconceived notions.

Now, your preconceived notions might be correct. For instance, when I was dating an Israeli, the whole "more upfront/confrontational" thing was a thing. We also had issues very similar to what you describe, figuring out whether an open-ended invitation was the same as a firm plan, as well as food stuff where it was hard to know what level we were playing on, polite social niceties-wise.

I would say that you should A) not over-presume or over-think in general, and B) just do what you want. If you want to go over on your way home, say yes. If you don't want to, say no.

Inviting them on your terms is good advice.

Also, I frankly don't think you should be over-worried about... whatever it is that you're worried about. That they won't want to be your friends? That you won't become close? That you'll cause offense via some minute social misstep? This isn't international diplomacy. Either you like each other and are friendly, or you dont and you're not. I doubt some kind of huge Incident is going to occur because you declined an invitation or stayed for dinner when the polite thing would have been to demur.
posted by Sara C. at 2:59 PM on February 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Any answer to this is obviously going to be somewhat of a stereotype, but I would say that in general, Israelis will not ask you over if they don't actually want you there. They also will not pretend to not be tired out of politeness if you're over at their house, as an average American or Canadian might. They also will not be offended if you bluntly say "OK I have to go home now!" or "No thanks I really don't need to borrow any toys!"

I know less of Russians, and ironically though my own family came from what was then Russia, they came through Canada, so their behavior was already tempered with reserve (and that immigrant thing where you don't want to make waves) before it reached me. But from what I do know (of Russians in both the US and Israel) I would say that Russians generally behave more like Israelis than North Americans. It can come off as pushy or, I don't know, overly involved, but it's mostly just being blunt and coming from a place where, in large part, strangers are sort of treated like family.

Then again these people could be outliers of whatever culture they identify with, and just doing their own individual thing.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:05 PM on February 2, 2013

I'm a Ukrainian immigrant who generally identifies as Russian -- I grew up in the US with my Ukrainian immigrant parents, interacting with the ex-Soviet cultural diaspora (Russians, Armenians, etc.). The thing is, I can't tell you which stereotype your friends are following. There are Russians who absolutely will offer you food and expect you to refuse (at least the first few times), and there are Russians who will invite you over, earnestly and whole-heartedly, even when they are very tired. Both of those would be very Russian things to do!

All you can do is do your best, and be the most honest and kind representation of yourself that you can be.
posted by Pwoink at 3:16 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: offer you food and expect you to refuse (at least the first few times)

Here's a good instance of something I don't understand. This is interesting in itself, even if it's not what's going on with my new friends. Why is a refusal expected? Is an eventual acceptance also expected?
posted by kitcat at 3:30 PM on February 2, 2013

I've had Russian friends before and in my experience, Eastern European woman are uniquely demanding in their friendship expectations and extremely frank in offering advice and criticisms - at least it seems that way to my Canadian, non-confrontational sensibilities.

Try to think of it as being more like that they value friendship too much to be dishonest with their friends. The beauty of that kind of friendship is: these hidden subtexts and unexpressed emotions of theirs that seem to be concerning you are actually way less of a problem, because if something you were doing were making them unhappy, they'd just tell you.

Anyway, I doubt you're right when you think they secretly want you to go away, (the usual mealy-mouthed disclaimer about it being impossible to generalize across cultures aside) it's definitely not a Slavic value to feel like staying up and having a drink with friends is some horrible imposition.

The whole whether to refuse offered food thing is sort of a weird little intricate dance of its own, but if you were doing it in a way that really hurt their feelings they'd probably just tell you. Since this is the second time they've immigrated, I'm sure they're perfectly aware that customs around this differ from place to place and are willing to cut you some slack.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 3:32 PM on February 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

In the Israeli scheme of things, if someone's at your house, you need to offer them food; it's rude not to offer. It is fine to refuse, (unless you are there at a mealtime; if you refuse in that case then you are keeping them from eating, because it's not like anyone's going to eat in front of you if you're not partaking.) Going home is fine and a better option than taking them up on the politely offered food, if you can see that they're tired.

I don't know why they're suggesting you come over after a long workday, but I'd just politely beg off next time. It's nice to extend a reciprocal invitation - next time, suggest they come over for a weekend brunch and playdate.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:42 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, assuming they embody to some extent the usual stereotypes for Russians and Israelis, you can just ask them! Very frankly and openly. Just say "look, this might be stupid, but I know there's supposed to be all these differences between these cultures, and listen, when you do this thing, what does it mean? And do I come off as a stereotypical not-"real" Canadian? Inquiring minds want to know!"

DestinationUnknown's answer seems pretty good to me.
posted by people? I ain't people! at 3:55 PM on February 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

"We would love to stop over for a little while, but we have to leave by [20 minutes from now]. Little Kitcat needs to bath and call her grandmother before it gets too late. How about you come over this Saturday for brunch? We would love to be able to spend some relaxed time together."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:19 PM on February 2, 2013

Um, if I was inviting you to come over to my house after work I would be expecting to feed you supper, because I would be hungry and want to eat supper myself. How do Canadians do it? Offer guests food and if the guests refuse sit there hungry? If you see your hosts prepping supper but don't want to partake, just say you have to go home now to eat your own supper. If they are tired, say "You look tired, next time, and you'll come over to our place". And then expect to feed people who you invite to your house during a meal time. Basically decide what you want to do and then assert yourself. But this is as far as I can go in generalizations - who knows how these particular people are. Maybe they are flaky, maybe intense, maybe clingy or maybe overfriendly because they are lonely.

The most important thing: that sentence where you don't want to be one of those people who can't have a "real" relationship? North American relationships are just as real, just as close, just as intense as Eastern European. Just because the shape is different does not mean they are less valuable. Don't let anyone tell you differently.
posted by Shusha at 7:05 PM on February 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

That was my frank feminine Eastern European advice and criticism. Enjoy! ;)
posted by Shusha at 7:07 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know... Having crossed cultures, I can tell you that there are different cues, and that Canadians definitely can often be very reserved.

Anyway, if you want to refuse but you still want to pursue the relationship, the best thing to do is to decline, and then be sure to try to arrange a follow-up interaction, either at your house, or a neutral location like a park or something.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:48 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I commend you for being culturally sensitive, but on the other hand, they are in Canada, so just do what Canadians do, and let them be the ones, as non-natives, who have to do most of the adapting. If you went to Russia, would you expect everyone to worry about whether they are doing things your way, or would you expect yourself to try to adapt to their ways?
posted by Dansaman at 9:44 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older A Question About Renting a Car   |   What should I do with this extra NOOK Color? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.