Are we misunderstanding a colleague's seemingly rude behavior?
February 15, 2007 1:08 PM   Subscribe

My co-workers agree that a Russian colleague has an off-putting attitude. Is this a personality conflict or a cultural misunderstanding?

"Z" has worked at our office for more than 6 months. We are divided into small teams (about 5-6 people) by project, so while I almost never interact with her, my work-pal works very closely with her and work-pal's patience is being tried.

A few examples of Z's off-putting behavior: expecting rides to and from project sites, adding up to 30 minutes to someone else's commute, without asking for this favor or saying thank you; being thrown an impromptu wedding shower by her manager after she eloped and not saying thank you; contributing very little unless blatantly asked for help. Put it this way, if you are carrying something heavy and have more heavy things to carry, she won't offer her help. If the situation were reversed, she would look at you and say "help me" with nary a please or thank you. This is really not the culture of my workplace; we all like each other a lot and are usually happy to go the extra mile to help someone... but we ask nicely and are openly thankful.

I hope this provides enough detail for the question. If you have experience with Russian cultures, can you shed any light on this behavior? I think my work-pal would appreciate some context; if it is a cultural difference, at least she can not take it personally.
posted by juliplease to Human Relations (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and our office is in San Francisco and we are all between 25–35.
posted by juliplease at 1:21 PM on February 15, 2007

I don't know a lot about the Russian culture per se, but I used to work for a company whose software development and engineering departments had a unproportionally high number of Russian immigrants as employees. It wasn't a conscious management decision, but people tend to hire people they connect with, and it wasn't long before I was joking that "I was thinking with a Russian accent". That being said - I never noticed any of the personality traits you mention as being something I attributed to being Russian or not; some people were more offputting than others, but that was equally spread across all cultures and/or countries of origin. Just a casual observation from my very limited experience.
posted by cgg at 1:22 PM on February 15, 2007

Well, I have not interacted with a ton of people from Russia, but I do have a Ukranian co-worker (also female, and in the age range you specify) and she does not act the way you describe. She says please and thank you and is generally about the same on the politeness scale as most professional Americans I have worked with. So I guess that is a data point in favor of "rude, not cultural." She has lived here for five years or so though, so that might be something to consider.

(I do know that Ukranian is not the same as Russian, but I am assuming that the politeness standards of the 2 nationalities would be roughly similar. Sorry if this is not the case.)
posted by slenderloris at 1:23 PM on February 15, 2007

Russians can be brusque, but usually not overtly impolite. She sounds like a special case.
posted by electroboy at 1:23 PM on February 15, 2007

When you ask her to help you carry the boxes, does she do it?
posted by xo at 1:24 PM on February 15, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all of your answers thus far!

slenderloris, I believe she has lived in the US for some time, as she got an advanced degree on the east coast. I hadn't considered her time here as part of the equation and it likely should be.

xo, she will and without attitude, but work-pal says you have to be very direct and specific with instructions. To me, that could suggest either "feet-dragging" or a lack of confidence in doing things right.
posted by juliplease at 1:30 PM on February 15, 2007

Some people are just assholes. Which I think is mostly the case with your coworker.

That said, I've known a few Russian / Eastern Europeans who were... a little obtuse when it came to picking up on standard courtesy signals. I think in general the culture is more practical minded, less concerned with nuances and more focused on getting the job done.

I'm with xo - perhaps you should have asked the coworker to help, "Hey, give me a hand here, will you?" (Granted your example may have been hypothetical, but in practice I think if you're direct with them about your desires then they will be as helpful as anyone else.) Maybe she was thinking, "What a weirdo, if it were me I'd just ask for help instead of trying to do it all myself..."

More than likely tho she's probably just a jerk.
posted by wfrgms at 1:36 PM on February 15, 2007

I agree with electroboy. I have worked and interacted with a number of Russian/Slavic women and in my experience they have been a little brusque or chilly, but not pains in the ass like your colleague seems to be. It's not a Russian thing, just an individual personailty issue.
posted by yellowbinder at 1:38 PM on February 15, 2007

From this link about cultural differences between Russians and Anglos in the workplace:

1. Rs value positive politeness more than negative;
2. As pay more attention to negative politeness;
3. Rs express more emotive data than As
4. As are more conventionally indirect in requests than Rs
5. Rs invest more effort into supporting their requests by justifications than As;
6. As preface corrections with positive remarks more than Rs;
7. for Rs directness with familiars is associated with sincerity;
8. for As directness with familiars is associated with imposition on their freedom;
9. there is a huge amount of linguistic means in Russian, specifically used to show warmth and inoffensive closeness with familiars and intimates, thus amplifying positive politeness;
10. being translated into English, they will render into expressing patronizing attitude, thus becoming extremely offensive to the negative face;

This is consonant with her doing favors only on request - since (if this article is accurate) Russians tend to be very direct with their requests. (More of an "Ask" culture than a "Guess" culture.)

It would also mean she's less likely to worry about being rude in asking about something because (following tangerine's excellent theory just linked) she fully expects that saying "no" would not be awkward for the requestee.
posted by mammary16 at 1:40 PM on February 15, 2007

there are assholes and wonderful people everywhere, this has little to do with their origin or current location.

this person is not working out. get rid off her or she will suck the fun out of work completely.
posted by krautland at 1:41 PM on February 15, 2007

My Russian (thankfully, ex-) coworker was a bitch. I thought she was just nuts, (and she is) but several others at my workplace wrote it off as a cultural thing.
As an example of the bitchiness: She looked at my other female coworker and said "have you gained weight? you look fat." I'm thinking that goes beyond cultural differences to just being an asshole. I think you might also have an asshole in the workplace that just happens to have a Russian accent.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 1:43 PM on February 15, 2007

The two Russians I knew were both upfront and assertive (but generally helpful), with an incredibly dry (we're talking DESERT-dry) wit.

I don't think your coworker's actions are a result of her being Russian and I would treat her like anyone else who is expecting assistance and not expressing gratitude -- JUST SAY NO.

Don't give her a ride. Or if you do, say that you're going to charge her for the gas -- that way no gratitude is necessary, because it's a business arrangement. Similarly, don't offer to help her out, and if she asks, then assert your boundaries.

On preview, also what wfrgms said.
posted by parilous at 1:44 PM on February 15, 2007

Response by poster: mammary16, thanks for the great links. I tried googling for this information, but "Russian business etiquette" and the like gave me a lot of (really interesting) information on supersititions and customs but no data on these kinds of sociocultural differences. What an interesting article, I'll pass it onto work-pal.

And thanks to everyone for your input. I know that if there was no cultural difference, we would simply chalk it up to her being kind of an asshole and react accordingly. Since there is a cultural difference, all of your answers are helpful.
posted by juliplease at 1:53 PM on February 15, 2007

While it's true that Russians often appear rude and hostile to Westerners, yours is probably just a jerk.
posted by Krrrlson at 1:55 PM on February 15, 2007

Yeah, I think this is person specific, not a cultural thing.
posted by FlamingBore at 2:06 PM on February 15, 2007

Personally, I know and work with a lot of russians, and I think it is an _american_ thing. Yes, you heard me right. Americans do more of this excessive trying to kiss ass attitude thing, and most Russians will not do this, particularly in an office environment they do not feel comfortable in.

The solution is just to take the person constantly seriously, without expecting more that required from the person.

I don't think it's right to criticize a person for not giving what is not even requested for.
posted by markovich at 2:17 PM on February 15, 2007

Response by poster: I don't mean to criticize her for that, markovitch, though on a re-read, I can see how it came across like that. I guess I was more trying to get at the "one of these things is not like the other" part of the equation. Because our office culture leans so heavily towards getalong-gang, the difference in the way she treats people is striking.

That said, it makes sense that my being American has equal bearing as her being Russian and I agree that my expectations are completely cultural.
posted by juliplease at 2:24 PM on February 15, 2007

Response by poster: (Sorry, I just realized I misspelled your name. Make that "markovich")
posted by juliplease at 2:36 PM on February 15, 2007

I was born in Russia and spent a bit of time there. There definitely are cultural differences between Russia and the States. Russians, for example, tend to be more reserved around strangers, and less likely to smile at and say "hello" to a person they don't know. However, Russia is not a country of inconsiderate assholes, even though it has its fair share of such people. You also have to realize that Russia is a huge country, and it is hard to talk about it having any one culture. As with every other place, the specific geographic location from which a person comes, level of education, and class all effect the way a person will behave. I have met a number of incredibly rude Russians, but I have also met plenty who were very polite and very considerate (in the American sense). So, I'd say that the behavior of your co-worker is more a function of personality than culture.
posted by epimorph at 2:39 PM on February 15, 2007

I have had some experience with Russian co-workers but don't feel I can extrapolate to this situation. The comment "she will and without attitude, but work-pal says you have to be very direct and specific with instructions," sounds like a positive sign, if a small one to me. Perhaps it is too early (at 6 months in the job) for her to see that social niceties and volunteering to do certain kinds of tasks can help her get her job done and advance.
posted by PY at 3:23 PM on February 15, 2007

I'd be curious to know what she thinks about all the "polite noises" going on around her. I knew a Russian who was driven insane by what she saw as the British habit of inserting "please" and "thank you" at every step of the most mundane transactions. She thought it devalued politeness, because you then had nothing in reserve for when someone really deserved your thanks. I, in turn, was horribly embarrassed when she (as I saw it) blanked wait staff. Cultural differences. But even allowing for that, the Muscovites I knew would certainly have said thank you in the situations you outline above.
posted by Leon at 3:52 PM on February 15, 2007

It does to some extent remind me of the stereotypical Soviet attitude of work slowdown culture which resulted from living under a system where individual effort has little bearing on job prospects.

I'm also surprised at those who say the the Russian culture is 'ask' vs 'guess'-- I've perceived it as a super-guess culture. I think this may be tied to the question of first wave (postrevolutionary)/second wave (post-collapse) Russian immigration.
posted by alexei at 11:06 PM on February 15, 2007

In my experiences with Russians, I've found that "shaming with irony" ("What, you expect a ride home but won't pay part of the gas/tolls?") works. I think Russians consider "correct behavior" important, but she may not understand what the correct behavior is in these circumstances. There may also be an the assumption that, if someone lets themselves be taken advantage of, they either don't mind, or deserve no respect. Standing up for your rights may earn you that respect.
posted by sinyet at 3:33 PM on February 16, 2007

Maybe she has asperger's syndrome. If you want something from her, just ask and see how she responds.
posted by delmoi at 2:29 PM on February 17, 2007

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