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Russian Etiquette: Body Language and Gestures

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Did you know that when a Bulgarian nods his head, that means “no,” and when a Russian nods his head, it means “yes?” The same thing goes for shaking one’s head from side to side. In Bulgaria that means “yes,” but in Russia that same gesture means “no.” That’s why it’s so important to put some time and effort into learning foreign body language. You need to be perfectly sure that you interpret every gesture the right way. That said, here’s our list of Russian body language and gestures that you should know. Start with a bonus, and download your FREE cheat sheet - How to Improve Your Russian Skills! (Logged-In Member Only)

Table of Contents

  1. Russian Greetings and Gestures
  2. Interesting Russian Nonverbal Gestures
  3. Counting
  4. Russian Business Etiquette Tips
  5. Conclusion

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1. Russian Greetings and Gestures

How do Russians greet each other? There are several different ways, and you need to understand in which situations certain Russian gestures and greetings are appropriate. Here’s a list of common Russian body gestures with an explanation of when to use each one.

  • Russian handshake etiquette. A handshake in Russia is usually a greeting between men. They greet each other with a handshake both in formal and informal situations. For women, the handshake is less common. It’s never used in informal situations. As for formal situations, such as business meetings, handshakes are becoming pretty popular.
  • Nodding or waving a hand. Though greeting a girl with a handshake in a business meeting is becoming more and more common nowadays—due to a spread of the American lifestyle in Russia—just smiling and nodding is more common for her. Waving one’s hand is usually used instead of a nod if the person is some distance from you and a nod won’t be well seen.
  • Waving: Woman Waving
  • Nod: Woman Nodding
  • Hug. When it comes to body gestures in Russian culture, hugging is very common in Russia. It’s used as a warm greeting, especially between family and friends.
  • Kiss. One kiss on the cheek is the typical way that Russian girls greet each other. There was a tradition to greet by three cheek kisses in old Russia, but nowadays it’s gone.


2. Interesting Russian Nonverbal Gestures

Russian Hand Gestures

Here’s a comprehensive list of some Russian nonverbal signals you may encounter or need to use while in Russia. Please, keep in mind to use these body gestures of Russian people only in informal situations.

1- Fig

Fig Gesture

How to do it. Put your thumb between your index finger and middle finger and form a fist. Stretch your hand forward with this fist and show it to the other person. You can twist it a little for more emphasis.

What it means. This hand gesture in Russia is very popular and is basically a rude way of saying “You get nothing.” It’s rarely used in real life—except by grannies and granddads—but you’ll see a lot of it in movies and television series. This gesture can go by a variety of names: кукиш (kukish), шиш (shish), фиг (fig), or дуля (dulya). These four words are synonyms. Nowadays the words кукиш (kukish), дуля (dulya), and шиш (shish) are rarely used in speech.

The word фиг (fig) is used a lot in informal situations, but sometimes it loses its actual meaning. Let’s see some examples of how this Russian gesture can be used.

  • Фиг тебе (Fig tebe)—“I won’t give it to you”.
  • This has a slightly rude meaning, though it’s often used between friends or others who are close and isn’t considered rude under those circumstances. Фиг (fig) replaces the name of the object that the person refuses to give. Instead, he gives fig (fig), which equates to nothing. This can also be shortened to Фиг те (Fig te), both in speaking and informal messaging. If you want to learn more about Russian text abbreviations, check out our article.

    • Миша, дай мне шоколадку. (Misha, day mne shokoladku.) “Misha, give me the chocolate.”
    • Фиг тебе. (Fig tebe.) “Nope.”

    This phrase is often used in a teasing sense before smiling and actually giving the object requested.

  • Фига себе (Figa sebe)—“Wow”
  • It’s usually used to express strong feelings about something that you’ve just experienced. You can use this phrase for both good and bad news. After that, you can add a noun or a sentence to go more into detail about what your strong feelings are about. For example:

    • Фига себе, погода. (Figa sebe, pogoda.)—“Wow, the weather.”
    • Фига себе, ты крутой. (Figa sebe, ty krutoy.)—“Wow, you are really cool.” Be aware that it can be said sarcastically.
    • Фига себе, как дорого! (Figa sebe, kak dorogo!)—“Wow, so expensive!”

    This phrase can be shortened to Фига (Figa). If the person you’re talking to tells you that he/she did something unexpected, you can also react to that by adding ты (ty) meaning “you” after фига (figa), making it Фига ты (Figa ty). After Фига (Figa) and Фига ты (Figa ty) you can also add extra information about why you’re surprised:

    • На сколько поедешь в Берлин? (Na skol’ko poyedesh’ v Berlin?) “For how long are you going to Berlin?”
    • На месяц. (Na mesyats.) “For a month.”
    • Фига ты надолго! На работе нормально дали отпуск? (Figa ty nadolgo! Na rabote normal’no dali otpusk?) “Wow, so long! Did you get a job vacation without any difficulties?”
    • Да. (Da.) “Yes”.

  • Ни фига (Ni figa)—“No”
  • This can be used when you’re speaking about a situation with an unexpected outcome. Compared to the usual Нет (Net) meaning “No,” this phrase expresses more emotion.

    • Алё*. Уже купил? (Alyo. Uzhe kupil?) “Hello. Have you already bought (it)?”
    • Ни фига. Тут огромная очередь. Стою, жду. (Ni figa. Tut ogromnaya ochered’. Stoyu, zhdu.) “Nope. There is a huge queue. Standing and waiting.”

    *Note that Алё (Alyo) meaning “Hello” is a form of greeting used on the phone. If you want to learn more Russian greetings, please check out our article.

  • До фига (Do figa)—“A lot”
  • For example, У неё до фига денег (U neyo dо figa deneg) meaning “She has a looot of money.” It’s used to highlight the emotions the speaker feels about the subject.

  • Фиг знает (Fig znayet)—“I have no idea”
  • For example:

    • Во сколько обычно закрывается аптека? (Vo skol’ko obychno zakryvayetsya apteka?) “What time does the pharmacy usually close?”
    • Фиг знает. (Fig znayet.) “I have no idea.”

  • Фиг с ним (Fig s nim)—“Forget about him/it” or Фиг с ней (Fig s ney)—“Forget about her/it”
  • An additional meaning is “I don’t care about it” or “It doesn’t matter to me.” For example:

    • Ты доделал работу? (Ty dodelal rabotu?) “Have you finished your work?”
    • А, фиг с ней. Завтра доделаю. (A, fig s ney.) “Well, it doesn’t matter. I’ll finish it tomorrow.”

2- A Flick on the Neck

Neck Flick

How to do it. Bend your neck to the side a little bit and flick it with your fingers.

What it means. This gesture is generally used to replace the phrases выпить (vypit’) meaning “to drink” and пьяный (p’yanyy) meaning “to be drunk” in a dialogue. For example, you can use this gesture instead of underlined words here:

  • Пойдем выпьем. (Poydyom vyp’yem.)—“Let’s go for a drink.”
  • Давай выпьем. (Davay vyp’yem.)—“Let’s have a drink.”
  • Да он уже пьян. (Da on uzhe p’yan.)—“Well, he is already drunk.”

3- Crazy Person

Crazy Person Gesture

How to do it. Twist your finger near your temple several times.

What it means. This gesture means that someone you’re talking about is crazy. By doing this gesture, you indicate that something is wrong with this person’s head and brain. The meaning could be both literal and figurative.

You can use it by itself or with phrases like these:

  • Ты что, псих? (Ty chto, psikh?)—“Are you a psycho?”
  • Он совсем рехнулся. (On sovsem rekhnulsya.)—“He has gone completely crazy.”
  • Ты с ума сошёл? (Ty s uma soshyol?)—“Are you crazy?”

4- Giving a Tooth

Giving a Tooth Gesture

How to do it. Raise your upper lip a little bit and pretend that you’re pulling out one of your front teeth.

What it means. This gesture is a way of swearing. Essentially, it’s like promising that you’re ready to give a tooth if something you say will happen doesn’t happen. This shows that you’re 100% sure that it’s going to happen.

This gesture is usually used after the words Зуб даю (Zub dayu) meaning “I’m giving you a tooth.” Less often, you can see it after the words Правду говорю (Pravdu govoryu) meaning “I’m telling the truth.”

For example, you believe that this time you’ll pass your exams for sure. Then talking to your friend about it, you can say Зуб даю, что сдам экзамен (Zub dayu, chto sdam ekzamen) meaning “I’m absolutely sure that I will pass the exam.”

5- “I’m fed up with it”

Fed Up Gesture

How to do it. Put your hand, palm down, near your neck and tap your neck several times.

What it means. This gesture means that you’re fed up with something. It literally shows the expression Сыт по горло (Syt po gorlo) which translates to “Fed up till the throat.” It can be used without any words, but don’t forget to make a meaningful expression of irritation or anger on your face.

You can also add some phrases to make this gesture more expressive:

  • У меня здесь уже это все. (U menya zdes’ uzhe eto vsyo.)—“For me, everything is already here.” Show the gesture on the word здесь (zdes’)—“here.”
  • Как меня уже это достало. (Kak menya uzhe eto dostalo.)—“How I’m already fed up of that.”

6- Hitting Your Chest with a Fist Two Times

Chest Beating

How to do it. Make a fist, turn it to yourself from the side with your thumb and index finger, and tap your chest—on the furthest side from the arm—two times.

What it means. By using this gesture, Russians express loyalty or vouch that they’re telling the truth. This gesture is mostly used in street gangs, so it has a slightly aggressive and criminal “aura.” A lot of men love this gesture and use it pretty often in informal situations.

7- Russian Shrug

Woman shrugging

How to do it. Spread your hands sideways with your palms up and shrug.

What it means. By meaning, this gesture is equal to an international shrug. It’s used when you need to stress that you don’t understand or know anything. Compared to the usual shrug, this gesture means that you’re experiencing a lot of emotion and want others to know this.

8- A Confused Head Scratch

Woman Scratching Her Head

How to do it. Loop your arm around your head from the top and scratch your head.

What it means. Though Russians can just scratch their head when they’re confused—like people do everywhere in the world—they tend to make it more emphatic by looping their arm over their head and scratching the other side of the head. The thing is that it takes more time to make this gesture than the usual head scratch, so Russians get more time to think. Pretty smart, huh?

9- “Now I Get it!”

How to do it. Slap your forehead with an open palm.

What it means. Russians use this gesture when they suddenly or eventually understand something.

10- Throwing a Hat on the Ground

Throwing a Hat Gesture

How to do it. Raise your right arm, and with a strong breath out, throw it down and to the left.

What it means. This gesture comes from the old times when people really threw their hats on the ground. Right now, the gesture only implies that. This gesture expresses that a person has made a desperate decision.


3. Counting

Popular hand gestures in Russia are those used for counting. When Russians count, they start with an open palm and bend every finger starting from Один (Odin) meaning “One” or Раз (Raz) which also means “One.” Most people start by bending their little finger, but some people start with bending the thumb. No matter which finger you bend first, you’ll be understood.

The exerсise. First, let’s learn the Russian numbers from one to five.

  • Один (Odin)—“One”
  • Два (Dva)—“Two”
  • Три (Tri)—“Three”
  • Четыре (Chetyre)—“Four”
  • Пять (Pyat`)—“Five”

Now guess the number by the picture and choose the right answer.

1.
Hand Three

  • Один
  • Два
  • Три
  • Четыре
  • Пять

The answer: Два

2.
Hand Four

  • Один
  • Два
  • Три
  • Четыре
  • Пять

The answer: Один

3.
Hand Five

  • Один
  • Два
  • Три
  • Четыре
  • Пять

The answer: Пять

4.
Hand Two

  • Один
  • Два
  • Три
  • Четыре
  • Пять

The answer: Три

5.
Hand One

  • Один
  • Два
  • Три
  • Четыре
  • Пять

The answer: Четыре


4. Russian Business Etiquette Tips

Russian body language is something that you need to know, especially before business meetings with Russian partners or clients. Though Russian business culture is similar to that in American, it has some significant differences in terms of proper etiquette. Here are some examples of proper Russian body language etiquette:

  • Don’t keep your hands in your pockets in formal situations. Though European and American people feel more or less okay with keeping their hands in their pockets, in Russia this posture is considered careless. If you want to avoid this impression, don’t do that.
  • Don’t whistle. Though whistling is fun, in Russia it’s considered rude to whistle inside the house or office. Basically, it comes from the Russian superstition that if you whistle inside, you’ll soon lose all your money.
  • Take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home. Russians keep their floors at home clean. There’s usually a shelf or a place to put your street shoes near the entrance door in every flat or house. Usually, a Russian host will offer you slippers to wear or you can find them near the entrance and put them on yourself. As Russian floors are usually not heated and the winters are cold, wearing slippers inside is very reasonable.


5. Conclusion

To sum it up, there are several different gestures that are used in Russia. In this article, we highlighted the most unique and popular ones. But you can feel at ease with gestures that are used worldwide such as thumbs-up, facepalm, etc. People from countries all over the world are connected through the Internet, so people everywhere are slowly starting to understand gestures from other regions.

Learning gestures is an important part of language study, but keep in mind that you’ll feel more confident using them if your verbal skills are also at their best. We have the MyTeacher program for Russian learners, which is sure to help you out here. With the help of our teachers, you’ll improve your Russian language skills and start to sound and use your body language like a real Russian. Be careful though, on high language levels you might get a cold-weather resistance. :)

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