Russian Language Blog

Russian Etiquette 3D Posted by on Jun 5, 2014 in Culture

Those of you who have visited Russia may remember your friends or study abroad advisor tell you about the peculiarities of your host culture. Perhaps they touched upon the etiquette and body language, as well. Still, we tend concentrate so much on the proper thing to say or do that we often overlook spatial awareness, although placing things in the wrong place may seem rude or even offensive to Russians. I will list a few spatial guidelines that will keep your Russian friends happy.

1. The floor is lava!

Generally speaking, personal belongings, especially those that come in contact with your hands or face, should not touch the floor. That means that purses, clothes, or books are not placed on the floor (на пол) or on the ground (на землю). The floor is considered a dirty place meant to be touched only by the soles of people’s feet. For that reason, sitting on the floor or grass is considered bad form as well. Moreover, conventional wisdom has it that sitting on the ground will cause pelvic inflammations and UTIs in women.

2. No feet on the seat

One of the stories I would invariably hear from my Russian college professors coming back from teaching in the US is how their students would sit in class with their legs crossed, one ankle resting on top of the other knee. This was surprising and somewhat disconcerting to the Russian professors because, as far as they were concerned, your feet should always point toward the ground — at least, according to Russian etiquette.

Similarly, you are not supposed to put your feet on the opposite seat on public transit or stand on a chair or table with your shoes on. Just as with the floor being seen as dirty, feet are the part of your body that is closest to the “dirty” floor and should, therefore, stay away from all other objects and body parts. There is even a Russian saying “Посади свинью за стол, она и ноги на стол” (literally, if you seat a pig at a table, it will put its feet on the table), which is a rough equivalent of “Give him an inch and he’ll take an mile.”

3. In the doorway

You might have read that talking or passing things over the threshold (передавать через порог) of a door is considered a bad omen. The origins of this superstition are in the pagan belief that evil spirits live in the doorframe. Nowadays, this old belief may not be taken quite so literally, but it is still considered inhospitable not to invite the person to step inside, even if it’s a mail carrier.

4. Face to face

If you need to make it to the center of the row in a theater and there are people sitting closer to the aisles, you are supposed to face them as you work your way past them towards your seat. Ironically, a 1922 book on etiquette recommends just the opposite! The seated people usually get up, too, so it is not as awkward as you may be imagining.

Are there any other things you discovered you were supposed to do differently in Russia? Or maybe, quite the opposite, there is something you can’t get used to the way people outside of Russia do? I, for one, can’t get used to Americans sitting down on their beds in their street clothes. What is your Russian/non-Russian favorite spatial quirk/pet peeve?

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Jennifer:

    I sent my Russian penpal some candy at Halloween, (which never arrived, but that’s a different story). Anyways, after he asked “whatever happened to the candies you were going to mail to me”, I was telling him what was in the package…”two of each kind of chocolate bar, and four halloween candies for you and four for your wife”. Then he tried to explain to me about how you are not supposed to give even numbers of something. It has to be three, or five–odd number amounts. He tried to explain why, but he hardly knew himself. He said that on his father’s grave they would put flowers in even numbers, as if even numbers were connected with death. I don’t know. It was confusing and sort of funny to me. I gathered it had something to do with Russian Orthodox church tradition. If anyone knows anything about it, I would love to understand it better. He isn’t religious himself, but said that his mom told him about it all.

    • Maria:

      @Jennifer Jennifer, interesting! I’ve heard about the even number of flowers — that that’s reserved for funerals. I haven’t really encountered any even-number taboos for gifts, but sounds like your penpal based it on the flower rule, as well. Russian superstitions in general are pretty fascinating. I, for one, refuse to hear birthday wishes or receive birthday gifts ahead of the date. I may write about this sometime, depending on what superstitions have already been covered here.

  2. Anya:

    I’m so glad I’m not weird in thinking that one should change out of street clothes before hanging out in the house or sitting on the bed for example. I’m totally conscious of that, and never thought it was a cultural thing, but it so is!

    Along similar lines, no shoes in the house was a given in the region where I grew up. It was always standard to have a collection of тапочки in the entryway for guests to wear when (not if) they removed their shoes upon entering the house/apartment, especially in winter.

    I am always torn every time a host who is wearing shoes invites me inside. I want so badly to remove my shoes, but at the same time I know that because they don’t, their floor is probably dirty with street dirt (ick). And it still shocks me when someone enters my house without removing their shoes. It’s still gross to me, and I haven’t lived outside of the US in over ten years. I clean my floors as soon as that person leaves (one reason, the main reason, that I chose an apartment with laminate flooring as opposed to carpet.)

    Oh the things we notice that no one else seems to care about– it’s the blessing (curse?) of living between cultures. I call it a blessing because I’m so glad I am aware of the better way of doing things! :p

    • Maria:

      @Anya Anya, the shoe conventions are completely true for Russia, as well. It is considered very rude/uncultured to walk in in your street boots. Also, lying on the bed in your shoes, even if your feet don’t touch the bed, is inconceivable. I still have a visceral negative reactions to “outside” clothes or shoes touching any furniture people sit/sleep in in their “inside” clothes.

  3. Dale:

    When I worked in a Russian summer camp, the children would lay on the floor indoors to draw and paint. As I walked around and supervised them, they would go crazy if I stepped over them, claiming that if I didn’t step back over, they would stop growing! I loved this superstition!

    Also, we were, of course, not allowed to sit at the corner of the table to prevent us from remaining single!

    • Maria:

      @Dale Right, I remember that one! It’s still around. Another superstition I like is stepping on someone’s feet. They need to step back on yours, otherwise you’re going to fight. This only works with people you know, of course.