How (Not) to Shake Hands In Russian

You are all ready for your trip to Russia.  You can even say “Privet” and “Spasibo”.  And you’ve even brushed up on your Russian history.  Sadly, you have never received any formal training in the most basic body language skill, and even the heaviest of cross-cultural tomes fail to give even the most rudimentary elements in how (NOT) to shake hands in Russian.

I mean, I could tell you how to shake hands in Russia, or how to greet someone in Russia, but perhaps knowing how NOT to is more important.

Happily, I have made up for all of that with this free blog post written after two cups of coffee and endless minutes of thought on a Saturday morning.

How (NOT) to Shake Hands in Russian.

Yes, you should probably shake his hand, but do you know how?

1.  With Your Gloves On.  It does not matter if it is 0 Kelvin.  Give no thought to the lack of energy in the air.  Even if the molecules ain’t moving, your left hand had better be moving to remove the glove from your right hand before you shake hands in Russian.  Nothing shouts more loudly “I am a foreigner and want to remain in a protective germ free Western motherland atmosphere, free from your Russian influence and infection”, in Russian, more than keeping your glove or mitten warmly over your outstretched right hand.  Give no thought to the time and inconvenience it takes to remove the warming comfort from you right hand in the howling Siberian wind.  After all, there is some sense to this:  how would you feel if someone put on a glove to shake your hand?  Then why do you keep it on to shake hands?

2.  Only With People You Know.  Undoubtedly, half the battle is knowing not just how (NOT) to shake hands in Russian, but knowing who (NOT) to shake hands in Russian with.  With my deepest apologies for ending the previous sentence with a preposition, I present to you the following situation:  You are walking down the street with your friend.  Your friend meets a friend who is with someone else.  No one takes the time to introduce anyone.  Who should you shake hands with?  That’s right!  You should shake everyone’s hands (except your own companion).  No need for introductions here.  Do you really think you will remember your friend’s friend’s name?  Of course not.  But it would make sense to show them respect.  In my native American culture, however, I have discovered that in this situation I give my friend’s friends a respectful head nod and only shake hands if I have been properly introduced.

3.  The Other Gender.  If you are a man, should you shake hands with women?  I don’t know.  Of course, I do know, but I just say I don’t really know, so that you won’t be angry with me for now telling you what I know.  In my native culture, it is proper for men to shake hands with both men and women, although the latter can’t seem to decide among themselves on whether the handshake should be firm or a more graceful and gentle taking of the hand.  In Russia, I have learned not to shake hands with women unless she offers her hand first.  It is perfectly normal in a business setting for a man to enter a room and shake hands with all the men, whether he knows them or not, and not offer his hand to a single member of the fairer gender.  However, if you’re a woman you can decide for yourself.  You are more than welcome to offer your hands to the men.  Go crazy with it, and watch the Russian man’s face cover his shock with a thin sheet of delight.

Always remember: no glove to express your love.

4.  Over Two Other People’s Hands That Are Also Shaking.  This is a tricky one to describe.  Imagine five people approaching five other people.  For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that all of these ten people are people that are men.  Now, let’s imagine that one person who is a man in each group of five knows one of the persons who is a man in the other group.  What will now happen?  If you are an attentive reader, you will know that 10 left hands will now remove gloves from 10 right hands and there will be a total of how many handshakes?  This blogger does not know.  It is Saturday.  But he thinks it’s more than ten.  Now, to speed things up, it would make sense for this to be a free-for-all.  However, certain sub-not-so-Russian-cultures-in-Russia claim that if four men are shaking hands (in pairs of two) and their hands cross over each other, that they are recklessly inviting a pox on their own families.  I don’t know if that is true or not (the pox part), but you will need to patiently work out a system where each man shakes hand with each man in the other group without anyone having a pox inviting cross over scandal inducing handshake.  And pox or not, it does show maximum amount of respect for each person, regardless of whether they were formally introduced or not.

5.  More Than Twice A Day  But that’s another blog post from a different day.

6.  Across A Threshold:  Each culture has its very clear “do’s” and “do nots”.  For example, in many Asian cultures, it is socially unacceptable to show the bottom of your foot in any form or in any way to anyone.  Or another example, in my native land of Northeast Ohio, it is considered distasteful to moon anyone, regardless of your relationship.  In the very same way, you should only shake hands across a threshold in Russia if you desire a pox on your friend’s family and desire to casually spit on fragile international relations.  So, what should you do?  Let’s imagine together that you rang your friend’s doorbell and he opened the door.  If it was a she, you will need to refer to my previous post before reading any further.  Now that you are sure that it is a man person who has opened the door you may say “hello”.  And now it is time to shake hands.  Almost.  Before extending your hand, be sure that either you have crossed the threshold and are in the safe zone or insure that your friend has subtly exited his home and is now extending his hand to you.  If he has subtly exited, perhaps it is not necessary for me to even subtly suggest to you what is being communicated.  If you are the one inside the home, open the door, welcome them in, and take two steps back.  Now you may extend your hand.

7. Only With Clean Hands:  To be sure, this point is misleading.  In reality, you should only shake hands with clean hands, but you should go through all the motions of the handshaking ritual.  Allow me to explain.  Let’s imagine together that a mechanic has been working on your car for a few hours and you show up and want to shake his hands.  Or a plumber has been fixing your toilet and you want to shake his hand.  In both cases, this is a strong and unexpected move, much like using your knight for checkmate.  First, extend your hand confidently.  Then look said workman in the eye and say “hello”.  That is, of course, assuming this is the first time you have seen them today.  When they mildly protest that their hands are dirty, pretend to not hear and extend your hand only more confidently.  Then watch as said workman lifts his right arm with his dirty hand twisted away from your reach.  What are you to do?  You must now grasp his wrist ever so lightly with your thumb and one finger and shake.  And now you must continue conversation as if you had shaken hands in the most vigorous and traditional sense.

Are there any other ways How (NOT) To Shake Hands In Russian that I have thoughtlessly disregarded?   Comment below or in verbal form, whenever you see me.

7 thoughts on “How (Not) to Shake Hands In Russian

  1. By “us” do you mean Russians? I think the situation is awkward for everyone. But now, with your comment in mind, I may need to rethink the post I am working on entitled: “How To Make A Russian Eat”.

  2. hi, Andy! my name is Kirill.
    i know about this discomfort in handshakes, that a lot of non-russian people feels. but i cant understand, why? for me handshake – is important thing – it is admittion and acceptance, something like exchange of business-cards, it is something, like “we are both men, we have our main tools – our hands, and we offer one of them to each other”. but tell me, please, what is a handshake for people, who dont like handshakes?

  3. Yes, Kirill, a handshake is important in almost any culture. What makes someone from another culture feel uncomfortable, I think, is not knowing the nuance of what is an acceptable form of handshake in a foreign culture.

  4. Pingback: How To Say Hello In Russian – Planet Russia

  5. Pingback: How To Say “Happy New Year” In Russian (It Depends!!!) – Planet Russia

  6. Pingback: How To Say Hello In Russian | Correct Pronunciation | Planet Russia

Leave a Reply