Given the large out-migration of Russians from the former U.S.S.R. in the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as previous waves of emigration to the United States and other nations in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, it is possible to speak of a bona fide “Russian Diaspora” community throughout the world. Moreover, Russian nationals are becoming more present in global businesses, and so their communication styles are becoming of greater interest to the international business community. This portion of the literature review will examine the communication domain of individuals of Russian heritage, and will further propose questions for future research into this area of cultural studies. While Russians have generally demonstrated an exceptional ability to adapt to the particular surroundings in which they may land, it is crucial to understand communication patterns that are specific to the Russian Diaspora community.
As regards specific aspects of the communication domain of individuals who are of Russian heritage, the first point will be in relation to language. As might be expected, the first language of first-generation Russian immigrants is Russian; however, this community tends to place a high priority on the acquisition of the dominant language of whatever nation in which they happen to live. In the United States and other Anglophone nations, Russian descendants become fluent in English; those who migrate to Finland quickly learn Finnish (Lahti, 2013), and those who end up in Estonia typically become extremely proficient in the Estonian language (Zabrodskaja & Verschik, 2014). The seemingly exceptional linguistic agility that individuals of Russian heritage exhibit is likely a basic survival strategy. As multiple scholars (Vraciu, 2012; Lahti, 2013; Zabrodskaja & Verschik, 2014) have observed, Russian immigrants must often contend with a negative image of Russians that exists in many European and North American societies, which views them as “gangsters, criminals, and prostitutes” (Vraciu, 2012), and so there is a strong impetus for individuals of Russian heritage to do whatever is necessary to conform with the expectations of the dominant society in which they reside.
As far as nonverbal aspects of communication that are predominant among individuals of Russian heritage, these are additional aspects that often serve to set them apart from the larger society of any country to which they migrate. As far as issues of temporality within communication, these do not tend to differ greatly from these norms in most other European languages. With regards to eye contact, people of Russian heritage generally regard direct eye contact as a sign of personal integrity and strength; when engaged in a discussion with a person of Russian heritage, it is always best to maintain direct eye contact with them for as long as possible. In terms of physical contact and spatial issues during a conversation, it is customary to provide someone with a firm handshake upon meeting them; however, other signs of affection such as hugs or kisses on the cheek are reserved for people for whom the Russian individual feels genuine sentiment.
Often, individuals of Russian descent will display as little emotion as possible during a conversation or business negotiation, and they also display a tendency to carefully consider their words before they speak. If one is engaged in a conversation with a Russian individual, and they frequently hesitate before responding, this should never be interpreted as a sign that the individual is tongue-tied, or is trying to be duplicitous. In Russian culture, the saying that “one’s word is one’s bond” is a truism, and thus most Russians will not speak on impulse, particularly if they are speaking with someone with whom they are doing business, or whom they do not know very well. In regards to other aspects of the communication domain of individuals of Russian heritage, Vracini (2012) has observed that members of this cultural group exhibit a strong tendency to use the human body and its various organs as metaphors, especially when discussing politics.
Possibilities for Future Research
As for a potential research question that has not yet been explored in the current scholarly literature to date, one would have to do with the persistence of the above-mentioned aspects of the communication domain among individuals of Russian descent who are two, three, four or more generations removed from Russia. The current literature demonstrates that Russians, as a group, are incredibly proficient at learning the dominant language in any society in which they happen to reside, and that they can often adapt exceptionally well to the cultural and social norms of these societies. However, it is unclear from the current scholarship if members of the Russian Diaspora make a widespread effort to preserve the Russian language and nonverbal communication norms among their descendants. For instance, if one were to speak to a third generation Russian-American, without knowing their surname, would there be specific nonverbal cues in their communication style that would allow the trained listener to ascertain that they were of Russian heritage? Moreover, would such cultural persistence remain if the individual in question was of mixed cultural heritage, or hailed from a family who was the only group of Russian descendants who lived in a community comprised primarily of, say, Irish-Americans, Anglo-Americans, or German-Americans? In many regards, this research would provide a very interesting contribution to the existing literature on the communication domain of individuals of Russian descent. Further, it is a research question that is extremely tenable.
With regards to the research design of such a project, it would necessarily be qualitative, as the researcher would be assessing individuals of Russian descent for nuances in their communication style, such as a tendency to maintain direct eye contact during a conversation, a marked tendency to hesitate prior to speaking, or even a marked use of bodily metaphors within their communication style. Further, the research would utilize a grounded theory approach in its overall methodology.
As regards the manner in which such a research project would be carried out, the first step would be, of course, to locate a suitably sized sample of individuals of Russian descent. For the purposes of this study, “individual of Russian descent” would be defined as a person who can trace at least 25 percent of their ancestry to Russia, and is no more than six generations removed from their ancestral land. The qualified individuals who agree to participate in this study will be provided with a brief questionnaire asking them for details about their upbringing, cultural practices in their families of origin, the number of languages spoken, and their subjective feelings about the personal proximity they feel to Russian culture. Once the subjects have filled out the questionnaire, they will then be asked to engage in a ten to twenty minute long conversation with the researcher, who will assess their communication patterns for signs of the preservation of Russian communicational norms.
To conclude, individuals of Russian descent have a strong ability to adapt to the predominant culture of the nation to which they emigrate. However, Russian-descended individuals also exhibit a specific and unique communication style, which is important for all global citizens to understand.
- Cao, Y. (2013). The cultivation of Russian phonetic communication competence. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 3(4), 691-695.
- Lahti, M. (2013). Cultural identity in everyday interactions at work: Highly skilled female Russian professionals in Finland. Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies, 3(4), 21-43.
- Vraciu, M. (2012). RUSSIA(N) IN CONTEXT: ASPECTS OF METAPHOR IN THE RUSSIAN POLITICAL DISCOURSE. International Journal of Communication Research, 2(4), 310-324.
- Zabrodskaja, A., & Verschik, A. (2014). Morphology of Estonian items at the interface of Russian-Estonian language contact data. Sociolinguistic Studies, 8(3), 449-474.