Ukrainian society has its specific features and standards of conduct that you may find unusual. Some of them are inspired by traditions, while others are a result of fanciful historical development. We would like to tell you about the habits and customs of Ukrainians that you may find odd.
If you are planning to visit Ukraine…
First, guests are always welcome here. Ukrainians find it necessary to show their guests all the monuments and places of interest in their hometown or city. Second, Ukrainians take good care that their guests always feel full, as if they have just had a meal. You have to get used to it.
What do Ukrainians say and how do they say it?
Don’t worry if you do not see many smiling faces in the street or elsewhere. It does not mean at all that something bad has happened. Ukrainians are not used to smiling without reason. Yet, if you start talking to any one of them, they will definitely smile. And you will have no doubt that they smile to you and their smile is sincere. Generally, Ukrainians are sincere about all aspects of communication. The “Yak ty?” (How are you) greeting is irrelevant in Ukraine. When hearing this question, a Ukrainian may decide that you really care and the level of response you get will depend on how well you know each other and how much time you have available. So, it is better to use the traditional “Dobryden” (Good day), “Pryvit” (Hello), etc. On the other hand, if they ask you “Yak vashi spravy?” (How are things?), it means they are ready to receive a little more than a one-syllable answer, and not out of curiosity, but rather because they are ready to offer you support. As for taboo subjects, there are few. For example, Ukrainians gladly talk about politics. Religion is not a taboo subject and religious viewpoints can be discussed with co-workers or acquaintances. Money- and health-related issues, as well as personal problems, can be talked about within a close circle of friends. A topic you should avoid bringing up is that of national identity, because Ukraine is a multinational country and you never know who you are talking to: a Ukrainian, Russian, Jew, Crimean Tatar or a representative of another nationality. They all consider Ukraine their motherland.
What language is spoken?
Of course, if you come to Ukraine on business, you can negotiate in English, unless you find it a problem. If it is a problem, an interpreter who knows your native language will be invited to every meeting. The situation is different with visitors who wish to learn Ukrainian. So, what language is spoken in Ukraine? One can hear a lot about the “language problem” in Ukraine. So, what is the matter? The official language here is Ukrainian and that is absolutely logical. School and university students are taught in Ukrainian and this language is spoken at government institutions and at official events. Yet, during several centuries, at the times of the Russian Empire, which comprised the largest part of modern-day Ukraine, and later the USSR, the Russian language occupied a strong position within Ukrainian society. There is territorial differentiation: in the east and south of the country, the majority of the population speak Russian in everyday life, while in the west and north, Ukrainian is used in all spheres. Fortunately, almost all people living in the country understand both languages. There are few people who refuse to speak one of them on principle. Sometimes you can see the following situation: one individual is speaking Ukrainian, the other, Russian, and they may not even notice it. So, if you are planning to learn a language in Ukraine, you can learn both Ukrainian and Russian, because they are very similar.
If you plan business meetings in Ukraine...
There are also some features of conduct typical of the business environment. For instance, even if you have agreed about a meeting, it is common practice to confirm it by telephone an hour or so before the appointed hour. Ukrainians are accustomed to resolving all more or less important issues during personal meetings instead of using the telephone or mail. In a personal meeting, it is easier to evaluate the intentions of potential partners and whether it is possible to trust them. Besides, an important negotiation usually ends with dinner at a restaurant, which is arranged by the host party. Such shared meals allow future partners to better learn each other and discuss issues that were not covered during the negotiation. In fact, foreigners in Ukraine point out that the attitude toward communication here is more emotional than in other countries in general and in the business environment in particular. Although during the “official” part of the meeting or during working hours in the office Ukrainians are more self-contained than would be common in many countries, they try to establish emotional bonds with their business partners and coworkers after hours by having a meal at a restaurant or by visiting cultural or sporting events together. Ukrainians often have warm and open relations with their coworkers. Interestingly, they can “keep a distance” and observe formalities within the office and at the same time discuss very personal issues and find moral support among their colleagues outside the office. It is common for Ukrainian office workers to celebrate all holidays and birthdays by arranging a buffet or a more “substantial meal”.
If you agree to a negotiation with the top manager of a large Ukrainian company and a very young person comes to the meeting instead…, should you question the person’s competence?
Do not make hasty conclusions but consider the content of the conversation instead. Many foreign businessmen who work in Ukraine or have partners here are often surprised at the young age of Ukrainian top managers. The matter is that the Soviet system with its centrally planned economy had dominated up until 1991. When the system collapsed and the market economy began to take shape, it turned out that there were no qualified specialists, because the educational establishments did not prepare experts who were needed by the market. What is more, “old-school” managers could not quickly adapt to the new economic conditions. Then it became apparent that it was better to employ a very young and inexperienced but zealous specialist than to retrain experienced workers and root out their stereotypes. Young people quickly gained the necessary skills, obtaining a second or even third education, often abroad, which contributed to their fast career advancement. And that was quite a common tendency for Ukraine.
If you have Ukrainian friends…
It is customary for Ukrainians to highly value friendly relations, which may often be as important as relations of kin. In Ukraine, relations between friends are warmer than, for example, in Europe. In Ukraine, a friend is someone you trust almost as much as you trust yourself. Generally, there are not many friends (only one or several), while there can be very many acquaintances with whom you maintain informal relationships. The following are examples of what local proverbs say about friendship: “A person without friends is like a tree without roots”, “Water given by a friend is sweeter than honey given by an enemy” or “The friend I have found is so good I could go to the Underworld with him”. Quite a bit of time is spent on communication with friends and acquaintances. And events are generally not planned ahead of time. So, if you call your Ukrainian acquaintance and suggest meeting, you should be ready that he/she will invite you tonight or tomorrow at the latest. If your next couple of weeks are busy and you suggest meeting in two weeks’ time, a Ukrainian may misunderstand you and decide that you do not feel like meeting at all. It is therefore better to suggest a later date, just in case. Ukrainians are ready to devote their time and effort to their acquaintances if the latter need help. So, you are lucky if you have Ukrainian acquaintances.
Gender roles in Ukraine are somewhat different from those in Europe and the USA as being more conventional. But that is just the first impression. For instance, the ideas of aggressive feminism have not taken root in Ukraine. Here men can still extend such traditional courtesies as making a compliment, holding the door open for a lady or giving her a hand when she is getting out of a car. Ukrainian men can even take offense if a lady does not allow them to pay her restaurant bill. Most women usually pay much attention to the way they look and try to dress elegantly. Sometimes it may be misinterpreted as an attempt to achieve success by using their feminine charm, but that is far from true. Even according to sociological studies, Ukrainian women do that for themselves and not for men. It is not hard to understand: back in the Soviet days, it was practically impossible to even buy elegant shoes in a store, and clothes were made by using featureless templates and were usually gray or black. While making your own clothes is more of a hobby in almost every part of the world, for Ukrainian women it was probably the only chance to dress well. So, there was a sewing machine in almost every home and almost every woman could sew. As for the traditional role of woman in society, it is best reflected in the centuries-old folklore: “A man is the head and a woman is the neck”, “No matter what Father says, Mother will do it her own way”. A large percentage of marriages are registered at a young age; that is, not later than at 25. At the same time, modern Ukrainian women are not afraid of being independent and making decisions on their own. So, you should not be surprised if in Ukraine you see women who, by the age of 35, have had a baby or two, obtained an education or even more than one education. Despite that, they have a business of their own or have built a brilliant career. By the way, they can also have several jobs. There are many such examples, especially in big cities. They may simply be trying to use all the opportunities they are given by nature or society. So, Ukrainian women do not care about the external attributes of equality, but in Ukraine we would not recommend that you underestimate the role of women in business or interpersonal communication. They are accustomed to making their own choices of life tasks, priorities and the sphere in which they self-actualize.
If you are invited to someone’s home...
We must warn you that Ukrainians do not preplan their visits or parties either, unless it is a holiday or an important event in their lives. By the way, they can invite you to their birthday party on its eve or on the actual day of the party. However, they probably won’t take offense if you cannot change your evening plans. It is common for acquaintances to call each other and ask if they are not busy in the evening and if it is all right if they come over, or invite them to their own place. If no one minds, a warm meeting at someone’s home or at a restaurant can take place that very evening. It may not be quite rational and it may seem inconvenient. But there are good things about it too: if you want a party today, why postpone it? The one who comes over usually brings some food or drink. It can be juice, wine, a cake or candies. If you have been invited to a family holiday, it will be sensible to bring a gift or a bunch of flowers for the lady. There are various superstitions which, as they say, they do not believe in but try not to break all the same. For example, Ukrainians never greet each other or pass anything over the threshold, nor do they whistle at home. A bouquet should contain an odd number of flowers.