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Question sent by Erik and answered by our expert Pia Kähärä.
Thank you for your question, Erik!
I read last week on the plane to Moscow (Aeroflot Inflight Magazine December ´17/January ’18) that in Russia only about 5,5 % of the population speaks English. My experience is that you will find most English speakers in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and they are usually younger people. The further you go from these cities, the less the people speak foreign languages. Of course, you can be lucky and your partner speaks English, for example, and that solves the language problem. Also, the language skills of Russians depend on the business sector. For example, in the IT sector people generally have better English skills than in heavy industry.
As Russian culture is hierarchical, the decision makers are at the top management level and they are the ones you should negotiate with. As they are often older guys, they don’t usually speak English, so you need someone who speaks English or your own language and Russian.
As Russian culture is also a collectivistic one where you must become friends to do good business together, it is easier to get to the friends level by speaking the same language.
However, the Russian language is difficult to learn to the level where you can conduct negotiations; it takes years. That is why my advice is to study the Cyrillic letters (to understand street signs and not get lost), basic greetings, perhaps a short toast speech and other basic expressions in Russian to show your genuine interest in the language, culture, and relationships.
For negotiations, I would advise to hire either a consultant who understands both your business, your negotiation aims and cultural background (plus can interpret) or your own professional interpreter whose Russian skills and knowledge of both cultures and reliability you trust.
As a matter of fact, I am helping companies in their go-to-market efforts to Russia as a business consultant who does not only interpret the negotiations but also advises how to negotiate and keeps the aim of the negotiation in mind. Language is an issue, but cultural differences cause a lot of misunderstanding in business negotiations as well. Companies entering into negotiations often rely on the fact that the counterpart has somebody who speaks both languages or they quickly find an interpreter somewhere. However, I have seen a lot of cases when the interpreter knows nothing about the subject, makes word by word translations which do not correctly convey the meaning of the message and makes you sound silly, does not know what must be explained to representatives of another country and culture and what can be directly translated, or is biased, taking care only of the interests of the counterpart. Interpreting is not an easy job and the better the interpreter knows the subject, the better your negotiations will succeed. So, your job as a client is to make sure the interpreter is well prepared.
To summarize, you should probably do both: learn some Russian, but also hire a professional to help you in more demanding situations.
Check the scores of Russia and compare them to those of your own country.
Pia works as a consultant helping Finnish companies in their ’go to market’ efforts in Russian-speaking countries like Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, as well as helping companies from those countries come to Finland.
In addition to her native Finnish, Pia speaks fluent Russian and English. Pia’s aim is to help managers perform better in business between countries and in multicultural teams – diminishing stereotypes between societies. Her broad practical business experience with European and Russian-speaking countries helps her to deliver tailored programs and trainings that are firmly anchored in solving real-life business situations.