14 things you should never do in Russia

America is a "melting pot" of different cultures and ideas, and as a result Americans aren't (usually) super-sensitive about people who do things a bit differently than we do. But most of the world's cultures evolved over centuries, sometimes millennia, and often in relative isolation. That's one of the reasons why people from other cultures can get so annoyed at American travelers — American travelers don't always get the whole cultural respect thing, and they do things that can come across as stupid and rude.

That's why it's a good idea to do your homework before visiting any foreign nation. You don't really want to piss anyone off, not just because it sucks to get into an altercation with someone whose language you don't speak, but also because you never really know what tradition dictates ought to happen to those who defy tradition. So just in case you're planning a summer vacation to Russia (But why? Seriously, go to Paris.), here's a list of the top things you should never do while you're in Mother Russia.

Don't wear gloves when you shake hands

If you're going to be in Russia in the summer, you don't have to worry too much about this rule because Russia is freaking hot in the summer and you're not likely to be wearing gloves. But the rest of the time, Russia is like a balmy afternoon on Neptune and if you don't wear gloves your fingers might actually snap off when you try to take your phone out of your back pocket.

Still, there are occasions when you're simply not allowed to wear gloves, and no one in Russia cares how cold your wussy foreign fingers are. According to the Moscow Times, one of these occasions is whenever you are shaking hands. But why? Because from the Russian perspective you are not wearing that glove out of a desire to have a warm hand, you are wearing it because you don't want to touch the icky Russian person. Hopefully, you can see why that might be considered a bit rude. And really, a handshake only takes a couple seconds, and then you can put your glove back on.

Never turn down a drink

Be warned, if you are trying to stay away from alcohol, Russia is a terrible place to travel. The Russians are friendly, generous, and they like vodka. Really, that's not just some horrible cliche.

So when you go to Russia, expect to be offered a drink. And according to PRI, when you go to Russia, don't expect that you can just say, "No thank you, I don't drink" because no one will sympathize with or understand that for some people alcohol is a life-ruining force of destruction — they will just think you're being insufferably rude. (Tip: Some travelers say you can use the old "doctor's orders" excuse to politely dodge the alcohol without raising any eyebrows.)

Besides being obligated to accept alcohol when it's offered to you, you are also at risk of finding out what the Russian hospital system is like after you become so intoxicated that you need medical attention. Because the Russians will not just offer you one drink, they will continue to fill your glass until you either pass out or die. If you don't want that to happen, nursing your drinks while you're in Russia is a really good idea. If you ever let your glass get down to less than half full, expect a refill.

Don't leave empty bottles sitting on the table

The Russians are really superstitious people — a 2013 poll found that more than half of the Russians surveyed believed in things like omens, astrology, prophetic dreams, and bad luck.

One such superstition has to do with empty bottles, specifically, empty bottles that once had alcohol in them. According to the Moscow Times, Russians believe that an empty bottle left sitting on a table is an omen of financial hardship, or maybe even grief and suffering. Don't worry, though, no one expects you to get up and deposit it in a recycling bin or anything — traditionally, you just put it on the floor.

No one is sure where this superstition came from, but it's thought that Cossack soldiers brought it back from France after the Napoleonic wars. When eating in Parisian restaurants, the Cossacks figured out that their waiters would charge them for the empty bottles on their table rather than for the full bottles they got from the bar, so they started leaving a few bottles on the floor to lighten the bill.

Don't tell "your mama" jokes

For some reason, Americans enjoy "your mama" jokes, even though most "your mama" jokes are notoriously unfunny and offensive. And yet there still seem to be thousands of variations of them and we still all seem to have at least one friend or family member who insists on telling the latest.

If you have a "your mama" joke in your repertoire of funnies, you'll want to avoid throwing it out as an ice-breaker while you're in Russia. Russians are almost universally unamused by jokes about a person's mother, or even a person's father. In fact according to Russia Beyond, you might be better off just not making jokes at all when you're in Russia because the Russian sense of humor doesn't really line up with the American one. You might even find that some Russians are taking your jokes seriously because nothing in their universe has ever prepared them for the stupidity of the American sense of humor, and therefore they don't actually know it when they see it.

Don't argue with a babushka

Okay, so first of all, it's not "bab-OO-shka," it's "BAH-boo-shka." So don't say it wrong because the Russians will be pissed at you. And second, respect the babushka. Babushka is a title and a status symbol. Babushkas are tough and terrifying and they are not afraid to tell you exactly how you've offended them. According to Way to Russia, you can expect to be shoved aside, cut in front of, and generally looked down upon by every babushka you meet, and you'd better not do or say anything about it because babushkas rule Russia.

If you don't know what a babushka is, you'd better know before you get on that plane: A babushka is an elderly Russian woman. In fact US Represented says when a Russian woman becomes a grandmother, she achieves a kind of status that's "something just short of gaining sainthood."

So basically, what a babushka wants, a babushka gets. As a traveler who is not a babushka, you are obligated to let her elbow you aside, cut in front of you, and yell at you for transgressions you don't understand because you don't speak Russian. Be prepared.

Don't whistle indoors

Most Western superstitions about bad luck are specific to the person who offended the tradition — everyone else is usually spared. Walking under a ladder, for example, is a solo transgression. So is opening up an umbrella indoors. But in Russia, violating the rules of superstition sometimes means dragging everyone else down with you, so that's why you really do have to know all the Russian superstitions before you spend time there.

According to Enjoy Russian, you should never whistle indoors because for whatever reason, whistling is associated with financial hardship. It's especially bad form to whistle in someone else's house because it's not just you who might suffer financial misfortune, but also your hosts.

Like most long-running superstitions, no one really seems to know for sure where this one came from. In the West we have a similar rule about not whistling indoors, but our rule is not attached to a bad-luck thing. It's possible that the Russian superstition started out the same way, and then morphed into "shut up already or you'll whistle all your money away!" Does it really matter, though? At least the Russians have a good way to shut that annoying crap down.

Don't show up empty-handed

This is really just common sense no matter what country you're in — whenever you're invited to someone's home, you should bring a bottle of wine or a nice dessert to share with your hosts. If you're not already doing this, you might need to take an etiquette class or just stay in America where you're free to show up to your friend's house bearing nothing but the words, "Where's the beer?"

According to Russia Beyond, when you're invited into a Russian home you're expected to bring something with you, typically a food or drink item that will be served with the meal. Make sure it's something you actually enjoy — if you're not a wine drinker and you brought a bottle of wine, your hosts might be annoyed at you for refusing to partake.

There are some other do's and don'ts that household guests have to remember — for example, do bring alcohol but don't bring vodka because your hosts might think you're insulting them. Do bring flowers for any women in the house, but not yellow flowers or flowers in even numbers. If there are children in the home, it's customary to bring something for them, too, like a small treat or a fun activity. And maybe take notes because that's way too much to remember.

Don't let a woman carry heavy things

Here in the West, women pride themselves on their independence. Sometimes, Western women will even get offended at offers of help because those offers, however well-intentioned, imply that they can't take care of themselves — which is one of the reasons why you don't see so many random acts of chivalry in the 21st century. Some of us miss it and some of us don't, but generally speaking offering to hold a door or carry something heavy for someone just because she's female isn't really a thing anymore in America.

In Russia, though, this brand of chivalry hasn't ever gone out of style. According to Russia Beyond, the Russians believe that a man has a responsibility to help a woman out when he sees her carrying something heavy. If you're a woman traveling in Russia, it's a good idea to just accept the help when it's offered — the Russians don't mean to imply that you can't take care of yourself, they're just genuinely trying to help. If you're a man traveling in Russia and you see a woman struggling with something heavy, you should also offer to help. And if she's your traveling companion, you're probably not going to make many good impressions with the locals if you let her struggle with her own suitcase.

Don't accept an offer of kindness until it's been offered several times

You've almost certainly seen this play out in a sitcom: Person A offers to do some kindness for Person B. Person B refuses, and Person A says, "No, really I insist." Person B refuses again, and so on and so forth until everyone is mad at each other. In Russia, this is all part of the tradition of gift giving.

According to World Speaking, when someone in Russia offers you a gift, you should never, ever accept outright, even if it's something you really need. Instead, you should let the person offer a second time, and then you should refuse again. If that person is really serious about giving you a gift, he or she will offer a third time, and at that point it's probably okay to say yes. But it's definitely not polite to just jump on the offer immediately — you must at least make a show of being unwilling to accept the gift, so the other person can make a show of being willing to give it to you.

Don't criticize Russia

In the West, especially in America, we love to talk about politics, and we especially love to criticize our government and our politicians. We all consider ourselves to be patriots, but other than that we're pretty polarized about which way the nation appears to be moving and which politicians are most responsible for "destroying our country."

It's kind of natural to take some of that with you on vacation, but if your destination is Russia, Travel Mono recommends keeping any criticism of Russian politics that you might have tightly under wraps. So no comments about Russian election interference, don't mention Crimea, and definitely don't make fun of shirtless Putin on a horse.

Russians are also very patriotic, but to them, patriotism means not making fun of or criticizing the government and its leaders because that's not being a good citizen and also because the the government might put their families in a penal colony. And it's especially obnoxious to them when a pretentious Westerner shows up, eats all the food, sees all the sights, and complains about Putin. So just don't do it. There are plenty of other things to talk about when you're in Russia, like "Why is it so damned cold all the time?" and "Why do all those buildings look like they're topped with scoops of ice cream?"

Don't wear shoes indoors

Russians don't believe in wearing shoes indoors. In that way, Russia is similar to a lot of Asian countries, where shoes in living spaces just don't compute. It actually makes a ton of sense, really, and it kind of seems strange that it hasn't actually dawned on all cultures how gross it is to walk around the house in your shoes. Your home is supposed to be a respite from all the filth and germs of the real world, and nothing you wear on your body is quite as filthy and germy as a pair of shoes.

According to Russia Beyond, you should always leave your shoes in the hallway whenever you walk into a Russian home. Most Russians keep slippers on hand specifically for their guests because putting your feet where someone else's sweaty, athlete's foot-covered toes have been is marginally less gross than tracking germs all over the house.

Russians are so germ-averse, in fact, that they will usually change into "house clothes" when they come home from work because their house clothes are cleaner than anything they wore around the city during the day.

Don't sit on public transport

After a long, hard day of sightseeing, being forced to drink alcohol, and not saying anything bad about Vladimir Putin, you might be looking forward to jumping on the Metro just so you can sit down for a few minutes. Not so fast, though. Many city-dwelling Russians use public transportation, and public transportation is often at capacity. So on a crowded train there's always going to be someone who needs that seat, and in the eyes of the Russians, it is terribly uncouth and selfish for you to assume that it's you, unless you fall into one of the following categories: You are elderly, you are disabled, you are a child, or you are pregnant.

According to ITMO.news, failure to give up your seat for someone in one of these groups is a gigantic faux paus, and you might actually get told off (in Russian!) for being a selfish jerk. That's totally not worth resting your feet for a few minutes.

Don't smile

Popular culture sometimes portrays the Russians as being kind of gloomy, or maybe even angry all the time. There are plenty of goofy explanations about why this might be — perhaps it's because they're so freaking cold all the time or perhaps it's because they've finally realized that all their buildings are topped with snow and not scoops of ice cream. But it's actually a misconception that Russians are perpetually in a bad mood — they're not, they're just very selective smilers.

According to the Atlantic, the Russians feel like they shouldn't smile unless they have a reason to. In fact this is even written into their culture in the form of a proverb, which loosely translated means "laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity." So smiling at strangers is considered weird, and uncouth, and maybe even disingenuous. Instead, the Russians believe that you should reserve your smiles for your family, friends, and occasions when you have a good reason to smile.

Don't go out without your passport

For the most part, Russia is a friendly and hospitable place. But Russia is not exactly the land of the free, the home of the unrestricted traveler. According to Russia Beyond, the Russian police can stop anyone at any time for the sole purpose of "checking papers," just like in every movie you've ever seen where American travelers get into trouble in countries that aren't the USA. And yes, police do tend to do this based on profiling — if you don't look like a Russian, you're probably going to get stopped. And if you don't have your passport, you might even be taken into custody. Also, you'll probably soil yourself because you won't have any idea why you're being taken into custody because you don't speak Russian.

The Russian police can hold you for up to three hours while they try to figure out who you are, and that can seriously interfere with your plans to tour the Peterhof Gardens and Fountains or the Museum of Vladimir Putin. So don't leave your passport in the hotel because you'd rather travel light — you truly do not know when you might need it.