Small Talk, Russian Style: Tips and Expressions for Starting Conversations with Locals
Small talk is an important part of making a first and lasting impression on someone.
Whether it’s about the weather or a favorite sports team or anything else, small talk is the gateway to forming relationships, either personal or professional.
Below, we’ll provide tips on the cultural aspects of small talk in Russia, offer up some resources for improving your conversational skills and then give examples of Russian small talk phrases for you to practice.
- Why Learn Russian Small Talk?
- How Small Talk Works in Russia
- Resources to Improve Conversational Russian
- 7 Common Russian Phrases for Sparkling Small Talk with Anyone
Why Learn Russian Small Talk?
Fake it ’til you make it! When learning a language, you can hold small conversations with people if you learn enough basic phrases and answers. This is great for simply striking up a conversation with Russians—the first step to real-world speaking practice!
In fact, they’re perfect for those sometimes-awkward moments at the beginning of a new in-person or online language exchange, when you’re not sure what to talk about. Small talk phrases can help you keep the conversation moving, which is the whole point of the exchange.
When you learn Russian small talk, you also get familiar with basic and frequently used Russian words. These will be the building blocks to then learn intermediate and advanced Russian, if you so choose!
If you’re planning a trip to Russia or another Russian-speaking region, small talk expressions can help you have a more authentic experience. You’ll have more opportunities to practice your Russian and you’ll be able to actually connect with native speakers you meet on a personal level.
Best of all, did you know that good small talk can make you smarter? One study found that small talk plays a big role in boosting our cognitive functions. Learning to do so in a second language certainly can’t hurt!
How Small Talk Works in Russia
Americans are often surprised by the cultural differences around small talk in Russia vs. the U.S. In America, we often use small talk to approach a stranger or to test the waters before delving into more serious discussions.
However, Russians aren’t as prone to making small talk with strangers. They’re often slower to warm up and may even seem unapproachable to foreigners.
I personally experienced this on a recent trip to Latvia, which was once part of the former Soviet Union, and a country where Russian is still predominantly spoken because a large population of residents are of Russian descent.
During dinner, I complained to my family members about how unfriendly the locals seemed, and how I wasn’t able to strike up typical conversations with strangers on public transportation or in stores as I do in the U.S.
My Latvian relatives explained that they actually found Americans to be too friendly and thought it strange that they smile so much and are so open. They explained that Russians aren’t as used to conversing with strangers, and simply take some time to warm up.
I can attest that once I realized that Russians aren’t into small talk, I just took more time to form relationships or started with asking questions from people I wanted to get to know better. (You’ll notice our phrase list below has several questions to draw out your conversation partner.)
I found that although they weren’t prone to speak to me at first, once they got to know me just a little, they became much more open. Some of them even ended up inviting me over to their houses or volunteered to show me parts of their beautiful country.
The fact that Russians aren’t as prone to small talk as Americans shouldn’t deter you from trying. Just be aware of these cultural differences and adapt like I did. After all, how else can you get to know their softer, friendlier side?
Resources to Improve Conversational Russian
The resources below will boost your comfort in Russian conversations, so you’re better prepared to use small talk phrases in real life.
WorldCitiesPics’ basic Russian conversation video
This 10-minute YouTube video teaches you basic conversation phrases in Russian. It helps you hone your listening and speaking skills simultaneously by presenting a term in English, and then giving the Russian with a phonetic spelling.
The video’s host pauses and encourages watchers to pronounce the terms for themselves as well.
You can hear the phrase spoken numerous times by at least two different people, which is helpful for training yourself to understand a variety of Russian speaking styles and accents.
FluentU’s program makes use of culturally-relevant short videos produced by and for native Russian speakers. Each video has interactive subtitles and a review quiz. You can also add words to a multimedia flashcard deck.
The platform can improve your conversation skills by showing you how Russians speak in a variety of contexts. Because these videos were made for native speakers to watch, and touch on current issues in the Russian-speaking world, they can also serve as topics for conversation.
“500 Common Russian Questions and Answers for Daily Conversation”
This hour-long video shares with you the 500 most-used phrases in Russian conversations.
Each phrase is written in Russian and English and spoken in both languages. There’s also a written pronunciation guide for the Russian phrases. What’s cool is that the sentences are tied together—for example, the video introduces the question “Are you okay?” followed by “Yes, I’m okay.”
7 Common Russian Phrases for Sparkling Small Talk with Anyone
These are both ways of saying “hello,” which is always the first thing to say when making small talk! The first one would be used when greeting your partner, friend, parent or child. The second would be used when trying to show respect to an elderly person or business associate.
Привет, мaмa. (Hello, mom.)
Мистер Смит, здравствуйте. (Hello, Mr. Smith.)
How are you?
In any language, this is the phrase that typically follows “hello” in basic conversations.
If you’re addressing a stranger or someone who’s much older, you may want to utilize the more formal version: Как у вас дела?
This asks the same thing, but in a much more respectful tone. You could use this when conversing with a respected business associate, for example.
How is the weather?
The weather and small talk are almost universally linked. It’s a safe conversation topic that anyone can comment on.
While many places in the U.S., like Florida or Arizona, don’t have much difference in weather throughout the year, Russia is the polar (we’re actually not kidding) opposite. Russia has all four seasons, and boy does it experience each of them. If you’ve never experienced a true Russian winter… well, you probably haven’t been chilled to the bones.
Which sports team are you a fan of?
За какую команду вы болеете?
Sports make a pretty good topic to discuss in any country. Russians love sports as much as anyone else—they’re huge fans of soccer, hockey and volleyball.
If you come upon a true fanatic and you actually know something about the sport they love, you can have an hours-long conversation and make a friend for life.
If not, you can always learn something new!
Let’s introduce ourselves.
See a pretty girl or a handsome guy that you’d like to get to know better? Meet someone interesting at a professional networking event?
Bored and standing at a party next to a stranger, and decide that you must speak to someone or look like a total loser?
The phrases above are appropriate in so many different conversations! They have slightly different literal translations (Давайте знакомиться literally means “Let’s be introducing ourselves,” while Давайте познакомимся literally means “Let’s have introduced ourselves”) but they can be used interchangeably.
You just need to be brave enough to say it!
My name is… What is your name?
Меня зовут… А как вас зовут?
When you want to make the small talk more personal, you must introduce yourself and inquire about the other person’s name.
Make sure to add some small talk before introducing yourself, as it’d be a little weird to accost someone and give them your name out of the blue. Using the weather is a perfect gateway to exchanging names, so use that first.
I am from America, where are you from?
Я из Америки, а oткуда вы?
All Russians will be able to tell that you’re a foreigner, but not all will be able to pinpoint where exactly you’re from. Make the process easier for them by saying so right off the bat. They may know some English and that may help in the conversation.
Even if you’re in Russia, you can always ask where the other person’s from, especially if you’re in a big city. This is especially true for Moscow and St. Petersburg, where people come to study and work from smaller cities.
The art of small talk isn’t innate for all of us, especially in another language. However, if you try and try again, you’ll be wonderful at starting off a conversation with a Russian speaker in no time!
Renata Ilitsky is a professional content writer with over 10 years of experience. She specializes in creating unique and engaging content for any industry. To read some of Renata’s other work, please view her writing portfolio.