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17 Russian Travel Tips for Visiting America

December 17, 2016
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Here are some things Russians think other Russians who are preparing to visit the U.S. should know.

1. Don't Worry About Bringing Gifts to Americans ...

Gift giving isn't a big deal to Americans. In fact, according to the site Деловой этикет по-американски, "Americans do not expect them. On the contrary, an unexpected gift while conducting business can put an American in an awkward position. Such things for Americans suggest reciprocity." But not all gifts will make Americans feel awful. They love gifts that are "purely Russian," with some caveats:

If you do gift, it is desirable to bring something purely Russian when you visit the United States. But make it 'purely Russian' for modern America—not nesting dolls and samovar. Instead bring a good book about Moscow or Russian history, art and culture. Americans appreciate a good education and have great respect for cognitive literature.

2. ... And definitely don't bring business gifts.

“Business gifts in the U.S. are not acceptable," the site Национальные особенности этикета в США cautions. "[T]hey often cause suspicion. Americans fear that they could be construed as a bribe, and in the United States that is strictly punishable by law.”

3. If you're a man, be careful when dealing with American ladies.

According to the Russian site Этикет США, “U.S. etiquette prohibits flirting with a woman who is not your girlfriend or wife. If you are not acquainted with a woman, whether she be in a restaurant, on the street, or on the subway, do not look at her legs, etc. Americans could easily call the police on you, even for just ogling her.”

When it comes to introducing yourself to a woman, the site Национальные особенности этикета в США advises caution. You shouldn't kiss her, not even her hand:

Welcome and introductions: men and women tend to shake hands. Mutual kissing and kissing ladies' hands is not accepted. Also, women play a greater role in business. Often they insist to be treated exactly as an equal and not as a lady. In this regard, it is not acceptable to be excessively gallant, and you should avoid personal questions (do not find out whether she is married).

See Also: 10 Japanese Travel Tips for Visiting America

4. They'd prefer it if you got to the point …

"Americans generally do not like long intros and prefer to go directly to the subject matter, especially if it's a phone conversation," says the site Американский речевой этикет. "In Russia we talk about general topics before moving on to the reason for the call."

That said, once you're having a phone conversation, Americans won't be thrilled if you just hang up on them. "Americans are often surprised by the Russian habit of quickly breaking off a conversation and hanging up," the site notes. "Phone etiquette in America usually involves the gradual end of the conversation, confirmation agreements and standard closing remarks. By the way, 'see you later' should not be taken literally. That is a courtesy, and no more."

5. … But would like you to avoid pointed statements.

According to Американский речевой этикет, "Russian conversational patterns often sound harsh to Americans. Statements such as, 'You’re wrong,' can be offensive. This can be interpreted as 'You are telling lies!'" Instead, soften it up: "[I]t is better to say, 'I do not think I can agree with this.'"

6. You Can Only Talk About Health in Certain Situations.

And that situation is when your friend is in the hospital. Otherwise, according to the site Американский речевой этикет, “What seems caring can be regarded as an invasion of privacy, lack of tact. You have to have some justification to show interest in their health." Finally, the site notes, "Do not ask the effect of a magnetic storm (not many Americans know what that is) on their well-being.”

7. When your American friend invites you to a picnic, bring something sporty (and maybe a flask).

The site Деловой этикет по-американски discusses a hypothetical situation in which a Russian visitor to the United States is invited on the most American of outings: The Picnic. (This will only happen "if you’ve known each other for several years and are social outside the office," though, so probably won't be an option for the novice traveler.) According to the site, "As a rule, the invitation will be only on a weekend, and you don’t have to prepare for something extravagant. Everything is the same as ours, only with far less booze. Bring something sporty—ball, badminton, Americans are certainly fervent fans of these things.” Our tip: Russians concerned about the dearth of booze should bring their own in a flask.

8. Don't be weirded out if Americans put their feet up on stuff.

“When Americans are talking, they might put their foot on a nearby chair, or even a table," says the site Национальные особенности этикета в США. "They might cross their legs so that one foot rests on the opposite knee. In American culture, it is considered an acceptable norm, but often causes irritation in other countries.”

See Also: 11 French Travel Tips for Visiting America

9. Americans are very optimistic ...

“Americans and Russians say different things when faced with the same situation," notes the site Американский речевой этикет. "Seeing the man who had fallen in the street, an American asks, 'Are you all right?' Russians will inquire: 'Are you ill?' We see a victim of the incident; they see survivors. Survivors are perceived as heroes. Where we 'aren’t sick,' they 'stay well.' We discuss the problem. They discuss issues and items on the agenda."

10. ... And you should keep it positive, too. The Americans demand it.

It all starts with a smile. “U.S. etiquette requires that you smile in each and every situation," says the site Этикет США. "If you want to travel to America, be prepared to give a smile not only to friends and acquaintances, but also to all passers-by, in shops, to the staff at the hotel, police on the streets, etc." Don't whine about your problems or the troubles in your life, either: "Sharing in this country can only be positive emotions—sorrows and frustrations are impermissible. In the U.S. you only complain to acquaintances in the most extreme cases. Serious problems are for close friends and relatives only."

This cheerfulness isn't a put-on, the site notes. "Americans: they are a nation that truly feels happy. These people get used to smiling from the cradle onwards, so they do not pretend to be cheerful. The desire for a successful happy life is inculcated from childhood.”

11. Americans are very competitive ...

According to an academic essay about the ethics of American etiquette at Bibliofond, "Americans love competition. They appreciate achievement records, and are constantly competing with each other. Although this behavior is natural for them, to us it may seem overbearing and intrusive. They are autonomous and independent. From early childhood, the Americans are accustomed to ‘stand on their own feet’ that is, rely only on themselves."

A writer on the commercial export site Экспортеры России agrees: “A resident of this country will never complain and talk about their failures. Regardless of the situation, the American will always look confident, healthy, radiating success.”

12. ... And are taught from a young age that they're awesome.

If you're a Russian visiting the U.S. and notice that Americans seem to have an overwhelming sense of superiority, know that that's been ingrained in them since they were little, according to Экспортеры России: “The Americans have a strong sense of independence, self-reliance; they are able to compete and win anywhere, anytime. This is due to perceptions of citizens about the dominant position of the U.S. in the world, which is laid at an early age and is at the heart of the education system.”

13. Formality isn’t necessary.

Formality and overt classicism of any kind makes Americans uncomfortable. According to Экспортеры России, “The Americans, having a friendly nature, always seek to establish an informal atmosphere. So they prefer to communicate with people by first name, regardless of their age and position.”

Adds Bibliofond, “The Americans are straight people who appreciate honesty and candor, quickly move to the point of conversation and do not spend time on formalities. Americans do not like stiffness, and prefer comfortable, casual clothes. They refer to each other simply, informally, even if between the interlocutors there is a big difference in age and social position.”

14. Be very careful not to sound snooty.

Экспортеры России advises Russians visiting the U.S. to “Insert jokes into the conversations, it is considered a sign of good taste. And remember they speak American English. They consider London pronunciation an arrogant version of their language.”

15. Follow the Rules.

The travel site tonkosti knows that to many a Russian tourist, an American’s dedication to following rules will appear almost childish:

There is too much law-abiding in Americans. It makes them seem naïve to Russians. But it is due to the fact that almost everywhere is installed hidden cameras; in the shops, on the streets, in restaurants, hotels and so on. Hence, any offense cannot go unnoticed. It is better to stick to the letter of U.S. law than to escape from its clutches and reduce to zero the probability of re-visiting the American continent.

Walking against the light? Littering? Taking up two parking spaces? All against the rules. And you better make sure you recycle, too:

Modern cowboys do not smoke in public, i.e. restaurants, bars and other places where a zone is not provided for smokers. For smoking in the wrong place you could be fined, as well as for incorrect disposal of waste: for each type of waste (glass, plastic, paper) in the United States, there are separate boxes.

16. Don’t joke about being a terrorist. Americans will not laugh.

Tonkosti prepares would-be travelers for the ordeal of arriving at an American airport, which will likely involve a search of the traveler and his belongings and questions about terrorism:

You will be asked about the purpose of your visit to the United States (business travel, tourism, etc.), and—do not be surprised—airport employees may ask whether you have any relation to terrorist groups. In no case do you joke on the topic of terrorism—for the Americans it is a serious issue. If the person asking you questions on your arrival does not like your responses, you will be invited to the office of the security services at the airport. This is serious: you could be sent home, and never set foot on American soil.

17. Don't call people ugly.

This should probably be filed under "commonsense things to avoid," but Bibliofond warns travelers anyway:

At the table is better to avoid talking about politics and religion, as the United States is a country of Puritan values. In the straight-line American culture there is a taboo forbidding calling out the physical defects of another person. This is probably due to the constant desire of Americans to always be in great shape and look young.

Yeah. That’s probably the reason.

A version of this post appeared in 2014.

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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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History
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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
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Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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