from a Western standpoint
NOTE 1: with minor exceptions these observations are true of Russian culture and, to a lesser degree, of other post-Soviet states.
NOTE 2: This article was written around 2003-2004 and is thus increasingly out of date. A number of readers have written with criticisms of parts of this artlcle. As of late 2014, I have started commenting on the text and showing what has changed in the past ten years.
Cultural differences go very deep. It's not just habits that differ, but also the assumptions and worldview that underlie them. Habits come and go, but worldviews are forever. At the same time, the habits and attitudes of individuals within one culture differ even more widely than the culture as a whole differs from other cultures. Which means that you will find a wide range of behavior and attitudes in Ukraine, some of which will be compatible with your own. Not everyone will do the things I've described below. Some Ukrainians' culture will strike you as incomprehensible and intolerable, while others' behavior and attitudes will seem rational and compatible with your own.
In Ukraine guests are given lots of attention. If you are someone's house guest, your hosts will likely take you around town and show you the sights for several days. Traditional Ukrainian attitudes dictate that guests be well-fed and entertained for as long as they stay at your home. Offering a guest a glass of ice water (common behavior in the U.S.) seems an absurdity to Ukrainians, the more so because ice water is thought to cause colds. In the business world, however, drinking bottled water has started to catch on, and being offered a glass of water is no longer an extreme rarity.
On average Ukrainians' personal space is smaller than in Germanic and Anglo-saxon cultures. Some people touch each other quite a bit during conversations if they are standing. Greeting women with a kiss on the cheek is common. On the gesticulation scale Ukrainians are more subdued than southern Europeans but more animate than Scandinavians. Gestures tend to be smaller—no American arm-flapping here! Also, smiling is usually reserved for friends. Stiffness and formality is the rule during public speaking. Hollywood has always exaggerated this trait when portraying Soviet leaders.
Physical sensations and ideas about what makes one sick differ from culture to culture. In Ukraine it is worse to be cold than to be hot. In the U.S. the opposite seems to be true. In the cold necks and heads need to be covered, but gloves are not mandatory. Cold drinks and drafts and sitting on cold surfaces can give you a cold. A draft (draught) is a stream of colder air that seeps into a warm room through a window or open door and cools the area of skin that is exposed to it. So, if you are riding in a stuffy bus on a cold winter day, be careful about opening the window. You may get some nasty remarks.
Superstitions and mysticism
Ukrainians have preserved superstitions and omens about things like shaking hands through a doorway, whistling indoors, and other things. Everyone knows these omens and jokes about them, but they avoid breaking them all the same. Western society is more rational not only in this regard, but in every other. Ukrainians' religious views (especially in areas where Orthodoxy dominates) have elements of mysticism and uncertainty, while Western Christians tend to think in terms such as, "to get to heaven you need to do A, B, and C."
Attitudes toward money and wealth in Ukraine
Wealth in the West is almost universally assumed to be a good thing, but Ukrainians have more ambigious attitudes. Ukraine does not have the concept of "working your way from rags to riches" or the Protestant notion of creating wealth through "good-old honest hard work." This seems to be a hold-over from the Soviet Union, where one did not "buy" an apartment, one "got" an apartment (after years of being on a waiting list). In the USSR one's wealth depended on how close one's connections were to centralized power structures. In Ukraine people are still suspicious (and envious) of the rich. "They must have some special privileges or connections," people assume.
One of the main reasons for this distrust of the rich is that just 15 or 20 years ago everyone in the Soviet Union had essentially the same amount of wealth. The popular view is that the only way of getting rich in the decade or so after the fall of the Soviet Union was by abusing one's advantageous position in the government kormushka ("feeding trough"). Since the government controlled most assets, bureaucrats who managed these assets could use their connections to sell off national assets and pocket the money. As a joke goes, don't ask me where I got my first million. Hence, the popular view is that anyone who is rich today must have robbed the nation at some point to get his starting capital.
Another cause of this mistrust of wealth and investment is the fact that for 70 years the Soviet ethical system taught that wealth and greed are the same thing. People were taught modesty and self-sacrifice for the sake of their children's "bright future." Soviet citizens learned to feel guilty for wanting to earn more than they were entitled to and be apologetic about any personal business projects they had. At the same time there was intense competition and jealousy surrounding professional and government positions where one would have more opportunities and a higher salary. These ingrained attitudes are prevalent to this day.
In Ukraine the wealthy — a few of whom may have in fact earned their wealth through "honest hard work" — tend to distance themselves from the poor and envious masses. There is even a special name for the upper class: the "elite." In the Soviet Union one did not become part of the "elite" through hard work, but rather had the fortune to be in the right place and know the right people, and the word today has preserved this hue. The tinted car windows of the rich keep out curious stares. Extravagantly dressed trophy wives in sunglasses who rarely leave their fancy cars are an attribute of many of Ukraine's "new rich." A more modest middle class has only recently begun to appear.
Financial literacy is generally quite low even among intellectuals. When ordinary Ukrainians start making decent money, they tend to "waste" it on friends and relatives rather than hold on to it to build personal wealth. These Ukrainians generally do not have savings other than the proverbial stash of dollars in a jar, since people are suspicious of banks after inflation devoured their life savings in the early 90s. Their financial security is instead a network of relatives and friends whom they borrow from or lend money to freely. In most western countries such financial interdependency is avoided, and if a man has financial troubles he goes bankrupt alone.
Ukrainians and public behavior
Ukrainians in public tend to demonstrate restraint and avoid attracting attention to themselves. In small towns where everyone knows each other this is less noticeable. Ukrainians usually speak quietly in the presence of strangers. Loud foreigners who are oblivious to their surroundings often cause irritation, occasionally smiles.
Despite the concern with standing out, in Ukraine it is more customary to show negative emotions in public than in western countries that are obsessed with always being positive. Strangers bond by sharing indignation (about packed public transportation, for example) or by making sarcastic remarks. Drivers yell at each other freely. Don't let this rudeness and indifference fool you, however. Ukrainians tend to be very warm and personable in their personal relationships.
Home and family in Ukraine
Ukrainian culture has agrarian roots. Just two generations ago the urban population was a fraction of what it is today after the Soviets' experiment in forced industrialization and urbanization. Almost everyone has grandparents or relatives that live in the countryside. Until perestroika, country folk weren't allowed to move to the city. People still do not move around as much as in the West, especially the middle-aged and elderly. Often one or both grandparents will live with their children and help take care of small children. This was a necessity during Soviet times, when women were drawn into the workforce en masse.
Grandparents play a greater role in raising children in Ukraine than in the West and especially the U.S. Parents tend to restrain their kids more in public and demand better behavior. There seem to be more overprotective parents than in the West, and children are brought up to do well in school and to keep out of trouble and avoid mistakes.
Unfortunately, the vast majority (probably 95%) of school teachers are women, giving children disproportionately few male role models in an already female-dominated culture. Competitiveness and personal initiative are little encouraged in school and elsewhere. Since there are fewer extracurricular activities, children stay home more and generally lead a sheltered lifestyle. They get less experience organizing activities on their own without adult supervision. In addition to perpetuating Ukraine's pseudo-market economy where the concept of "fair competition" is virtually nonexistent, this protective environment helps make Ukrainians the wonderfully domestic and sharing people that so many of them are.
Update 2014: The first part is still true, and schools continue to have very few male teachers. Extracurricular activities, however, are quite well-developed, especially in cities. Children learn dance, crafts, languages, sports, and other subjects — but not in school. There is also great demand for private tutors, especially in foreign languages. Just like in other metropolitan areas around the world, parents try to give their children the best education they can afford, and their children often have a busy schedule.
Schooling and higher education in Ukraine
School and university instruction in Ukraine and Russia is quite a bit different from the United States. Teachers are seen as authority figures and rarely "pal around" with their students, but generally remain somewhat distant and stern. Students are given more material to learn and with significantly less hands-on practice than in the States. In addition, a universal characteristic of instruction in the former Soviet Union is that every subject is introduced with a "broad theoretical background." In other words, students are taught the historical background and theoretical underpinnings of each subject. On the whole this is commendable and leads to greater understanding and better developed abstract thinking skills than their U.S. counterparts. However, this approach becomes habitual and is applied even when students simply need to be taught a practical skill, which is where Soviet and post-Soviet schooling falters.
Ukrainian schools foster the ability to fit in to the system and not stick out. Good behavior in schools is strictly enforced—no rowdiness and disobedience here! Nonetheless, cheating and other forms of "cooperation" are largely ignored and actually fostered by the system. Students learn at a young age to band together and cooperate in the face of injustice and ruthlessness. This mentality carries through to adult life and Ukrainians' attitudes towards power structures (i.e. work employers and government bodies).
Friendship and making acquaintances
The word "friend" in Ukrainian or Russian implies a closer relationship than in most other European languages. One has one or two "friends" and many "acquaintances"—quite the opposite of the U.S., where many people have dozens of "friends" but often have no really close friends. In Ukraine, it seems, such aloofness is unheard of. The tendency to form informal relationships easily is part of the national character.
Many foreigners note that it is easier to form friendships and relationships in Ukraine. In the U.S., for example, it is easy to get an invitation to do things like play volleyball, go see a movie, go waterskiing, etc., but hard to become someone's friend. In Ukraine people will get together to talk about things that are important to them personally. Westerners often find their emotional needs are met better in Ukraine.
At the same time, clubs and hobby groups and other "collectives" in Ukraine tend to become closed to the outside world because of their emotional attachments and informal relationships. I have seen biking clubs who seem to enjoy hanging out together more than biking and mountaineering clubs with complex rituals and traditions that have nothing to do with mountain climbing. In Ukraine it may be harder to keep focused on one's individual goals because of this emotional collectivism.
Gender roles in Ukraine
Westerners note that gender roles in Ukraine tend to be more traditional. Not only do men open doors for women and gallantly hold their hand as they step out of the bus, but women tend to dress more femininely and accentuate their attractiveness more than in most western countries. During courtship men tend to be more romantic, bringing flowers and gifts (and footing the bills during dates), and women try to look especially elegant. Sometimes the contrast between stunningly attractive women and their shodilly dressed, poor-postured boyfriends is remarkable. There are definitely double standards of grooming in Ukraine.
Gender roles are often quite traditional in the home as well. The stereotype is that the wife does the cooking and cleaning, while the husband takes care of repairs. When guests come over the wife heads to the kitchen to prepare food, even if it is her own birthday party. Husbands tend to be either workaholics or "lazy bums" that often suffer from apathy and alcoholism. These stereotypes are more true of older generations and smaller towns and villages.
Today you will find many people who do not fit these stereotypes. In Ukraine there is practically no such thing as militant feminism, but there are many couples — especially among younger generations — where work around the home is divided more equally. Some husbands even admit they do most of the cooking. Just as in other countries of the world, true friendship and shared interests are becoming greater factors in choosing a spouse as opposed to ability to act out gender roles. However, Ukraine is still years or decades behind the rest of Europe in this regard, as traditional gender roles still prevail.
Dress and appearance
Fashion in Ukraine is underdeveloped and at times monotonous and copy-cattish. In more prosperous towns and cities occasional individuals have begun to develop a sense of personal style, but the majority of fashion is dictated by what petty vendors decide to import and sell at street bazaars. A holdover from Soviet days, Ukrainians' consumer culture is low but gradually improving as the choice of goods increases. There is a tendency to copy others rather than develop one's individual style and stick out.
Dress tends to be more formal in Ukraine than in the rest of Europe. Young men walk around in black dress shoes and dark pants, and women wear high heels and skirts (not all, of course). Clothing is intended to create a necessary appearance, and not be comfortable and practical. Colorful casual dress that has been the norm in western Europe and the U.S. for years is just beginning to gain popularity. Just a few years ago all the men in Ukraine wore black, but now the color scheme has differentiated a bit (at least in the big cities).
Men older than about 60 and sometimes younger tend to wear well-worn gray and brown suits, a holdover from the days when the Soviet Union stamped out individuality. This same tendency can be seen in some European countries that have a fascist past, for example, Spain. People who have come from small towns and cities to work in big cities like Kyiv typically look and dress differently and are noticeably "provincial." Men who engage in physical labor often have "buzz" haircuts and a sort of crude and brutish appearance, along with a completely different communication style than local well-educated folks.
Among students in the big cities there is a growing tendency towards European-style democratic clothing and appearance. At the same time, other students demonstrate the traditional status and gender-oriented style (sexy dress for women and dark formal clothes for men).
These new tendencies in dress and gender roles show that Ukraine is very slowly but surely becoming europeanized. Just across the border in Poland the vast majority of young people dress in western-style unisex clothing. You cannot tell who is rich and who is poor. In Ukraine this process is taking place as well, but very slowly.*
*NOTE: A year after writing this article (now August 2006) it has become apparent that fashion has changed dramatically in Kyiv. People are wearing more colorful, individualistic clothing. Black is out of fashion. The choice of clothing to wear has skyrocketed, and the emphasis is shifting dramatically from status stereotypes to individuality. I expect this process to follow in other large Ukrainian cities in the next several years and eventually reach the smaller cities around Ukraine.
Grooming and personal hygiene
Standards of grooming and hygiene can differ widely from culture to culture. Arab men in Ukraine, for example, almost always have a slick, preened appearance. Americans are known worldwide for their straight white teeth and "Hollywood smile," as well as for obesity among young people. Other cultures are known for their lower standards of hygiene. In Ukraine there is a sort of double standard. Women (especially young women) tend to dress and groom carefully, while men often are careless about their appearance. While hygiene seems to be generally improving, decaying teeth and bad odors are not at all uncommon. Smoking is extremely prevalent in public places. Dental floss is not yet widely used, and dental care standards lag behind the West. Many older folks bathe just once a week. However, hygiene among working professionals is similar to developed countries. [This is old information! Things have improved since then. — 2014]
Despite somewhat lower levels of hygiene, Ukrainians are more discreet about bodily functions than, say, in the United States. While belching and farting loudly in public are not necessarily typical of the U.S., movies such as Dumb and Dumber and the Naked Gun series demonstrate that bodily functions are a topic of joking and discussion. Not so in Ukraine! Passing gas and burping are considered shameful, and people do not discuss their bodily functions with others. "Dead baby" jokes probably won't come across well, either. However, ironically, spitting and blowing your nose onto the sidewalk or grass is normal in most cities of Ukraine.