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Lessons From the Field: The Value of Personal Relationships

November 21, 2013

by Jack Coombes

(Ivan Demidov | Wikimedia Commons)

(Ivan Demidov | Wikimedia Commons)

After graduating from the University of Washington in 2011 with an MAIS in REECAS, I accepted a position as resident director of American Councils’ Russian language program in Vladimir, Russia. I still remember how excited I was on my first day of work. It felt like two years of intensive graduate study had paid off, and I was eager to put my newly-acquired knowledge into practice.

Despite my excitement, however, the first semester working in Vladimir was rough, and accomplishing even the simplest tasks was like pulling teeth. When I went to mail documents to Washington D.C., the secretary at the DHL office made sure to help every other customer before acknowledging my presence. Arriving at work in the morning, I always said hello to the university security guards, yet instead of responding to my polite greetings, they simply scowled as I passed by. Buying train tickets was a major ordeal — if I didn’t have exact change, the cashiers would simply shake their heads and hand back my bills. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep doing this.

After a much needed winter break, I returned to Vladimir in the new year determined to find a better way to get things done, and it wasn’t long before I learned how. One night while exercising at the gym, a guy I had never seen before walked up to me, held out his hand, and said “hello”. Naturally I was a little taken aback, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I shook his hand and politely nodded. I continued to watch as he circled the room shaking hands with every other guy in the gym. My first thoughts were “Oh, this guy has a lot of friends here,” but it turned out that he was meeting a lot of these people for the first time.

At that moment I remembered Political Consequences of Crony Capitalism Inside Russia by Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, a book about the importance of personal relationships in post-Soviet politics that I read while conducting research for my REECAS master’s thesis. I realized after watching his gym etiquette that this same principle applies to other areas of life, and if I wanted to be successful at work, I needed to build the same type of relationships.

Over the next month, I made a concerted effort to get to know everyone I dealt with through work, and things began to improve. I gave flowers to the secretary at the DHL office on International Women’s Day, and from that point on, she dropped what she was doing to help me whenever I walked in. I bought a couple bottles of Armenian cognac for the university security guards on Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland. They turned out to be pretty nice guys, and always smiled when I arrived to work. I brought candy to the cashiers at the train station, and then they were willing to accept thousand-ruble notes from me.   I know that personal relationships are also important in the United States, but in hindsight, I’m definitely glad my research reminded me of their significance in Russia, and I was able to reframe Russians’ seemingly unfriendly behavior in terms I could understand.

Jack Coombes is a 2011 REECAS alumnus. He is currently continuing his academic career at Duke University.