Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Russian cell phone culture

The devices are exactly the same – iPhones, Android phones, older flip phones, everything. More Samsungs, almost no Motorolas. The conventions are a bit different here – not hugely, but an interesting anthropological trivia nevertheless.

A cell phone is an essential business tool. While many American professionals regard their cell phone numbers as somewhat private, and give it away reluctantly, most Russians give it to everyone with whom they deal. It is perfectly fine to ask a colleague for another colleague’s cell number; no one think it is a violation of privacy to give away someone else’s cell number. I just put it on my business cards, and many people do the same. There is no point in hiding it, really.

The expectation is two-fold: if someone calling you rather than e-mailing, it means it is a more or less urgent business. On the other side, it is expected you will answer the phone at any time, bar really very important meeting with big bosses. I find the balance works well – people usually won’t call about small things. Students never call, unless there is a real emergency. Most people will answer or call back within a few minutes.

In the US, an important conversation is usually done face to face. Russians (at least in the academia) have fewer meetings, but more cell phone conversations. Meetings are reserved only for complicated affairs with many people involved, or for pointless ritual meetings where nothing is actually decided. Americans have those, too. There are also many emails, but those may be answered later, or much later. A phone call will seal an important deal. The disadvantage of the system is that people forget and interpret things differently. And if there are no written records, what has been said may be disputed later. However, the advantage is that Russians very rarely get into the “wars of long emails,” where written communications get misunderstood and snowball into conflicts.

In the States, it is very impolite to answer a phone at any meeting, or any face-to-face conversation. Russians routinely answer their phones at meetings, and if it is large, they will whisper into their phones the same way an American may whisper into her neighbor’s ear. The tolerance for cellphone ringing in the middle of a meeting is much higher here. This is how people stay in touch.

Land lines are not used much, even though at our university, there is a good, modern system. It just takes too long to look up the number and dial. And the person may not be at his or her desk. So, why waste time? There is a certain group of support and administrative staff that tend to stay put more, therefore they use the landlines more. The rest of the people are on the run most days.

Cellphones are not cheap here: there are few unlimited plans, and people usually pay per minute. But if you call very little, it costs you almost nothing. You have to pay cash upfront to buy a phone, no contracts. Many Russians use convenience machines that are ubiquitous - you punch your number, feed cash into it, and replenish your account – or anyone else’s. There are also online payments, and any ATM will also let you pay for your phone and a few other things.

I would be curious to know – how do people use the same technology in different cultures – how do Chinese, Brazilians, Kenyans? I wonder if there is anthropology of technology. I think the car culture here is a bit different, and subway behavior is slightly different than in the States. None of these are dramatically different, just enough to make it interesting.

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