Kazakhstan cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
There are more than 100 ethnic groups in Kazakhstan, the biggest groups being Kazakhs and Russians. Others include Ukrainians, Germans, Koreans, Tatars, and Chechens. During Soviet times, the Communist Party tried to create a new Soviet person with a Soviet culture and ideology. They succeeded a lot on this road but not completely; the result being a creation of a more or less homogenic society with both Russian (since Russian was a dominant culture) customs and traditions and Kazakh (oriental) traditions. According to oriental (Kazakh) traditions you are expected to ask questions not related to business first. The appropriate questions are: How are you? How is your family? How are they doing? How is the health of your family? How are the kids doing? How is your work? How is your health? One is not expected to ask (bombard somebody) with all these questions though. Two or three questions along these lines are normally sufficient. Only after these preliminaries it is considered to be a good time to discuss the business at hand. In big cities life is more hectic and therefore some or even all of the preliminaries can be easily avoided, especially in cases you are meeting a non-Kazakh person.
Offensive topics for Kazakstanies would be asking about one’s ethnicity. It is almost never a good idea for any culture and it is very true for Kazakhstan because the people of Kazakhstan were brought up (especially during the Soviet times) as a united nation and united people based on the ideas of internationalism.
Kazakhstanies have a fine sense of humour and they like cracking jokes and telling anecdotes all the time. However, it is not a good idea to make jokes when meeting someone for the first time since jokes are the most difficult aspect of culture to cross the language and culture barriers.
I would suggest discussing neutral, as opposed to personal topics (family, religion, politics), upon first meeting, unless the person with whom you are discussing initiates. Sports, general interest topics, or expressing an interest in learning more about the culture (language, arts, theatre), can be a way to share and get to know people better. Many people have had difficult pasts; for example, many women one meets through work are single mothers and many people’s families have been forced to relocate to Astana for work. For many, transition has not resulted in a better life. Although people will respond to inquiries, I would suggest leaving discussions of a personal nature until subsequent meetings. I found humour was well received; I would often joke with people/or slightly mock life or work situations and people responded well to this.
Kazakhstany sense of space is somewhat different than in the West. They are less concerned about the space around them, which could be explained historically. In the Soviet times there were shortages of practically everything: living accommodations, food products, household items, which in turn led to lines or even disorganised crowds of people struggling to get hold of them. People just could not afford more space or more privacy in conditions where a few families of several generations had to co-exist in communal apartments. People were expected to live for the common good forgetting about their privacy or private lives, not to mention private property, which was denounced and practically eliminated in the country. It is no surprise that the word “privacy” is one of the most difficult words to translate.
Though Kazakhstanies are less concerned about the space around them, they are not totally oblivious of their surroundings. It is customary to keep an arms length during a conversation. It is also very important to establish initial eye contact with the person though it is never a good idea to stare at the person, which could be viewed as hostility or aggressiveness or at least as a sign of disrespect. The latter is especially true for interaction of younger people with older ones or elders.
Touching is not acceptable in formal settings especially between the members of the opposite sex and would be probably viewed as unwarranted familiarity. As a rule, handshakes are more typical for men than for women though presently more and more business and professional women follow the suit of shaking hands. In general, even women in professional settings are treated more gallantly than in the West where women might take it as a sign of gender discrimination. In Kazakhstan, if a lady is carrying a bag or getting off the bus, it is impolite not to offer a hand.
Normally, Kazakhstanies use more gestures when socialising, which is especially true for informal settings. One of the bad gestures that could be compared to the middle finger in North America is showing someone a “combination of three fingers” where a thumb is placed between the index and middle finger.
As a rule, Kazakhstanies speak in more subdued voices and less directly than people in North America. When Kazakstanies hear English people talking, they sometimes think that they are yelling at each other. Also, the way people in Kazakhstan explain things is less direct in its form. When explaining something, they tend to explain the reasons behind the problem and might start from some “prehistoric” times which people in the West find annoying or even misinterpret as avoiding direct questions where Kazakhstanies are merely trying to give a thorough answer.
Unlike many other Asian countries, ‘differences’ between Kazakhs and Canadians are not as predominant. Our spacial comfort zones are similar, eye contact is acceptable and the norm, touching is really more influenced by individual familiarity than a ‘cultural code’. Although Kazakhstan is an Islamic country, it is not very conservative. For example, although Eid is observed, fasting is not as essential and people in Amlaty would continue to drink alcohol and smoke. This too may be changing though, as the importance of religion - particularly Islam - is being encouraged by the government. As the economic situation of the average person has not improved since regaining independence, religion is becoming more important.
One probably fairs better in both work and social situations through being direct – it is perhaps best to be long winded about it – but direct in terms of the problem, or what you wish accomplished.
Display of emotion
In Kazakhstan, public displays of affection or other emotions are more acceptable especially among people of the younger generation, which tends to be more relaxed than older people who were raised under the strict rules and taboos of the Soviet system. Older generation might frown at the displays of emotion and affection and disapprove of them. Displays of anger could also be seen even in professional settings where superiors sometimes yell at their employees. This might stem from the Soviet times with its strict, nearly military hierarchy and command system of management whereby superiors had almost total and unrestricted power over their subordinates.
Public displays of emotion are acceptable and fairly common.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Dress code in Kazakhstan for office environments is rather conservative. Men almost always wear ties and suits (usually, black/dark pants and white/light colour shirts). Ladies have more freedom in choosing their attire to the point that it often looks like a fashion show. Women are often beautifully dressed which could be seen as too much or “overboard” by North American standards but quite normal and acceptable for Kazakhstanies. They would sometimes starve themselves in order to save money and buy something new for their wardrobe if it is considered fashionable and chic to wear. This dress code is oftentimes observed even for more casual and informal settings.
When addressing somebody in official settings, Kazakstanies almost always use the first name and patronymic. Using first name only is more acceptable for informal settings when both parties feel comfortable doing that. This is particularly true for relations between the superior and staff. Russian language has special pronouns for addressing people of greater age and/or status or when meeting someone for the first time. A good rule of thumb is to use “Vy” until you're advised otherwise. The exception to this rule is addressing small children and teenagers, where “ty” is not appropriate in modern Russian. The approach to deadlines and punctuality is also different in Kazakhstan, being somewhat less strict than in North America. Kazakhstanies do not yet have a rather developed and strict system of appointments that people in North America normally observe. If you want to see a doctor or have a business with some of the officials in Kazakhstan, you just “drop in” during the normal working hours and nobody would even ask whether you have an appointment.
Dress is semi-formal. Men wear suit pants, shirt and tie, depending on the season. In the summer months short-sleeved shirt with tie and cotton pants are common. Women dress in skirts, pants or dresses. Women’s wear is not conservative. Colleagues and supervisors usually use their first names; often people will have lunch together; and it is common to also celebrate birthdays and and other important events by having a drink (both non-alcoholic and alcoholic), cakes and savoury snacks together. I found people to be punctual, willing to work late and on weekends should the task require, and absenteeism was rare.
Preferred managerial qualities
The most highly regarded qualities in managers would be his/her knowledge and experience in the industry, leadership skills and being approachable. Kazakstanies might even find being approachable is equally important to being knowledgeable. As a rule, Kazakhstanies are well educated and understand that good managers are those who possess so-called organisational skills - meaning that the managers should be able to organise and inspire the work of the staff and bring out the best in them. Therefore, arrogant managers are oftentimes regarded as ignorant managers.
Kazakhstanies are open in showing their positive emotions and attitudes. If the superior is popular and well respected, she would feel that immediately since everybody will be rather open to seeing her and sharing her ideas. The signs of respect could be openly related to her during social events (parties, barbeques, etc), when making speeches or toasts, since Kazakhstanies are masters of making toasts. If the boss is unpopular or not respected among the employees, then low morale, office gossiping, avoiding eye contact would be rather indicative of their attitudes.
I would say that two types of supervisor were respected: the strong dominant ones and the personable ‘people’ type persons. General characteristics that are regarded highly include: intelligence, fairness, ability to direct and ability to listen. How one is viewed should be fairly apparent, as previously mentioned, emotions are enthusiastically demonstrated!
There is a tendency to be slightly unsure of an expatriate boss upon first meeting but an expatriate boss usually means ‘better’ job in terms of pay, etc. Employees are pleased to have an expat boss.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In the workplace the boss typically makes almost all the decisions. Kazakhstan still retains many features of the command system that was common for the Soviet system whereby obedience was the most privileged quality of the staff. Therefore, it is customary for staff to look to their supervisors for the answers or feedback. If supervisors/managers are expecting initiatives from their staff, they need to communicate that openly to the staff. However, the old ways of conducting business where all the decisions are taken by the boss could be difficult to overcome due to inertia and old habits.
This depends on the culture of the office. Traditionally offices were very much top-down; generation of ‘ideas’ was not supported. However, things are changing, and given an environment where staff members are encouraged to generate ideas and make decisions, ideas will be generated and implemented. In my working environment, and those of my friends, all bosses or supervisors were expats, thus I cannot comment on the second part of this question.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
In Kazakhstan, women enjoy the same degree of independence and freedom as men do. In rural settings, it is less common and women in Moslem Kazakh families are expected to be obedient, to not oppose their husbands and to follow their orders in almost all aspects of their lives. Islam is the religion of Kazakhstan. However, most Kazakhs might be considered Moslems only nominally meaning that they do not typically observe all, if any, religious customs and rituals. Many older generation Kazakhs were brought up as atheists, which is more noticeable in urban settings.
In Soviet times the country had accomplished building a classless society. The only classes that existed were workers and peasants and intelligentsia. This situation is quickly changing in today’s Kazakhstan where the market economy created a new group of nouveau riche, sometimes referred to as New Kazakhs, and very poor. The gap between the two classes is rapidly increasing.
During the Soviet times national identities were suppressed since the country was building an equal society for all, which in reality often meant levelling or eliminating ethnic differences. However, the independence of the country saw a backlash of the trend (not always positive) where practically all the government positions today are held by the Kazakh majority. There are many reports that non-Kazakhs are forced out from their positions and jobs (not necessarily high ranking) through Kazakh language tests. There are cases of discrimination against other ethnic groups when hiring personnel.
As a result of a history of nomadic life followed by Soviet domination, gender (in terms of attitude towards women) was not an issue in the workplace or socially, but is now becoming one as a result of dismantling of social systems. For example, providing child care and ensuring guaranteed employment. Women are less able to attend university but perceived as harder workers and better employees; men are encountering unemployment and one result is increased alcoholism. Another result of sovereignty are rising anti-Soviet sentiments. This is evident in a rise in Islamic fundamentalism and governmental policies strongly encouraging the population to learn and work in Kazakh, not Russian. Thus 20-30 year olds who have never spoken Kazakh can find themselves in a situation where he/she would be expected to work in the language.
Establishing a personal relationship is as important as in Canada before getting to business. It helps a lot if there is a certain level of trust between both parties. It helps for smooth communication for reaching business deals and arrangements. A good rule of thumb for establishing a personal relationship would be asking first about things that might matter the most for any people – kids, family, health, etc.
Personal relationships are not essential, but help. Often during the process of a job, or at the closure of a business deal, a social evening will follow. One can expect a great deal of food, drinks (shots of vodka and/wine) and long toasts.
Privileges and favouritism
Kazakhstan is country with a rather educated work force and rather modern views on the workplace relationships. In most of the cases they know that business and pleasure should not be mixed. Similarly, they know how to distinguish between personal and business relationships.
Recommending the hiring of friends, or having experienced people recommending family members, are common. It is quite common when decent paying jobs are available. The hiring of friends, or relatives is quite commonly done – given the right qualifications. I have not experienced the general population expecting preferred treatment or pay increase based on personal relationships.
Conflicts in the workplace
If you have a work related problem with a colleague the best way would be trying to resolve the problem in private. Public confrontation is never a popular way of resolving the work related problem. Public confrontation should be always viewed as the last resort for dealing with these problems. One of the ways of learning whether the colleague is offended or not could also be trying to talk to the person concerned in private.
Approaching a colleague directly in private should be acceptable, in that it may well improve relations. A colleague may let you know by telling you directly or their attitude/responsiveness towards you may seriously change.
Motivating local colleagues
Nowadays, the biggest incentive in Kazakhstan is associated with financial rewards. In the new market conditions, where elementary survival rules the day, Kazakhstanies might care less about job satisfaction or good working conditions than about the money they earn.
Money, fear of unemployment, good working conditions, and an environment where one can learn and grow professionally.
Recommended books, films & foods
Up to the mid nineteenth century, Kazakhstan did not have its own written language. Therefore, Kazakh literary traditions totally relied on oral histories and legends that were passed from one generation to another by folk singers called akyns. They related stories about the glory and great deeds of batyrs (hero warriors) in defeating the foreign conquerors. For centuries the culture of Kazakh people was based on their nomadic economy. Their rituals, traditions and beliefs were defined by the husbandry. Even today in many rural settings the clearest sign of wealth of the person is associated with the number of livestock he has in his possession. So important was the livestock in the lives of Kazakhs that in the past good manners required asking about the health of his livestock first when greeting him and then about the human aspects of his life. To this day some of the traditions and customs survived and are related to livestock when, for example, the most respected guests are traditionally treated to the feasts of freshly killed lamb. Some of the rituals might seem scary or unusual for westerners since they might involve offering a cooked sheep head. As a custom, only the most distinguished guest is served with a cooked sheep head giving him an honour of sharing it with the rest of the guests. He is supposed to do that saying, for example, that he is offering the sheep’s eye to such and such because he wants him to be or stay sharp-sighted or the tongue because he wants him to stay sharp-tongued, etc. Another example of food culture and its close association with husbandry is reflected in the sayings Kazakh people hold where vegetables, for example, are not even considered to be food by many and often jokingly referred to as “grass”. One might say, for example, when offered vegetables that men don’t eat grass.
During the Russian and later the Soviet rule many Kazakh traditional values and customs seized to exist since the country was involved in creating a new Soviet person and a new Soviet culture. Therefore, for the most part, the cultural life of Kazakhstan was indistinguishable from that elsewhere in the Soviet Union. It featured the same plays, films, music, books, paintings, museums, and other cultural features common in every other corner of the Soviet empire. The collapse of the Soviet system led to almost total collapse of public interest in most forms of higher culture. Most of the books that Kazakstanies buy are about business, astrology, or sex; the movies they see are nearly all American, Chinese, or Turkish adventure and action films; most concerts feature rock music, not infrequently accompanied by erotic dancing; and television provides a diet of old Soviet films and dubbed Mexican soap operas. Kazakhstan’s cultural elite is suffering the same decline affecting the elites of all the former Soviet republics. Thus, cultural norms are determined predominantly by Kazakhstan’s increasing access to global mass culture.
The Lonely Planet Central Asia is a good source of information. There is surprisingly little written on Kazakhstan in English (but I have not looked in the past three years, so this could have changed). One ‘unusual’ food item to which most of us become acquainted at some point is sheep head. Yes, the sheep’s head is cooked, ears, eyes and all. One will be given a piece to eat: eyes for better vision (future) ears and tongue and cheek all have different significance – however, as a vegetarian, I did manage to avoid having to indulge in any such delicacies. Otherwise shashlick (grilled meat) and heavy bread is very common, in addition to Russian foods including caviar, borsh soup, salads, fried meats, and mashed potatoes.
The best advice for learning any culture is to get involved in the activities of the local community. Newspapers would be a good source of obtaining the government views since freedom of the press is somewhat restrained and the most influential mass media agency “Khabar” is in the hands of the daughter of the President. Concerts and comedy shows might be excellent avenues for grasping the culture of Kazakhstan if the language barrier is not a problem. One of the splendid ways of getting to know how Kazakstanies think and view their life is to see them at their homes and having the so-called kitchen discussions. Kazakhstanies are very hospitable people, ready to make friends and inviting them to their places.
The notion of cultural interpreters might be unfamiliar for Kazakhstanies or even unknown. However, regular interpreters could be of much assistance in explaining many aspect of culture in Kazakhstan
Attend concerts, the theatre, and the ballet. Ask around and join in hikes, go skiing, camping, arrange a few day horseback trip in the countryside and stay in a yurt. Finding media in English is extremely challenging. Should one speak Russian or Kazakh, there are ample newspapers (mostly owned by the President’s family). ‘Popular’ restaurants, pubs and nightclubs are always on the rise (and fall) – they can be an easy place to meet locals and foreigners and find out what is happening in town at the time.
Today’s Kazakhstan is rediscovering its national heroes and glorious past after the long rule of Russian and then Soviet Empires. Many Kazakh national heroes whose names are given to streets and parks are associated with the struggle of the nation against the XVII-th century foreign invaders called Jungars that carried out plundering raids into Kazakh lands. The great sons of Kazakh people of that time - Tole bi, Kazybek bi and Aiteke bi managed to unite a nation and deliver a smashing blow to the foreign invaders. This was done due to military talents of a number of batyrs (hero warriors) and khans (Kabanbay, Bogenbay, Nauryzbay, and Karasay batyrs) headed by Abylay-khan who organized a victorious campaign of Kazakhs against the Jungars.
Genghis Khan is one popular national hero.
Shared historical events with Canada
One of the well-known and shared historical events involving both Canada and Kazakhstan were the contributions that both countries made (both human and material) in the fight against fascism. Another recent historical event would be participation of both countries in the fight against terrorism (peace keeping missions and post war rehabilitation in Afghanistan, for example).
Not that I am aware of, but there is an interest in Canada - hockey, immigration, what Canada is like – and the perception seems to be positive.
One of the stereotypes locals have about Canadians is that they oftentimes directly associate Canadians with Americans. However, considering the latest events in the world, especially the war in Iraq and non-participation of Canada in the war, Kazakhstanies came to realize that Canadians are different from Americans in one significant respect – they are a more peace loving nation who tends to resolve conflicts differently than Americans, mostly through negotiations.
Another stereotype of Kazakhstanies about Canadians is to think that all Canadians are rich millionaires with lots of money to spend. They also tend to think that the problems Canadians face are less significant. When they hear about the problems Canadians have they sometimes even refuse to recognize them as problems. One even hears them saying with a sneer, “I wish I had their problems!”
They also think that the life in West is absolutely different and absolutely better. When they hear about the salaries Canadians have they forget about the bills/mortgages they normally pay.
I do not know what stereotypes Canadians have about Kazakh culture, and I do not know how many Canadians would really be able to comment if asked what they knew or assumed Kazakhstan, or Kazakh people, would be like.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Kazakhstan. The younger of two children in the family, he was raised in the city of Tekeli until the age of 17 in the south-eastern part of Kazakhstan. He moved to the city of Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan when it was under Soviet rule, to continue his studies. He graduated with the Diploma of English Teacher from the University of World Languages. Afterwards, he immigrated to Canada to work as an English/Russian interpreter for Canadian businesses and government agencies. He is currently living and working in Toronto and is married with one child.
Your cultural interpreter was born in British Columbia,Canada and is the eldest of three children. Her work and studies sent her abroad for the first time in Cambodia where she worked with two NGOs as a volunteer to gain experience. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter moved to Thailand, where she lived for one year, Vietnam for one year, and was based in Kazakhstan (from where she worked throughout Central Asia) for three and one half years. She is currently living in Italy.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.