Culture Shock in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is still seen as a rather unusual expatriate destination, and there are very few online resources or even guide books to help prospective expats prepare for their new life. This little-known country – famous in the past for mounted warriors hunting with golden eagles, rocket launchers, gulags, camels and yurts – has now become a regional economic superpower with modern cities to match, while the remnants of the older way of life can still be seen in the villages out on the steppe.

Kazakhstan is a young country with an old soul. Just over 20 years ago the country gained independence from the Soviet Union and in that time the Kazakhstani people have tried to establish the country as a bridge between Asia and Europe. The Soviet regime all but wiped out the traditional nomadic way of life, forcing people to settle on collective farms, suppressing the Kazakh language and traditions. 

Language barrier in Kazakhstan

While Russian is acknowledged as the ‘language of business’  in Kazakhstan there has been a push to increase the use of Kazakh and to re-introduce lost traditions in the country. Most expatriates working in Kazakhstan will need to learn Russian as this is universally understood in the workplace. However, even a few words of Kazakh will be highly appreciated by the locals.

Although there is some discussion about altering the alphabet and moving the Kazakh language over to Roman script, both Kazakh and Russian are written in the Cyrillic alphabet. This can seem a little daunting on arrival but it makes sense to learn the letters as quickly as possible as this helps expatriates adapt to life in Kazakhstan through language acquisition and in understanding what you are buying in a restaurant or supermarket. 

Most Kazakhstanis are keen to learn English and there is no shortage of opportunities to learn Russian and/or Kazakh through a language exchange agreement. 

Bureaucracy in Kazakhstan

The post Soviet bureaucracy in Kazakhstan is highly developed, confusing and often frustrating to both expatriates and Kazakhstanis alike. The bureaucratic nightmare, more than anything else, is often the biggest cultural shock for expatriates arriving in Kazakhstan. 

On arrival all expatriates are required to register with the authorities (employers will often arrange this) and renew the registration each time they leave the country or every 90 days if they have not gone abroad in that time. A passport has to be carried at all times and shown to the authorities on request.

Most officials may deal with expatriates only infrequently and therefore may not be aware of the exact requirements to fulfil a particular request, for example to register a car to an expatriate owner. Therefore, it helps to research the exact requirements before meeting with the relevant authority and bringing along evidence of what is required.  Remain polite at all times and keep a sense of humour and you will find most people willing to do their best to help.

Business culture in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstanis want to be perceived to be helpful and always avoid letting people down. The Soviet legacy also means that peoples' roles within an organisation are very heavily defined with a clear chain of responsibility.

This combination means that people will often avoid giving a negative answer to any question and will simply ‘table’ difficult issues hoping that they will be resolved by someone else. This can be very frustrating for the newly arrived expatriate and therefore adapting to Kazakh business practices can be a challenge. Make an effort to understand the structure of any business, who is responsible for what areas and address all queries to the appropriate person. Expats will also have to get used to repeating their queries a number of times without getting frustrated. 

Hospitality in Kazakhstan

People can appear superficially rude on the streets, so do not expect people to hold open doors or help carry a pram. However, expats will soon see that this is very much a superficiality, as Kazakhstanis are extremely friendly and very hospitable. 

New arrivals should not be surprised if they get invited to the home of a Kazakh they’ve recently met. If invited for a meal it is polite to bring a small gift for the hosts and to try a bit of every food offered. If offering flowers to a host, never bring an even number of flowers.

At any gathering almost everyone will be expected to make a toast. Expats invited to a function will not be expected to make their toast in Russian or Kazakh, bu it's worth getting a local to teach them a short sentence or phrase in one of the local languages. The extra effort will always be noticed and appreciated.

Dress in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstanis tend to dress a lot more formally than most Americans or Europeans. As such, casual clothing, particularly technical outerwear in the cold winter, will immediately identify someone as an expat. Most nightclubs will have a dress code so don’t expect to go dancing in jeans and trainers. Women face few social restrictions on dress, at least in the cities.

The temperature range, particularly in the north of the country, is extreme (-40 to 35° Celcius), and as such Kazakhstanis have learned to respect the weather. It is not unusual to see people bundled up in thick coats, scarves, hats and boots in relatively warm temperatures. If children are not similarly attired, expats can expect to be stopped by the older generation and gently advised to dress them in warmer clothing.

The importance of family in Kazakhstan

Family is very important in Kazakhstan; elders are respected as wise and knowledgeable and children are cosseted and adored. The idea of a child-free wedding or celebration would be anathema in Kazakhstan, so expect to see children at all large events from weddings to New Year’s Eve parties. Do not be surprised if invitees bring young toddlers to an evening meal.

Religion and race in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is a secular state, home to people of many different ethnicities. Kazakhs are proud of the diversity of their population and the country strives to promote peace between religions worldwide. 

There is freedom of worship but expatriates should not proselytise. The majority of the population (about 70 percent) are Muslim with the second largest religious grouping being Orthodox Christian. Both Eid and Orthodox Christmas are marked as public holidays. 

Alcohol is freely available, although imported wines are extremely expensive. Pork is also available, but only at certain stores. Furthermore, pork products are always kept separate from the other meat products. Most Kazakhstanis will enjoy a drink or, if not, will not object to expats drinking. When inviting people for a meal do check their dietary preferences beforehand to ensure that they can eat the food you are serving.