One of the first questions guests have when planning to go to Russia is how to say "Hello". Unhappily, the answer is "Здравствуйте" (pronounced... hmmm, something like Zdravst-voo-tye). The bold guest will make several brave attempts at popular pronunciation before asking the local, "Isn't there another way to say it?". The local in question will then invariably mention that you can say "Привет" (Pronounced "pree-vyet", and make it only two syllables, please), which means "Hi", but not "Hello". Our intrepid guest will be happily shocked by this turn of events because he (or she) will immediately recognize that it is easier to say "Pree-vyet" (even if it is only two syllables) than to say "Hello" in Russian which, for some reason, is a sound akin to a controlled sneeze.
Our unsuspecting language teacher will then feel inclined, without exception, to give a frantic lesson on proper use of "Привет". They will say that "Привет" should only be used:
1) With people that you know really well, and since you just walked through passport control at Shermyetevo, that is nobody.
2) Or small children. Which you better have a good reason for walking around Russia starting greeting random children left and right.
3) Or if you are wearing Wranglers, a wrinkly t-shirt, a baseball cap with styrofoamish material in the front and netlike material in the back, white socks, and white sneakers, and are going to only be in a touristy area of the Russian Federation (Arbat street or, uh, Arbat street, or oh yeah, the Hermitage, which incidentally is sadly not the residence of a recluse), just don't worry about it, everyone will understand and take no offense at you greeting them so casually as long as you take no offense at their price gouging for a stacking doll featuring Lenin or, uh, Lennon.
"Привет" means "hi". In my native nation of the United States of America, I pretty much feel comfortable saying "Hi" to just about anyone. However, "Hi" in Russian is more informal. It's more like "S'going down, rockdawg?" or "Whassup, dogmeat?", which are not greetings you would use while conversing with Heads of State, bishops, or applying for a bank loan. Unless, of course, you are applying for a loan and you are Snoop Dogg.
Speaking of bishops. There is a bishop here in Moscow who I see from time to time. Well, he started saying "Привет" to me. I interpreted this to mean that the bishop wanted a less formal relationship. I would always reply with a "Здравствуйте", but then I turned the situation over in my mind a few times and decided that I should also be friendly. Well, I recently changed the tires on my car from winter (studded) tires to summer (non-studded) tires. I was carrying two of my winter (studded) tires to storage, which is a bit of a clumsy affair. As I awkwardly rounded a corner carrying these two tires, I ran into the bishop and said "Привет!". Well, the bishop kind of broke eye contact and said "Здравствуйте". Then I saw my mistake. He had some kind of assistant with him and it wasn't proper for me to suggest that we were so familiar in another person's presence. If only I could see around corners I would have saved us all a lot of embarrassment.
Of course, I'm totally guessing how everyone felt in that situation. Coming right out and asking would have somehow compounded the awkwardness.
I've found when I'm unsure how to greet I can always stick with a "Good Morning", "Good Day", or "Good Evening", which is nice for both friends and enemies. I mean friends of formal relationship. However, I've found some good Russian friends to be somewhat anal retentive about which parts of the day constitute morning, noon, or evening. I even found that if some saw my "good morning" to be too late in the day, they understood that I was in general a lazy person who tarries too long in the sack during the morning hours, nevermind the fact that due to my four small children I get up earlier than just about anyone I know in Russia.
Most of these problems of formal and non-formal and times of day are learned quickly enough. However, the main disease of all Americans in learning Russian is a complete inability to control themselves from over greeting. You see, and this is the Main Unappealable Law of Russian Greeting: Never Greet One Person More Than Once In One Day. There is only one gray area in this law. It seems that if you spoke by telephone and there was a greeting then it it is okay to greet again in that same day when meeting in person.
Ah, but we Americans can't help ourselves now, can we? "Hello!", "Hi!", "Привет!", "Hey!", "How're ya doin'?" (without having a care in the world about the possible answer), ""Sup?", "Mornin'!", "Top of the Day to you, fine sir!". It goes on and on. Every time we see someone we want to greet them. We want to smile at them. Indeed, we deeply desire to establish a point of international solidarity.
To all of this nonsense there is only one Russian response, "Mы уже с Вами здоровались." In English, that means something like, "Could you please wipe that perpetual smirk off your face? Have you even looked outside at the weather today? There is no point to greeting more than once a day, and you look like a crazy person tenaciously torturing me with your "Привет!" every five minutes, so please give me a break in your language learning experience because you're scaring me into thinking that you are a "Человек с приветом".