Why nobody seems to smile on the streets, while most of the Russians I know are lovely, charming people who smile and laugh?
Smiling is one of the most important communication behaviors. On the one hand smiling is universal across cultures, on the other hand – smile is a function of the context of a social situation and that is the main reason Russians are always accused of being gloomy. We just smile in different social situations then people in the West.
Smile reflects a vast array of emotions in different cultures. Not all smiles are genuine expressions of happiness. There are cultural differences in both how people smile and when they smile.
In Western society, smiling is a highly valued social behavior and people who smile a lot are perceived more positively. However, Western smile first of all signals politeness and Russians smile only when “there is a reason to smile”. We even have a saying – “only fools smile without any reason”.
(Based on research by I.A. Sternin, B. Notkin and others)
In fact, if you start smiling to strangers on the streets – that will make them uncomfortable or they will think that you are smiling at them (maybe they look funny because of their appearance or hairstyle or there is something wrong with their wardrobe). They will get confused and will not smile in return.
Smiling in work/study environment is not appropriate (except for employees of Western corporate environment, who are usually expected to follow Western communication style). All other “serious contexts” are considered to be “not a place to smile”.
That starts from school. If a teacher hears giggles in her classroom, most often response would be: “why are you smiling/laughing? Did I say anything funny?” A boss in a typical Russian-style company may say the same at a business meeting. No wonder that immigration officers never greet incoming passengers with a smile. They are protecting the country border, it is a serious business. There is no place for smiles here.
When we do smile though, you can be sure that this is a sincere smile. And it is quite easy to distinguish genuine or Duchenne smile (named after 19th century French neuroscientist G. Duchenne). Duchenne smile involves not only muscles around the mouth, but also muscles around eyes:
When Russians travel abroad, at first they love that people around them smile all the time. But quite soon they sense that these smiles do not mean that locals are extra happy to see them, that is just a social norm. And most Russians come back home saying that foreigners have “insincere smiles”.
I wonder why no cosmetic company has yet come with an ad campaign of an eye cream, using the idea of “your smile is always sincere, but you need an eye cream to fix those crowfeet in the corners of your eyes. Because smiles are beautiful, but there is no need to pay for them with wrinkles”. It could’ve worked so well in Russia
Types of smile also differ across cultures. Since Russian smile is a natural one, parents never train kids how to smile (at most, they will ask a kid to smile when taking a photo).
Therefore, we do not have a universal Russian smile, but in most cases Russian smile is more like a grin, not showing teeth. That does rapidly change however, as toothpaste companies are changing the “standard of smile” with their TV commercials.
I hope that this information was useful and had explained some mystery! Please share with me your stories of visiting Russia/working in Russia! Also – how important is the smile in your culture?
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.