no smile smiley

Why Russians Don’t Smile?

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.

The Science of Smiles

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”.

When Russians Smile

(Based on research by I.A. Sternin, B. Notkin and others)

  • When we see a friend, relative or acquaintance. Not smiling to strangers is a cultural norm, since there is no special reason why we should greet a stranger that way. Unlike Western people, who treat strangers as good people until some of them act as bad people, we treat all strangers as aliens until they prove that they can be trusted, until they become our friends.

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.

  • When we hear or see something really funny. If somebody told a good joke or you are watching a comedy, you are expected to smile or laugh
  • When there is a special reason why you smile and people around you are aware of it. (You just won in a lottery or got engaged or received a promotion). If your colleagues see you smile, they may ask, “Why are you smiling? Did anything good happen?” And you are supposed to explain (give a valid reason). Personal questions and sharing personal information are considered ok even at the workplace, since Russians are both very direct to ask and very open to share how they feel. If you do not have any special reason, you can say  – “just have a good mood today, it’s such a sunny day”

When Russians Don’t Smile

  •  When you are around people, who experience any significant troubles, smiling is considered inappropriate. In some cultures smile is a sign of empathy and support, but in Russia smiling when somebody shares his or her bad news is considered highly offensive
  • If you have any troubles, such as a work or family crisis, you are not expected to smile to others. In fact, you are expected not to smile, otherwise people will think you either are careless  or act weird
  • Russian passport photo

    Typical passport photo is always “no smile”. We joke that if you start looking too much like your passport photo – it is time for vacation.

    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.

Guess the country

Guess the country by facial expression

  • Smiling/laughing at others is not polite; ability to smile/joke at yourself on the contrary is a socially positive trait. However, it is very important not to smile/laugh all the time, otherwise you may get a reputation of being a clown and people will not treat you seriously. A good laugh is good, but when it comes to business or other serious stuff – “leave jokes aside”.

Duchenne Smile vs. Social Smile

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:

Duchenne smile vs social smile

Duchenne smile vs social smile

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

Russian smile

Typical Russian smile

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?

Leave a Reply

  • Kim - 8 years ago

    This was awesome and super insightful. Thank you so much!

  • N - 8 years ago

    Australian returning to Russia in one week. I had a job as a lollipop lady here for a year and a half. A lollipop is a school crossing supervisor, who holds the stop sign for the childruse the crossing in the morning and mid afternoon. I smiled at these children so much, from simple joy, that my cheeks froze and hurt to return to normal. I even tasted blood on occasion. Every day these children made me smile so hard, it was therapy. Now I go back to Russia where I was born and relearn how to be ‘tough’, how to mask spontaneity as not to appear a stranger. It will be difficult.

  • Albert - 5 years ago

    Just smile, happy that we’re alive! LOL

  • Michael - 5 years ago

    I don’t care if they smile or not !! What I don’t understand why are they so rude ,, I’m talking pharmacist, airline employee , or a waitress!! Some of them are rude just because you don’t speak the language!!

  • Anonymous - 4 years ago

    Great article, explained clearly. Not only the russians but also people in former saviet republics smile rarely as well as in Uzbekstan. I think our culture is better than that of west in terms of smiling and some others. Because responsible, strong people are supposed to smile less and be serious most of the time as the life is serious and harsh. Then I think smiling for no reason= to crying for no reason which is stupidity. Besides, in western culture even your enemy, greedy and unfaithfull person also supposed to smile while looking to you in the most cases as if they are very good and merciful person and this makes people two-faced.

  • альберт - 4 years ago

    hey im from Sochi,russia.Why you thinking what we dont smile???)))We are very sarcasmic people with big smile on our faces)))But everything some people are still harsh.We ,Russians,also equate you to nationalists.You equate us for vodka and matryoshka dolls)))А на последок хочу сказать , что почти не знаю английский , и простите если я не правильно передал мысль))))

  • Boris - 3 years ago

    Not smiling is a trend left over from the Soviet Union (there was nothing to be happy about during the Revolution, Civil War, Stalin’s purges, the Second World War and beyond.) People became very suspicious of one another during these times, due to the fact that anyone could report you to the secret police on dubious charges and have you shipped off to the GULAG. Just as Westerners are taught from a young age to smile, and say please and thank you, parents during the USSR began to teach their children to refrain from smiling and other niceties as not to draw any unwanted attention. Present day Russia has improved in this sense, but a trend nonetheless that has been passed down from generation to generation. I live in Moscow, and go out of my way to be polite to people, because the way some Russians treat each other is borderline inhumane!

  • Юрий - 2 years ago

    Есть старая русская пословица: “Смех без причины признак дурачины”. Это вполне подходит и для улыбки без причины.

  • Anonymous - 2 years ago

    Very well written

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