April 12, 2002

Why Russians do not smile

Cultural differences create a lot of misunderstanding in communications between Westerners, particularly Americans, and Russians. In this mini-ethnography I present the main differences in perception of the smile in Russia and in the United States.

I am Russian. I came to the U.S. directly from Latvia last year for college. One of the first things I noticed in O'Hare, apart from the abundance of fast food restaurants, was smiling people. It was really different from Europe, where people are mostly polite, but quite reserved in their non-verbal expressions. A year and a half has passed since I first stepped on American soil. In this time, I have become a law-abiding citizen of Hyde Park. I also smile more often now. A smile comes naturally, although such a change in my behavior probably stems from the social expectations I encounter.

Very often Western people criticize Russians for being too gloomy and unfriendly because we never smile. I have even heard that Russians do not smile because our life is so hard that we never learned how to smile. At the same time, Russians often cannot understand why their Western counterparts are always smiling, like Lewis Carroll's Cheshire cat, without any apparent reason.

I believe that the way a smile is perceived is culturally determined and thus the differences in cultures create confusion. In Western culture, and especially in the United States, the smile is an indication of well-being. Americans smile to show their good attitude towards a person or a particular situation. In my experience Americans smile even at strangers on the street or on the bus. I learned that in these cases a smile is a way of saying "hello" and it is appropriate to smile back, however the smile does not mean the person wants to stop and talk.

In Russian culture the smile is identified with laughter. Russians do not smile unless something funny happens and provides a reason for laughter. This fundamental difference in perception produces many unfortunate misunderstandings. However, to say that Russians never smile is absolutely wrong. We can smile and very often do so. In fact the Russian people have a great sense of humor, though due to the cultural differences it is different from the Western one. When something in Russian understanding is amusing we will smile and laugh. But in the majority of life situations, like business or political meetings, there is no humor at all. When there is no humor, the Russians remain stoic while their Western counterparts wait for Russians to smile, thus indicating their positive approach.

Last summer I worked for a German-Latvian company that specializes in organizing international business conferences in Riga, a city whose population is 45 percent Russian. My responsibilities involved organizing transportation, translating, dealing with hotel personnel, necessary since English is not well-spoken in Riga, and conducting city tours.

Whenever I had to meet our American guests in the hotel's lobby and move them to the conference hall I witnessed the same situation: coming downstairs they would always smile, which signified that they were happy to start a day that promised a good business deal. On the other hand, Russian hotel guests and personnel took that facial expression quite differently. I think that the most common thought occurring to them would be: "Why do they laugh? I am not a clown. Maybe my fly isn't zipped?" It is certainly not what our American guests wanted people who happened to be in the lobby to think They just wanted to look friendly, but were perceived as obnoxious foreigners.

On another occasion, I accompanied one American company's CEO on a city tour. In search of the total cultural immersion, he wanted to use public transportation to get around the city. Apparently he enjoyed it, for Rigans on the buses turned in my companion's direction as he was smiling non-stop at everyone. Finally, one guy, a bit drunk, and in a bad mood approached us and began to antagonize him with, "Hey dude! What's up? Tell us your funny story to make us laugh as well!"

It was a complicated situation and it was hard for me to calm that man down. It was no less difficult to explain to my companion why he had been confronted by the drunk. It was simple for me; he was smiling and that's what provoked the situation. The people on the bus found his smile inappropriate and insulting, since they only smile when something funny happens. So they decided that they looked ridiculous to the smiling person. For Russians, the Western smile is often perceived as a loud laugh. It is even worse if the person smiles showing his/her teeth. In the animal world bare teeth are considered to be a threat. Hence I think there is some instinctive fear of bare teeth built into our social perception system.

One day my colleagues and I had to meet a group of Americans that were to have a conference in Riga at the airport to drive them to a hotel. Because the flight arrived three hours late, it was about 2 a.m. by the time we got there. The receptionist at the hotel was waiting for us and when we arrived she greeted us in her usual manner: politely but formally, without a smile on her face. She asked our guests to give her passports to check their identity, because it is a Rigan regulation that every visitor is entered into the city database. She wanted to finish the registration as soon as possible and take a nap. She was performing all of the procedures with a serious facial expression.

I saw that our American guests were very uncomfortable, and the chief of the group drew me and the other guide aside and asked what was wrong. At first I did not understand what he was trying to ask. He insisted, "What happened? Is there some problem?" At last the situation was clarified. I realized that the absence of a welcoming smile on the receptionist's face made the guests very suspicious. They decided that she was angry or was going to call the police (or maybe the KGB?) and have them shot on sight or at the very least, haul the entire group off to the nearest gulag.

Naturally, the receptionist wanted to know why the hotel's valued customers were disappointed. When I explained their concerns to her, she laughed. Americans immediately smiled back and immediately relaxed. The incident was over. During the rest of their stay in the hotel that front desk clerk would smile every time she would interact with any member of that delegation or me or my colleagues. This was not because she adopted the American approach to smiling, though; she simply saved amusing memories related to our group.

After analyzing all of the situations described above, I came to the conclusion that different culturally influenced perceptions of a seemingly innocent thing such as smile may create some embarrassing or even hostile situations. To avoid them it is a good idea to keep in mind that Western people perceive the smile as a sign of a positive approach while Russians necessarily identify the smile with laughter. Western people perceive a smiling person as "happy" and "well-off" person. For Russians happiness and prosperity are not associated with the smile, at least not to the extent they are in the United States. A happy person is not obligated to smile. On the other hand, the smiling man is not necessarily happy or more prosperous than anyone else. Sometimes these states coincide, sometimes not.

Western people perceive the absence of smile on the face of their others, especially public-sector personnel, as unfriendly. Russians in such social situations don't pay attention in the facial expression at all. In Russia people only pay attention to the quality of service, and a smile is not an indispensable part of it. At the same time Russians are very sensitive to the tone of voice, especially when a person smiles but doesn't sound sincere. We have a lot of Western companies advertising on our TV channels now. Often their commercials give the wrong impression when smiling actors appear in such promotion videos! A smiling girl who chatters about "the best washing powder in the world" will dramatically decrease its sales. No Russian will buy anything advertised by "such an air-headed doll." Only a serious lady who persuasively narrates about her years of experience with "this magic powder" can bring that powder into Russian houses.

In the Russian language there is a very popular saying: "Laughter without reason is the sign of foolishness." Perhaps as long as this proverb is remembered a smile will not become an indispensable part of the daily routine in Russia as it is in the Unites States. However, I believe that when the exterior is peeled off there are not so many differences between Russians and Americans after all. We all want to be happy, prosperous and likeable; we simply approach these goals differently. Meanwhile, I smile to people as I walk down 55th Street, but get back to my serious facial expression when I pass through the revolving doors of the Riga airport.